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rostermania II: a.j.

the atlanta braves won their second nl pennant in 1992 but for the second straight year fell just short of a world championship. despite finishing 3d in the league in runs scored, their everyday lineup was full of holes -- sid bream at 1b, raffy belliard at short, mark lemke at 2b, gregg olson behind the plate. the postseason free-agent market was jam-packed. wade boggs, paul molitor, mark mcgwire, and obp specialist dave magadan were all available for upgrades at 1b; for that matter, the braves could've signed an outfielder -- barry bonds, kirby puckett, joe carter, eric davis, chili davis -- and shifted ron gant to 1b. catchers benito santiago and terry steinbach were also on the market. for the first time in ages the braves didn't need pitching; they'd led the league in era in 1992 and returned six starters with a collective era of 2.92 and an average age of 28.

so who was their lone free-agent signing that off-season? greg maddux.

rather than addressing their needs, the braves simply acted on an old clich? -- you can never have enough pitching -- and made the mad dog the highest-paid player in the game. worked out pretty well for them; atlanta went on to win 100 games or more in four of the next five full seasons (excluding strike-shortened 1994 and 1995) and haven't missed a postseason since.

there are some who believe the cardinals could/should pull a similar stunt this offseason by putting their dollars into aj burnett, relegating their obvious needs in the outfield to a lesser priority. an arkansas native, he is said to have interest in coming here, and there's no denying his appeal -- he throws hard and can make batters look helpless. over his career burnett has recorded more strikeouts (8 per 9 innings) than base hits allowed (7.5 per 9); his career era of 3.73 rates 19th among active starting pitchers. for comparison's sake, matt morris ranks 14th at 3.60, kerry wood 17th (3.67), roy halladay 18th (3.70), and mark mulder 25th (3.87).

but before we get too carried away, let's be clear about this: aj burnett ain't no greg maddux. at the time the braves signed him, maddux had led the league in games started for three consecutive years, in innings for two, and in wins for one; he was the reigning cy young award winner and a two-time all-star. guy even had three gold gloves. his career win total at the time of the signing was 96. burnett has won half as many games (49), despite being two years older than maddux was in that 1992 offseason, and aj has never led the league in anything significant. hell, he's never won more than 12 games in a season, and he has made 30+ starts only once -- last year.

regardless of which, some daring organization is going to place about a $40 million bet on this guy -- and it might be the cardinals. my instincts say this is a bad idea; few things can wreak more havoc on a franchise than way-overpaying for a pitcher. but the cards are said to be interested, and you can see where the dollars might come from. matty mo earned $6.25 million last year with incentives, and jason marquis earned $3 mill; if you let them both go (matty via free agency, marquis via trade), you free up $9.25 million -- most of burnett's likely salary on the open market, which various sources place at about $10 million per. with anthony reyes making the minimum next year, it's a virtual wash financially: $9.3 mill for morris/marquis in 2005, vs. about $10.3 mill for burnett/reyes in 2006. the two rotations overall:

2005 2006
carpenter $2m carpenter $5m
mulder $6m mulder $7.5m
suppan $4m suppan $4m
morris $6.2m burnett $10m
marquis $3m reyes $320K
TOTAL $21m TOTAL $27m

the overall total jumps $6 million, but three-fourths of that increase is written into the carp and mulder deals. those five pitchers look mighty nice, i'll admit -- if all remain healthy and meet expectations, it'd be the type of rotation that no one wants to face in a short series. so, however risky (foolhardy?) this course of action may be, it does merit serious reflection. i'll toss out a basic roster template today, and some variations tomorrow. the steps described hereunder: 1) burnett signs a big fat honkin' contract, 2) king and marquis get traded for prospects, 3) morris signs elsewhere, 4) sanders re-ups for a corner slot, 5) taguchi / rodriguez share the other corner, 6) a coupla new setup men arrive -- here's the team:


molina c
rodriguez of
carpenter rhp
is'hausen rhp
pujols 1b
luna if
mulder lhp
howry rhp
grud'k 2b
gall 1b-of
burnett rhp
eyre lhp
rolen 3b
mabry 3b-of
suppan rhp
flores lhp
eckstein ss
stinnett c
an reyes rhp
thompson rhp
sanders lf
duncan 1b
wainwright rhp
ty johnson lhp
edmonds cf
seabol 3b
eldred rhp
taguchi of
schumaker of
cali lhp

for this basic version i'm simply assuming marquis / king return prospects, presumably ones who are far enough along to add some helpful organizational depth. tomorrow i'll put up some scenarios under which marquis/king return major-league players who step right into key roles. anyway, re the roster above: the bullpen strikes me as one arm short, and the lineup's pretty watered down -- but it'd probably make do behind this rotation.

hmmmmm . . . . .