In 1980, the Braves accomplished something they hadn’t done since 1974, winning more games than they lost. Offense wasn’t a problem — Dale Murphy finally blossomed, Bob Horner looked like the next great power hitter, Chris Chambliss provided stability and Gary Matthews, spark. Pitching was another story, as Phil Niekro and Tommy Boggs were the only Braves hurlers to finish with an ERA under 4.00.
So what to do? The free agent class didn’t offer much; the two best lefties, Bill Travers and Geoff Zahn, went to the biggest spender of the day, California’s Gene Autry. Don Sutton, then 36, was by far the class of that free agent class, coming off a year in which he posted the NL’s lowest ERA and WHIP. But he signed with Houston, a team that fell one win short of the World Series the previous year.
GM John Mullen embarked on a strategy that backfired. Badly. He traded Matthews for not enough: Bob Walk, who had a decent rookie campaign with the Phils but would end up spending most of the strike-shortened 1981 season in Richmond; dealt Jeff Burroughs and his .800 OPS for even less: Carlos Diaz; and swapped dependable innings-eater Doyle Alexander for a pitcher coming off his worst year who logged half as many frames: John Montefusco, who started more than he relieved in ’81.
Mullen would sign one free-agent starter, the best move he’d make that winter. Forty-two-year-old Gaylord Perry would supplant Knucksie as the oldest player on the team and the rotation’s innings-leader. It was far from his best season, but Perry finished with a workmanlike 3.94 ERA aided by pinpoint control; he walked just 24 in 150-2/3 IP. Essentially, Perry was the Bartolo Colon of the ’81 Braves.
Knucksie was the R.A. Dickey. He was 42, just like Dickey, and a knuckleballer, though a much better one. If the ex-Blue Jay comes anywhere close Niekro’s 3.10 ERA in 1981, the Braves will be thrilled. It’s not out of the question, however, as he’ll be returning to the league without a DH and to the division where he experienced his biggest success, culminating with the Cy Young Award in 2012.
The ’81 Braves finished six games under .500, pretty good considering Mullen’s regrettable trades, an injury-plagued season from Bob Horner and underwhelming performances from ’80 stalwarts Murphy, Chambliss and Boggs. It wasn’t enough to save Bobby Cox’s job, though the ax should’ve fallen on the GM.
The 2017 Braves will, as presently constructed, be fortunate to end their inaugural season in Cobb with a 78-84 record. That will probably be enough to save Snitker’s job. Coppy, like Mullen, won’t be going anywhere. Dickey and Colon, like Perry in 1982, in all likelihood won’t be pitching in Atlanta in 2018.