Contract years are a phenomenon that isn’t talked about enough in baseball. We typically hear about it more in basketball, where an individual can have a bit more impact on a team’s outcome than in baseball. However, there are plenty of examples in baseball as well. We’ll probably see a few this season before the 2018-19 free agent period kicks off. Among the many examples that Braves’ fans might recall, one player that can’t be ignored was Jeff Blauser. The Braves long considered Blauser a potential force – once drafting him fourth overall in 1984. As 1997 kicked off, they wondered if Blauser would be entering his last year with them.
While many believe Blauser did this – contract year explosion – before, it’s not exactly true. He had a breakout season in 1993 with a .305/.401/.436 slash, belting 15 homers and swiping a career-high 16 bases. It was the first season he took over for good at shortstop and stopped sharing time with Rafael Belliard or playing more of a utility role. However, free agency was still a year away. After signing a one-year deal to avoid arbitration, Blauser struggled through injuries in 1994 before a strike ended the season prematurely.
It was a bad time to hit free agency, but once the strike was settled, Blauser returned to the Braves on a $10.2 million contract over three years. Over the first two seasons of the contract, which included Blauser turning 30, he had hit a disappointing .224/.333/.371 with 22 homers over 816 PA. He was limited to just 83 games in 1996 because of injuries. Another injury took him out off the roster for the 1995 World Series. Blauser had one last chance to earn a big contract.
Blauser opened 1997 on fire. Hitting eighth in the lineup, he started many rallies or flat-out finished them. Over the season’s first seven games, he had four multi-hit performances including a 4-for-4 game with a pair of doubles against the Astros at home. He flirted with .400 until finally falling below the famed mark for good on May 12. Two days before that, he belted a Grand Slam off Jon Lieber as the Braves roughed up the Pirates 9-3. Three-hit games against the Cardinals and Padres helped Blauser finish May with a .370/.448/.600 line.
After spending most of the first two-plus months in the 7th and 8th spots in the lineup, Blauser was pushed up to the leadoff spot after Kenny Lofton went down with an injury. The shortstop continued to excel, hitting .339/.444/.593 over the first 16 games from the first spot. On July 6, he went 2-for-4 with a two-run homer as the Braves fell 6-2 to the Expos. He then headed to Progressive Field in Cleveland with Lofton, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Javy Lopez, and Chipper Jones. For the second time in his career, Blauser was an All-Star. Not only that – because of an injury to Barry Larkin – he was starting. He went 1-for-2 before being replaced as the AL beat the NL 3-1.
Blauser was still rolling after the All-Star Break, though his numbers began to decline. His OPS finally fell under 1.000 in mid-July, but he still smacked his second Grand Slam of the season, this time off Pete Schourek of the Reds. When Lofton returned to action in late July, Blauser slipped to the second spot in the order rather than back to eighth. By the end of August, his OPS was under .900 for the first time since the opening week of the season.
He still had some big moments, including another four-hit game in San Diego in September. he also hit two more homers that month, setting a new personal high in long balls with 17. By the time the season ended, he was hitting .308 with a .405 OBP and a .482 SLG. All were new personal highs. As was the 31 doubles. He also definitely earned one new personal high as he was hit by a pitch 20 times. It set a new Atlanta Braves record, though Andres Galarraga would break it the next season. For the second time in his career, Blauser had broken out.
In the postseason, Blauser was moved back into the eight hole as Bobby Cox preferred Keith Lockhart behind Lofton. Blauser would hit a homer and drive in three runs in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Astros. He added a third hit in the series two days later as Atlanta completed the sweep and met the Marlins in the NLCS. Blauser got a hit in all but one game, including a solo homer in Game Four. In Game Six, he started an early rally with a base hit and later scored on a single by Lofton. In his final at-bat as a Brave, he singled with one out in the ninth and scored Atlanta’s fourth run of the game when Lockhart brought him home via a single. Lockhart’s hit was the final last gasp of life for the 1997 season for the Braves.
With the season over, John Schuerholz had an option – give Blauser another deal or move on. His choice was actually made a bit easier by the maneuverings of Scott Boras, Blauser’s agent. Schuerholz wanted to keep Blauser and extended a contract offer that, allegedly, was a bit less than the three-year deal he signed before 1995, but it would have kept Blauser in Atlanta for the next two or three seasons. Boras tried to keep Schuerholz at bay while likely using the offer as a starting point in other negotiations. Telling the Braves general manager that Blauser was out of the loop on a hunting trip, Boras’s plan was blown up as Blauser was seen at a NASCAR event in the Atlanta area.
Schuerholz moved on, though he was later disappointed with himself by not trying to contact Blauser directly. The Braves effectively took the offer they were going to give Blauser and presented it to Walt Weiss. A better defender, but a much worse hitter, Weiss agreed to the $9M, 3-year contract. The market shrunk for Blauser. He did land a two-year contract with the Cubs worth at least $8.4M with a club option. In a way, all of this worked out for the Braves as the addition to Weiss led to one of the best postseason moments since the 1995 championship.
Blauser’s run in Chicago was short-lived. He hit just .226 with the Cubbies and lost his job to Jose Hernandez. After two years in Chicago, Blauser’s career ended before his 34th birthday. A few years later, he landed a job as a roving instructor with the Braves before spending one year as the Mississippi Braves manager in 2006. While this isn’t confirmed, Blauser’s brief managerial career seems to be a product of a problem with a player or two – namely Yunel Escobar – with the scuttlebutt suggesting a punch may have been thrown between the two.
We over-do the whole contract year angle with Blauser. It really only applies once and Blauser’s contract year in 1997 ultimately didn’t end in a monster payday. That said, it’s certainly a study on how the contract year phenomenon worked. As for the season itself, it ranks fifth in franchise history in terms of fWAR by a shortstop. We massively undervalue Blauser, who also ranks fifth among franchise shortstops in career fWAR. Only Rafael Furcal potentially has a better argument for the top shortstop for the Braves since they moved to Atlanta. And in 1997, Blauser was among the best shortstops in the game at a time when Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter were making all the headlines.
Unfortunately, it was also Blauser’s last big year and he quickly faded away – with help from his super agent. Still, though…what a year it was.
I want to thank Andy Harris from Outfield Fly Rule for suggesting Blauser. Feel free to suggest another player and year to cover either below or by tweeting at us @WalkOffWalk_net. Remember to give us a follow, too.
A Year In the Life series