1. The minor leagues have two main functions:
a. To provide major league talent directly from the minor league teams.
b. To provide trade material that will strengthen the major league roster.
2. No one is untouchable.
We are constantly reminded that minor leaguers are just that: minor leaguers. They haven't played in one game, at least not yet. Therefore, their value is somewhat determined by the calendar. If they are needed in the majors today, they are valuable. If they are needed in the majors in a year from now, well, they may be more valuable elsewhere.
When Gary Sheffield left the Braves for…wherever…the team needed to find a replacement. Let's look at the options:
1. Free Agents:
a. Vladimir Guerrero
b. Jeromy Burnitz
c. Brian Jordan
d. Reggie Sanders
e. Rondell White
f. Jose Cruz, Jr.
g. Jose Guillen
h. Mike Cameron
i. Juan Gonzalez
j. Jay Payton
a. J.D. Drew
b. Johnny Damon
c. Richard Hidalgo
d. Geoff Jenkins
e. Jacque Jones
Vladimir was simply out of the Braves price range. No matter how much fun it was to picture him replacing Sheffield, it was simply out of the question when Guerrero put himself in another salary level. Jordan and Sanders have been here before, and there wasn't much desire to travel down those roads again.
Juan Gonzalez was a player the Braves were interested in. Even though he is probably best suited for the American League, the Braves toyed with the idea of what he could do as their everyday right fielder. If healthy, there is no doubt Gonzalez can put up monster RBI numbers. But Gonzalez wants close to $8 million bucks per season, and the Braves were not willing to go that high.
Jose Guillen was also an option, but the Braves were not ready to dish out money for a player who has had only one great season. Guillen was probably a last case scenario.
Atlanta had talks with Minnesota about Jacque Jones, but the Twins were looking for a closer the Braves could not provide. The Astros were unwilling to eat any significant portion of Richard Hidalgo's salary, so there was no match there.
Which now leads us to St. Louis, dangling right fielder J.D. Drew for pitching help. The Braves originally offered Jason Marquis and Ray King. St. Louis countered by wanting left-hander Horacio Ramirez. Atlanta said no. The Cardinals then asked for premiere prospect Adam Wainwright. General Manager John Schuerholz resisted, not wanting to mortgage the future for one season.
But the Cardinals were adamant on having a top pitcher in the deal. Let's face it: Jason Marquis has zero trade value. He's a pitcher who has gone from being one of the most valuable in the Braves organization to one the team is trying to give away. In fact, before the trading deadline, they couldn't give him away. Marquis is now nothing more than a throw in with any trade possibility.
Ray King is a nice left-handed reliever, but not a pitcher to build a staff around. With the Braves placing Horacio Ramirez off limits, St. Louis General Manager Walt Jocketty was smart to go after Wainwright next. He is the Braves top-pitching prospect. Jocketty told Schuerholz that if the deal was going to get done, Wainwright had to be included. No exceptions – no alterations to the deal.
When Schuerholz looked over his options, he felt he had no choice. Gonzalez was their next favorite, but he was simply more expensive than what the Braves valued him at. Drew is a player who has always intrigued Schuerholz. He's a player who, at 28 and with over five years major league experience, has yet to realize his full potential. Of all the possibilities, Drew has the best chance of coming close to the production of Gary Sheffield.
That is, if he stays healthy.
Drew has never had played in more than 135 games in one season, never had more than 424 at bats. Strained right quadriceps, sprained left ankle, broken right pinky finger, right knee tendonitis. Injury after injury has kept Drew from playing in 150 games or getting 550 at bats.
What would he do in a full season? It's a question the Cardinals have wondered about, and what the Braves now must try to answer. Drew's career highs in offensive categories make you curious about what he could do with more playing time. He had 27 home runs and 73 RBI in 375 at bats in 2001. Could he possibly hit between 35-40 and drive in over 100 if he had 500 at bats?
Jocketty offered to include Eli Marerro in the deal if the Braves would part with Wainwright. Marerro came up as a catcher a few seasons ago, and since then has seen significant playing time at first base and in the outfield. He has now developed into one of the best versatile players in the game with his ability to play many positions. The Braves need a backup catcher, and would not mind help at first base and in the outfield. It was the extra incentive Schuerholz needed to swing the deal.
So there it was: Drew and Marrero for Wainwright, Marquis, and King.
|RHP Jason Marquis (Photo/Getty)|
The 6'8" right-hander was suppose to be the Braves ace of the future. But this trade proves no one in untouchable. Maybe Horacio Ramirez can be considered untouchable, since the Expos also tried to get him in the Javier Vazquez deal. But Ramirez proved in 2003 that he was one of the best young pitchers in the National League. Wainwright has not gotten that chance – at least not yet.
Wainwright was slated to go to Orlando in March with an outside shot at being in the Atlanta rotation. He was more likely to head to Richmond, for final work with pitching coach Guy Hansen. With Russ Ortiz and Paul Byrd off the books after 2004, it was thought that if everything went well for Adam, he would step into the rotation in 2005.
The luxury the Braves have is depth in its farm system. Wainwright was a good one, but the question that had to be asked was whether or not he was special enough to allow this deal to fall apart. Obviously, the presence of Bubba Nelson, Andy Pratt, Trey Hodges, and Jung Bong make the immediate impact of losing Wainwright easier to take. The Braves believe the other four will now battle it out for the fifth starter's spot next spring.
