I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Atlanta Braves General Manager John Schuerholz a little over a week ago. Mr. Schuerholz was gracious enough to grant me a substantial 40 minute interview that covered a range of topics that I feel will be of interest to all. Given the length of the interview, I have broken the transcript down into three parts, the first of which I was presented last week (Schuerholz Interview - Part I). Tonight I present Part II. Enjoy...
Joe Hamrahi (JH): While we're on the topic of Chipper Jones, it's really unbelievable, that in this day and age, a player could restructure his contract the way he has. It really speaks volumes about his character and Chipper the leader...
John Schuerholz (JS): And Chipper the team player...
JH: Exactly. I remember here in New York, 10-12 years ago, everyone here hated Chipper because he had, no pun intended, a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. But he was always the leader of the Braves and was one of those guys you always wanted on your team but hated to play against.
Is Chipper still the leader of this team? Do people across the board still look up to him?
JS: Well his personality is such that he's not an overt, big talking leader of the team. He leads by how often or how continually he plays well in big games, gets the big hit in big situations, in dramatic environments. And now he shows his leadership with his willingness to help the team by sacrificing his own personal well being for the betterment of the team.
He already showed his willingness to help the team a few years ago by moving to left field when we got Vinny Castilla. He knew Castilla was a better 3rd baseman. And now, remarkably, he's willing to restructure his contract in which we hope will be a win-win situation. It gives us more of an opportunity to construct a balanced team while at the same time, provide Chipper with security that his career will ultimately end as a Brave.
It's a real tribute to him, and I'm glad you're writing about it. More should be written about it and more attention paid to it, especially in this day and age when players are called mercenaries (and money-hungry). I mean, Chipper made a lot of money, but he doesn't have to do what he is doing. What he cares about is the Atlanta Braves. And believe me, he's not grandstanding at all. He did this all very quietly, and it became public knowledge probably earlier than it should have. But this should elevate his stature remarkably in what players mean to their teams and organizations.
JH: Does he seem to be fairly healthy at this point?
JS: Yes, in fact, at the same time he engaged in the restructuring of his contract, he began work with his personal trainer. He wanted to prepare himself physically to have his best possible years going forward.
JH: Looking back on this season, it was an amazing year especially with all the new kids. You had to have been excited. We all know about the history you guys have with scouting and development. In your wildest dreams, did you ever envision the kind of season you had with 17-18 first players making contributions to get you into the playoffs?
JS: No...no, because it's unrealistic. You couldn't, at the beginning of the year, have said... "Well, we're going to try a couple of older players and a couple of injured players and a couple of guys who we're not sure are going to work at these positions, and if it doesn't work out, we're going to bring up half our farm system out of AA and win our 14th consecutive division championship." Why? Because, everyone else out there is trying to beat us. Every winter everyone tries to do that. We're in a very competitive environment and it's hard to win one of these...and when we have a string like we have going, and circumstances where we've had to drop our payroll from $120 million to $80 million two years ago...then when we start the season with guys like Mondesi and suffer some injuries to some of our young pitchers and Tim Hudson, and we have to bring up a bunch of first year players (it would have been unreasonable to think we could win the division)...
But those young players absolutely elevated us and we made up 11 ½ games in the standings.
JH: Exactly, it just seemed to inject energy into the team.
JS: People likened last season to 1991, our magical season...our worst to first year and my first year with the team. They also likened last year to the 1991 season in terms of excitement and entertainment.
JH: You mentioned the pitchers...some were hurt. Smoltz and Hudson are returning and you picked up Thomson's option. Obviously Hampton is going to be out next year. Who do you feel will fill out the rotation?
JS: We think Ramirez will bounce back. He had an up and down year, but he's a tenacious guy and he'll find a way. And Sosa, you can't say enough about Jorge Sosa. The kind of confidence he should have coming into camp after the year he had. And then you have Kyle Davies, Anthony Lerew, and Chuck James...
JH: So you have the top three pretty much set, and you're going to fill out the 4 and 5 through competition.
JH: How is Hampton progressing? Any news on his recovery (from Tommy John surgery) at this point?
JS: No, not really...only because it's a year and there's no sense in worrying about it. He's a very athletic guy. He's got a wiry athletic body with great agility and quickness. He also has a kind of football mentality. He'll be fine.
JH: Obviously Jeff Francoeur took the city by storm this season. I was actually fortunate enough to get to know Jeff well this year.
You were around to get to know Dale Murphy. We've heard the comparisons everywhere. But the more I watch him, the more Jeff reminds me more of a young Chipper Jones than a Dale Murphy. How would you characterize Jeff as the player and person?
JS: Somewhere between those two. That's always been my perception. He's like Dale Murphy in who he is and how he presents himself. As a player, he's like Chipper Jones and what Chipper does as a player. He's in between those two. I think that when you look back on Jeff Francoeur's career 10-15 years from now, that's what you'll think.
JH: I read something interesting this past week when I received my copy of Chop Talk (the Braves official magazine). The knock on Jeff has always, or at least I should say recently, been that his plate discipline is less than adequate. I have found Jeff to be the kind of person who is constantly working to improve his game and get better. So right smack in the middle of the article (about Jeff) is a picture of a carved out wood sign he keeps on his mantle. He keeps the sign there to remind himself that there still is work to do. The carving is inscribed with the words...
JH: Yeah, it just amazed me.
JS: Well it's rare in our business or I guess in any professional sports business when a young man comes along with the "package" ... ability, character, determination, and instinct, work ethic, natural energy, and charisma. Those are a lot of good words I've just used. Now, he's not finished his development yet in any of those areas, whether they're personal or professional. He's still growing. He's still a young man. When he reaches maturity and all those things are in full bloom, he should be pretty special to watch.
JH: Yeah, needless to say, he impressed me. He just struck me as the kind of kid who always knows what is going on. I happened to be talking to him one day on the phone, and he heard my three year-old son there with me. He took the time to actually acknowledge my son which really impressed me.
JS: Remember too that this is a kid who went right from high school to professional baseball. The comments I keep making are really a tribute to his parents. They have done a great job with this remarkable young man. He so appropriately handles matters of the world...not only the pressures of professional baseball and being catapulted to the major leagues and into a sort of cult status, but dealing with the media, dealing with autograph seekers, dealing with sick people, going to hospitals, dealing with teammates, all while having a healthy measure of responsibility. And this is just a kid we're talking about.
JH: True. Everyone forgets how young he is.
So much has been made of the emergence of these young players, but you still seem very well stocked in the minor leagues. We've talked about Joey Devine. Chuck James is another player who has burst onto the scene. Do you have a feel for the type of role he'll have? Do you think he'll eventually be a lefty specialist out of the bullpen?
JS: No, we think he can start. Now, a lot of our young pitchers start out in the bullpen and migrate to the role of a starter. But we think he can start. He has one of those arm actions that hitters can't pick up. He strikes out a lot of batters. Look at his record. He struck out a lot of guys. Hitters don't pick up the ball out of his hand and he's got an effective fastball and a real good changeup. And he's a tenacious guy.
That concludes Part II of our interview with Atlanta Braves General Manager, John Schuerholz. The third and final portion of this interview will be posted one week from today. Thank you for your interest!