Mercker Trade Analysis

Bill Shanks takes a look at the Matt Belisle for Kent Mercker trade. Did the Braves give up too much in exchange for a 35-year old reliever who is having a career year? Read on to see what Bill has to say.

It seems that every trade the Atlanta Braves make create more questions than answers. It's no one's fault necessarily, but decisions that are made to change the current roster often produce questions about the future. It's natural for any team in a pennant race to try and improve its roster, but it's not natural for any team to be in that position for thirteen straight seasons.

The Atlanta Braves have made deals like this before. Turk Wendell was a young prospect dealt in September of 1991. He later turned out to be pretty good. Jason Schmidt was traded to the Pirates in 1996 in the Denny Neagle trade. He's now a Cy Young candidate. But then you have the Joe Roa's, Doug Dent's, Matt Turner's, Chris Seelbach's, Mike Porzio's, and Luis Rivera's of the trade history of the Atlanta Braves. Those are pitchers traded in deadline deals that did not come back to haunt us.

Who knows which category Matt Belisle will fall into. The Braves are gambling that the contributions from Kent Mercker will far exceed any potential long term help from the tall Texas righthander. It's a gamble Detroit made back in the summer of 1987 when they needed another veteran arm for their stretch drive. Doyle Alexander helped the Tigers win its division, but John Smoltz became a superstar for the Braves.

Honesty compels me to report that Matt Belisle is a friend. Over the last three years of hosting "The Braves Show," I have come to know and like several of the young men who wear the Braves uniform. Matt Belisle is perhaps the best example of what the Atlanta Braves are looking for in a prospect: someone who can not only pitch, but also a person they will be proud to wear the Braves uniform.

But Matt Belisle was the proud one. He was proud every time he wore the Tomahawk across his chest. As a 1998 second round draft choice, Belisle was a bonus baby. He got a huge bonus to skip college and join the Braves. Two injuries changed his course along the way. First, in 1998, only weeks before he was eligible for the draft, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. The injury scared some scouts off and he "fell" to the second round.

Then in Spring Training of 2001, Belisle had his second significant setback. He ruptured a disc in his back and was forced to miss the entire season. This was after he had established himself in 2000 as one of the best prospects in baseball. He had gone 12-9 between Macon and Myrtle Beach with a 2.83 ERA in 27 starts. Matt then returned in 2002 and took slow steps in his recovery. His 5-9 record was not going to knock your socks off, but you could see he was getting closer to where he was before his injury.

This season Matt was looking for consistency, and he found it with twenty one solid starts in Greenville. Coaches started wondering how quickly and to what extent he could help the Braves in Atlanta. They moved him up to Richmond a few weeks ago, again to see how he would accept the challenge. In his three starts there, Matt had a 2.25 ERA without a walk in twenty innings. At the time of the trade, Belisle had found the consistency he had been searching for since 2000.

So did the Braves feel Belisle had not made enough progress? Did they believe he just wasn't good enough to pitch one day in the Braves uniform he loved so much? Doubtful.

This was simply a case of another team really wanting a particular player. The Braves and Reds were talking about a deal before the trade deadline. The only reason the Mercker deal was not made then was Atlanta's reluctance to include Belisle in the trade. Cincinnati wanted Belisle and knew the Braves really needed and wanted Kent Mercker, so they simply held out for Matt Belisle.

Is Mercker worth a Matt Belisle? Well, if he helps the Braves win the World Series, probably so. But the Braves are always going to be over a barrel when it comes to trade discussions. Other teams know what the Braves need to round out its roster, so why wouldn't they hold out for the best possible prospect?

Put yourself in the shoes of the people running the Cincinnati Reds (whomever it may be this week). There was little doubt General Manager John Schuerholz wanted Mercker back in a Braves uniform. Why not hold out for the best prospect available? Who knows who they may have asked for in the discussions. Andy Pratt? Bubba Nelson? Adam Wainwright? Dan Meyer? Macay McBride? Probably. Those are the top five pitching prospects at the Braves top three minor league levels. After those five, who were probably labeled as "untouchable," who is next?

Matt Belisle.

Let's say Belisle is (or was) our sixth best pitching prospect. Name me a team that has a sixth best pitching prospect as good as Matt Belisle. Keep looking cause he probably ain't there. The Braves sixth best pitching prospect is going to be a higher prospect on many other major league prospect lists. He's already climbed up higher on the Reds list.

The Reds were in a different situation a few weeks ago. They had to rid themselves of the contracts of Aaron Boone, Gabe White, and Scott Williamson. Other teams knew the situation and the Reds' need for cash. Atlanta wanted Williamson, but not at the price of a decent pitching prospect and cash. Think about that. The Red Sox paid Cincinnati a substantial amount of cash and gave them Phil Dumatrait, who is not a bad prospect. While the Reds had the Braves over a barrel in the Mercker deal, other teams had the Reds on the hook in the other "money" deals. Surely, if not for the contract dumping circumstances, Cincinnati could have gotten even more from the Yankees than Brandon Claussen for Aaron Boone.

Not that Claussen is a bad pitching prospect. In fact, he was probably the Yankees' best. But the Reds made a decision that every trade made the rest of the way would include a premium pitching prospect. It's the smartest decision the organization has made in many, many years. So getting a pitcher like Matt Belisle was essential to the Reds, even if the player they were giving up didn't even have as much value than Boone, Williamson, et al.

As for Atlanta, General Manager John Schuerholz knew his team needed help. Fans have been clamoring for bullpen help for weeks. There's worry about the health of Roberto Hernandez and Darren Holmes, and the production (or lack thereof) of Ray King. Who knows who was available on the waiver wire, but Kent Mercker was a pitcher Schuerholz knew. That is important. Think about the players he has brought back for a second stint with Atlanta: Alejandro Pena, Rudy Seanez, Greg Colbrunn, and Derek Lilliquist.

Do not dare be naive and believe that this is necessarily it for John Schuerholz. You can bet he is still working the phones making sure there is nothing more he can do to help this club. Mercker helps the bullpen, but it still might not be enough.

Where is Rudy Seanez these days?

As for Belisle getting traded, let's look at the long-term impact on the Braves. Matt was heading to Atlanta in three weeks for his big league debut. He was going up with Andy Pratt and, perhaps, Bubba Nelson. He was slated to go to Orlando next February to join Pratt, Nelson, Jason Marquis, Jung Bong, and Trey Hodges in the battle to replace Greg Maddux. Numerically, Matt's omission off this list should not hurt too bad. The others should have the chance to be productive major league pitchers. Then you start talking about Adam Wainwright, Chris Waters, Macay McBride, Dan Meyer, Zach Miner, the Rome kids, the college pitchers in Danville, and don't forget about the babies down in Orlando.

But we'll always wonder what Matt could have done in a Braves uniform. He wanted to wear it so badly. However, you have to remove yourself from the situation a bit and look at it as something that could possibly be better for Belisle's career. He was going to have a lot of good pitchers to compete with next spring. In Cincinnati, the competition will be there, but not as much quality. He'll have a better shot at being a major league starting pitcher with the Reds.

There are a lot of former Braves pitching prospects now doing well elsewhere. It's a testament to the quality of pitching prospects the Atlanta organization has developed over the last decade. Jason Schmidt and Odalis Perez are two of the most successful ex-Braves pitchers. Matt could join that list very soon.

Matt looked like a Braves prospect in the way he carried himself, the way he won, and the way he wanted to be apart of the new era of Braves Baseball. But in a strange way, perhaps being traded to the Reds will be the best thing that has ever happened to him.

The Braves won't mind as much as long as Mercker helps them win a second ring!

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