But will Wainwright turn out to be a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher? Possibly. But if Drew finally gets his chance to play in 150 games and puts up the numbers everyone believes he is capable of, then it's simply a baseball trade: dealing one player from a position of depth for a position of need.
The wildcard here is not Wainwright, but Drew. He is signed for only one more season, before his agent, Scott Boras, starts asking for a billion dollars a season. If Drew was signed to a longer contract, it might be easier to accept the possibility of the trade being one-sided should Wainwright blossom into the starter some predict. But if he leaves after one season, and then Wainwright becomes a top starter in the league, this deal will be difficult to explain and could be placed in the Brett Butler/Len Barker category.
The placement of Drew in Atlanta's lineup gives it strength. Let's look at a possibility:
Rafael Furcal Marcus Giles Chipper Jones Andruw Jones J.D. Drew
Mark DeRosa Adam LaRoche Johnny Estrada
|J.D Drew in 1999 (Photo/Getty)|
The right-handed hitting Marrero could spell Estrada behind the plate, LaRoche at first base, and any of the outfielders. It's possible he could get 400 at bats by being "Mr. Versatility." Also, if Drew goes down with an injury, Marrero could step in for a few weeks and provide decent production. Marrero, who battled and beat thyroid cancer in 1998, could make this deal very good for Atlanta. Not many players can catch and go be decent elsewhere on the field. But Marrero is talented enough to be a very important member of the Atlanta team, and much more valuable than a normal "throw-in" in this deal.
The lineup is better than it was a few days ago, and we all know that. What we don't know is what Wainwright will do for the next fifteen seasons. If Drew leaves after one season, ugh let's not even think about it. But what happens if our farm system continues to provide adequate and solid replacements for our starting rotation? Will that make the pain easier if Wainwright goes on and succeeds?
Not many teams can trade its number one pitching prospect and still have great pitching depth. For 2004, we've already explained the four candidates who could battle it out for the fifth starter's spot. Then you look at guys like Brett Evert, Macay McBride, Chris Waters, and Dan Meyer. Those four could be knocking on the door in 2005. Gonzalo Lopez, Anthony Lerew, and Kyle Davies could be close two years from now. If our farm system can provide one new starting pitcher per year, we should be in decent shape.
Mike Hampton is signed for five more seasons. Horacio Ramirez will be under our control for five more seasons. So we have 40% of our starting rotation pretty much set for the next half decade. Ortiz could be re-signed past 2004, and Thomson could be the veteran who does blossom into fulfilling his potential. Who knows what will happen with those two.
But if one of 2004 group (Hodges, Pratt, Bong, or Nelson) step into the starting rotation and do well, it's possible they could be there for a while. Then we would only need one starting pitcher per season to come up from the minor leagues over the next two springs. And even without Adam Wainwright in place, there are enough options in place to provide adequate and continual replacements.
As for replacing King, the Braves are already talking with free agent left-hander Arthur Lee Rhodes. The former Seattle Mariner has been one of the top lefty set-up men in the game over the past seven seasons. He's just turned 34, so he's a veteran. The Braves were interested in him four years ago, and would like to bring him in now to replace King.
The Yankees are shopping former Brave Chris Hammond, and if they eat part of his salary, it's possible he could return. Gabe White has been rumored over the past few weeks to be going back to the Yankees, but he has still yet to sign. The Braves have had significant interest in him before, and could re-visit White once again.
Atlanta was already in the market for a reliever. They almost signed free agent Tim Worrell earlier in the week, only to see him sign with Philadelphia. The Braves have talked with former Phillies right-hander Terry Adams, and he could be a new addition as well.
Marquis does not need to be replaced per se, since it was unlikely he was going to be on the 2004 roster anyway.
This trade did prove one thing. The Phillies may believe they have the division tied up with the additions of Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell, and Eric Milton. Not so fast, says John Schuerholz. The dealing of a top prospect like Wainwright signals to everyone that the Braves are not ready to give up their stronghold of the National League East. Atlanta wants to keep on winning, even if the payroll does not top the hundred million mark.
I've often said that predicting what the Atlanta Braves and John Schuerholz will do is foolish. You never know. Just when you think so-and-so is going to be in the rotation for many years and so-and-so will be in a position for a long time, they get traded. I really believed Adam Wainwright would be around for many years in a Braves uniform. But this trade proves again that no one is untouchable in baseball. It also proves that to get talent, you have to give away talent.
Everyone would feel better if John Schuerholz announced today the signing of Drew to a two-year contract extension. Then we'd know we gave up Wainwright for more than just a one-year rental. Drew's a Georgia Boy, and that's a plus. But his agent is the devil. Scott Boras wanted Fort Knox when Drew left college, and he's bound to want a mint when he becomes a free agent next winter. Maybe J.D. will love playing for his favorite team, the one he grew up watching on television. Maybe a solid season as a Brave will entice him to stick around for a few years.
If Drew can plug the gap until Jeff Francoeur, another one of those top untouchable prospects, can be ready in a few years, then the trade will be more worthwhile. We do not want to be skimming through the free agent list a year from now looking for more wholesale outfield trash.
It's time for Drew to become the player everyone's expected he'd be by now, and make this trade one of the best John Schuerholz has ever made as Atlanta's General Manager.
At least we hope so.
Bill Shanks hosts "The Braves Show" during the baseball season. He can be reached at email@example.com