Editor’s Note: In addition to his success as a manager, Bobby Cox stands out for his success as a general manager. Unique in modern baseball history, Cox had the responsibility with the Braves of building the foundation of the major league team that he ended up managing to two decades of success. He took over as Braves GM after the 1985 season, when the franchise was one of the worst in baseball. He helped rebuild it from the ground up before handing the reins to John Schuerholz following the 1990 season and moving into the dugout. This analysis by Danny Knobler (then Baseball America’s associate editor) after the 1988 season proves prescient as Cox began to assemble the pieces for future success. A version of this story also appears in Baseball America’s 2014 Hall of Fame Commemorative magazine, along with lots of other stories and photos about this year’s inductees and honorees, and a celebration of the Hall of Fame’s 75th anniversary. You can find the magazine on newsstands now or purchase directly from us. You can also get a digital version of the mag from your favorite digital newsstand.
BY DANNY KNOBLER
The Atlanta Braves believe they finally hit rock bottom in 1988.
They’re sure things can’t get any worse than they were this long summer, when the Braves finished 54-106 and became the only major league team to drop under 1 million in attendance. They may not know what stadium they’re going to call home in the future, but at least Braves officials are sure their team will be better.
They’re sure, not just because it can’t get any worse. The Braves believe they’ve finally learned their lesson, that finally they have the franchise on the right track. They franchise that has had only four winning seasons since 1971 finally may have the foundation for a consistent winner.
General manager Bobby Cox, who took over a colossal rebuilding job after the 1985 season, has stuck to his original plan of building through player development. Unlike his predecessors, he has won the confidence of owner Ted Turner and been able to avoid searching for the quick fix. And team president Stan Kasten has channeled Turner’s money into player development and scouting.
Suddenly, the Braves can afford to draft and sign players they want, instead of being forced to draft only players they could afford to sign. They’ve added farm teams, giving them a major league-high eight.
The team that had an ERA over 3.95 for four straight years looked first to pitching. Each of the last four years, the Braves have used their No. 1 draft pick on a pitcher. They’ve picked up other young pitchers every way possible.
The results of Operation Pitching began to show this year. In the 84 games Atlanta played before the all-star break, the team ERA was 4.60. In the 76 games after, it fell to 3.50. Pete Smith, 3-9 with a 5.14 ERA before the break, was 4-6, 3.18 after it. Tom Glavine, who like Smith is just 22, was 4-4, 2.70 in his last nine starts.
Next year, Glavine and Smith should be joined by a third 22-year-old, lefthander Derek Lilliquist, the team’s No. 1 pick in 1987. Younger pitchers with equally good arms are on the way.
So are middle infielders. Andres Thomas, 24, had the best year of his career. Ron Gant, 23, proved he can hit big league pitching, even as he proved to some in the organization that he can’t play second base. And the Braves believe Jeff Blauser, 22, and Mark Lemke, 23, could play in Atlanta as soon as 1989.
But one or two players won’t make this team an instant contender. The ’88 Braves didn’t just finish 39 1/2 games out of first place. They finished 27 games out of fifth.
How can this team that was only half a game better than Baltimore convince itself that winning is just over the horizon?
The first step will be to make sure the young pitchers keep developing. Then there’s the question of what position all the middle infielders will play. Will the late-season move of Gant to third become permanent, or will he land in the outfield? Will Thomas stay at short or move to third?
Then comes the problem of filling positions the farm system can’t fill. The Braves bought time by trading for Jody Davis, but eventually they’ll need a frontline catcher. And they could use some outfielders.
Sure, the Braves have problems. Good teams, even decent teams, don’t lose 106 games. But finally, for the first time in ages, the Braves see a brighter future.