John Smoltz does not feel as though he is leaving Atlanta. What Smoltz feels instead is that he is coming to Boston.
The irony is that this Red Sox organization is now starting to bear at least some resemblance to the Braves of the 1990s.
"I’ll tell you what it reminds me of,’’ Smoltz said this morning at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox formally introduced him as the latest in a series of frugal acquisitions. "They [meaning the Red Sox] always seem to bring in one or two or three young guys, and then they mold them in. They’re not afraid to bring a young guy along. There’s a fine line between bringing along a young guy or rushing him and ruining his development."
Smoltz, on the other hand, is one of the certifiable old guys in baseball, a soon-to-be 42-year-old veteran of 21 major-league seasons. He has started games and closed them, won a Cy Young Award, and missed an entire season to injury. Smoltz has the postseason pedigree of Curt Schilling and the intelligence of Gabe Kapler, the Hall of Fame credentials of Dennis Eckersley and the guts of David Cone or Bret Saberhagen. Put them all together and you have a unique constellation of attributes at an unparalleled time in Red Sox history.
Smoltz and the Red Sox. Who ever imagined it would be a perfect fit? Yet the truth is that the Red Sox of today are more like the Braves than the Braves themselves, which is why Smoltz is here at all.
The Red Sox are gearing up for what will be, at the very least, another season of highly competitive baseball; the Braves are focusing on the goings more than the comings. Already this offseason, the Braves have missed out on, among others, Jake Peavy, A.J. Burnett, and Rafael Furcal. Now comes the departure of Smoltz, whose arrival in Boston means not only that Atlanta has been failing to attract players -- the Derek Lowe signing is the exception rather than the rule -- but also failing to retain them.
At roughly this time 14 years ago, when Dan Duquette first took over the Red Sox baseball operation, he said his goal was to make the Red Sox more like the Atlanta Braves. Slightly more than six years ago, when Theo Epstein took control of the Red Sox, he said the same thing. Now the Sox are in the midst of a six-year stretch during which they have qualified for the postseason five times, been to four American League Championship Series and won a pair of world titles, all of which suggests that the Sox finally have succeeded in their goal of becoming baseball’s model franchise.
Like the Braves of the 1990s, the Sox have young talent throughout their major league roster and player development system. Like the Braves, the Sox have money to spend. In Atlanta, the marriage of those two realities propelled the Braves to a stunning 14 consecutive playoff appearances from 1991-2005 -- in '94, there was no postseason -- even if they won only half as many world titles (one) as the Red Sox already have claimed.
"When you’re not in the playoffs, you start watching other teams and you know what makes them tick," Smoltz said. ``Just seeing some of the pieces today reminds me a lot of the Braves of, say, '91-'97.’’
Lest anyone think these Red Sox are perfect, they are not. But then, neither were the Braves. Where the Sox have questions at catcher and shortstop, the Braves often had questions in the bullpen. The perfect baseball team has yet to be built, of course, though strong arguments could be made in recent years for the 1998 New York Yankees and, in Boston, for the Red Sox of late August, September, and October in 2004.
Still, what these Red Sox have in common with those Braves is a balance of experience and youth, something that's easier said than done. The old guys want to play here and the young guys get a chance. The Braves of the early to mid-'90s did not win any Rookie of the Year Awards -- no Atlanta player copped the honor between David Justice (1990) and Furcal (2000) -- though that was partly due to the manner in which the Braves integrated their talent. From 1991-99, the Braves brought in, at one point of the season or another, Mark Wohlers, Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez, Chipper Jones, Jermaine Dye, and Andruw Jones, among others. Some were late-season callups who already had lost rookie eligibility by the time they played their first full seasons, though the Braves were far more focused on team goals than individual ones.
Now here we are, in early 2009, and the recent Red Sox assembly line is starting to have an Atlanta look. In 2004, we were introduced to Kevin Youkilis. In 2005, Jonathan Papelbon came along. Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia arrived in 2006, Jacoby Ellsbury in late 2007. The most recent campaign delivered righthander Justin Masterson, who stabilized the bullpen and now looks like the Swiss Army knife of manager Terry Francona’s pitching staff.
Now along comes Smoltz, who, as he himself noted, has nothing to prove. Smoltz looks at the Red Sox pitching staff of recent years and suggests that New Englanders are now "spoiled,’’ a phenomenon he knows quite well. The Braves were spoiled to the nth degree, with a staff built around Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. The fact that someone like Smoltz would even consider Boston is a testament to what the Red Sox have become.
After all, we all know what kind of operation John Smoltz comes from.
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