Why would the Braves even consider letting Leo Mazzone go? He is by far the best pitching coach they could possibly have. -- Michael P., Fort Smith, Ark.
Written a thousand different ways, this obviously was the most popular question I received this week. Obviously, there was a public outcry from those who actually believe Mazzone was the sole reason the Braves have had so much success in the pitching department the past 15 years.
To this I say, everybody is entitled to their own opinions. My belief is that there were many other factors that helped Mazzone gain his esteemed status with the Braves. Giving him all of the credit is neglecting the development efforts provided in the Minors by such coaches as Bruce Dal Canton, the nurturing provided by veterans like John Smoltz and the unbelievable knack Bobby Cox has for getting the most out of his players.
So I'll start by saying nobody forced Mazzone to go interview for the Yankees and Orioles jobs. Nor could anyone have expected him to turn his back on the opportunity to more than double his salary as Baltimore's pitching coach.
With his new multiyear deal, Mazzone enters the neighborhood of St. Louis' Dave Duncan and former Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who have been the two highest-paid pitching coaches during this decade.
Could the Braves have found the money to keep Mazzone in Atlanta? Possibly. But that might not have been the most prudent decision. It would have forced them to pay him much more than they're paying any of their other assistant coaches. And doing so would have gone against the philosophy of manager Bobby Cox, who despite obviously having the credentials, has never once complained that Dusty Baker made about $1.5 million more than he did while leading the Cubs to a fourth-place finish this past season.
Despite possessing totally different personalities, Cox and Mazzone had a good working relationship. The 57-year-old Mazzone has often referred to the 64-year-old Cox as a father-figure. With that in mind, I've gained the belief that it's time for the son to go prove his worth away from the nest.
While helping the Braves lead the Majors in ERA 10 times from 1992-2005, Mazzone became known as a pitching mastermind. Atlanta pitchers captured six Cy Young Awards during his tenure. But it can be argued that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Smoltz would have won those awards with or without his tutelage.
Mazzone's stature grew because he seemingly had a knack for rejuvenating the careers of such pitchers as Chris Hammond, John Burkett, Jaret Wright and Jorge Sosa. He fixed their mechanics and gave them the confidence to use both sides of the plate. But my belief is that, without Cox's keen ability to get his players to believe in themselves, there might not be as much talk about the magic created when a pitcher dons a Braves uniform.
Fans and some journalists have gained the belief that Mazzone is one of the greatest pitching coaches ever. The success has created the credentials to make that argument. But during the years I've spent on this beat, I've never felt that that same attitude exists within the Braves clubhouse.
During the 2003 season, an anonymous survey conducted by a highly respected sports publication asked players to name the best pitching coach in the Majors. Let's just say a heavy majority of the veteran Braves pitchers chose not to list Mazzone. Again at the end of this past season, one of the club's veteran pitchers said he thought it might be best for Mazzone to go elsewhere.
As for departing free agent pitchers over the years, their common statement is that they're going to miss playing for Cox. I've not heard many say the same about Mazzone.
When players make such comments, I tend to listen, so I believe that maybe it was time for Mazzone to end what was undeniably a successful tenure in Atlanta. It's also time for the Braves to prove life can be just as good without him.
I don't like the thought of the Atlanta Braves without Andruw Jones in center field, but it could come to be one day. Is there anyone in the Braves' farm system that they think could be compared to Andruw? -- Terry C., Big Point, Miss.
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I'm not sure there's anybody in baseball that could be compared to Andruw Jones. He's the greatest center fielder of our generation and, just as importantly, a player who refuses to sit with any sort of minor injury. When it comes to rare talents, he's as special as it gets.
Andruw is signed through the end of the 2007 season and will likely be in Atlanta throughout the remainder of his contract. He'll be just 30 years old when the contract ends and will still have plenty of potentially good years ahead of him. Braves fans should hope many of those years are spent in a Braves uniform.
If the Braves were unable to keep Andruw, they may choose to move Jeff Francoeur to center field. But his strong arm might be much more valuable in right field. Currently, the second-best defensive outfielder in the organization is Ryan Langerhans, who, with continued offensive development, could become a reliable everyday star at the Major League level.
Several Braves, most notably Chipper Jones and John Smoltz, have indicated that they would be willing to restructure their contracts to provide additional room to sign or re-sign key players. Is this fairly common in the Braves organization in recent years? Can you provide any notable examples? -- Ken P., Atlanta
The readjustment of contracts hasn't been a common practice, but twice in the past decade, Smoltz has signed contracts that could be considered below his market value. He could have gone to the Yankees after the 2001 season and gained both significantly more money and a chance to continue being a starting pitcher.
With Jones and Smoltz, their focus no longer has to center on their finances. They simply don't want to find out what it feels like to end a season without the chance to compete in the postseason. That's why Jones has said twice in the past year that he'd be willing to restructure his cumbersome contract, which could earn him $47 million over the next three seasons.
We all know Julio Franco says he wants to play until he's 50, but does he really mean it? -- Gage H., Hartsville, S.C.
He means it. I just have my doubts whether it will be possible. He struggled at the end of this season because of an inflamed left elbow, but even before his bat began exiting the dependable category, there was reason to believe he might not have the chance to play another three seasons. His defense isn't what it was the past few years. So he'll basically have to find an employer looking for a late-40-something pinch-hitter.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.