Trading Pitching Prospects Never Easy

This winter's trade of Adam Wainwright to the St. Louis Cardinals brings up a topic that is discussed often by baseball fans: the trade of top prospects for established veterans.

The dilemma is simple. In this era of frequent player movement, trading prospects like Wainwright is dangerous, only because of the chance the veteran acquired in the deal may not be around very long.

Braves fans are already worried about the possibility that Drew and Eli Marrero will bolt after the 2004 season. Those two players may be elsewhere in April of 2005, the same month Wainwright may be breaking into the St. Louis rotation. Adam may go on to spend 6, 10, 15 years with the Cardinals, while the Braves are only guaranteed to have Drew and Marrero around for one season.

Is it worth it?

This is the conflict that enters into many trade discussions involving the Atlanta Braves. Over the past few years, Atlanta has dealt away a number of decent pitching prospects or young major league pitchers. Obviously, Wainwright and Jason Marquis just went to the Cardinals in December. Matt Belisle went to the Reds last August for Kent Mercker. Damian Moss, after one season in Atlanta, was sent to the Giants with young Merkin Valdes for Russ Ortiz. Tim Spooneybarger, after his rookie season in the Braves uniform, was the payment to the Marlins for Mike Hampton. Odalis Perez and Andrew Brown went to the Dodgers for Gary Sheffield. Brad Voyles got us Rey Sanchez for the end of the 2001 season. Luis Rivera was the centerpiece of the B.J. Surhoff deal with the Orioles back in 2000. Two weeks before the Surhoff trade, the Braves acquired Andy Ashby for Bruce Chen and Jimmy Osting. Three pitching prospects, Joey Nation, Micah Bowie, and Ruben Quevedo were sent to the Cubs for Terry Mulholland and Jose Hernandez. And finally, back in November of 1998, Rob Bell was critical to the deal with the Reds when Atlanta got Bret Boone and Mike Remlinger.

That's ten trades in the last five years involving sixteen young pitchers. Three of those pitchers, Marquis, Moss, and Perez, will enter spring training as starting pitchers. Belisle, Spooneybarger, Voyles, and Bell will enter spring training as relievers. Brown and Valdes are two tremendous prospects for the Dodgers and Giants, respectively.

If you go back to the 1996 season, Atlanta sent Jason Schmidt, then in his rookie season in the big leagues, to the Pirates in the Denny Neagle trade.

That's a pretty impressive list of young pitchers sent away in trades. And yet if you look at the current Atlanta roster, there's no hurting for pitching. These trades have not depleted the farm system or the major league roster. That points right at the scouting philosophy the Braves are so famous for.

The Braves know pitching has been their bread and butter; it's the main reason the team has won thirteen straight division titles. They continually replenish their farm system with solid young pitchers, usually going after high school kids who they can mold "The Braves Way." As long as this assembly line can continue to crank out pitching prospects, John Schuerholz will continue to have players to use in potential deals.

It's not particularly easy to watch Jason Schmidt and Odalis Perez establish themselves as top pitchers in the National League. But their value to us was in the deals they were apart of. The minor leagues have two purposes: to bring up talent directly to the major league team and to use the minor league talent in trades for more ready major league veterans.

The Braves didn't have a right fielder ready to replace Gary Sheffield. So they had to go out and find a veteran replacement. J.D. Drew was the best candidate, and to get him, they had to pay a steep price. Drew, despite his injury-plagued career, still has tremendous value. He's still only 28 years old and if he stays healthy, could be one of the top players in the game. So Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty was going to get a good deal for his right fielder. He wanted a premium prospect, and Adam Wainwright fit that bill.

John Schuerholz did not want to give up Adam Wainwright. His scouts have told him Wainwright has a chance to be a top-of-the-rotation-starting pitcher for many years. Wainwright was the perfect Braves prospect. He fit the mold better than perhaps any other prospect. But when Jocketty wouldn't budge off his demand to include Wainwright in the Drew deal, Schuerholz had to make a decision.

It would be tremendously different if the Braves did not have pitching prospects like Bubba Nelson, Brett Evert, Andy Pratt, Chris Waters, Dan Meyer, Macay McBride, Kyle Davies, Anthony Lerew, Gonzalo Lopez and Matt Wright. It's not that each of these ten pitching prospects who will be at the top three levels of the minor leagues are all going to be stars. But the Braves believe that these ten pitchers form a group. It's a group that out of the ten, they believe several will become quality major league starting pitchers. Forget about the unbelievable depth that will be fighting for spots in Rome this spring. The depth at the top three levels allowed Schuerholz to seriously consider trading his best pitching prospect, Adam Wainwright.

If the depth was not in place, if there were not a handful of pitchers the Braves hope will be starters over the next few seasons, Wainwright would be getting ready to go to Lake Buena Vista instead of Jupiter right now. Schuerholz would have said no and found another right fielder.

Wainwright was not traded because the Braves had doubts about his ability. He was traded only because he had to be the payment to get a right fielder. Surely John Schuerholz has wondered about Drew leaving after 2004 and Wainwright being with the Cardinals for many years. That's natural. But that's the gamble you've got to take when you are forming a major league roster that will be competing for a postseason appearance. In all of those trades listed above, the same thing had to go through his mind.

If Wainwright goes on to become one of the National League's great pitchers and Drew leaves, there will surely be criticism. But if the Braves have kids like Nelson, Meyer, Davies, McBride, Lerew, etc. come up and adequately fill the spots in the Atlanta rotation, the pain will be less severe. Then you'll simply have to say that to get a right fielder, whether it's for one year or three, we had to give up our best prospect. That's the gamble you take in trades.

It's the same gamble Detroit took in the summer of 1987. They traded a hometown kid named John Smoltz to the Braves for Doyle Alexander. The Tigers needed a veteran arm to help them win the division. Alexander went 7-0 and did propel Detroit into the American League Playoffs. Of course, Smoltz has been one of the best pitchers in the game over the past thirteen seasons. Even though the Tigers could have desperately used Smoltz over the past decade, their deal paid off for them. It helped them win that season. So even though it's probably difficult for Tigers fans to watch a hometown kid become a Hall of Fame prospect in another team's uniform, they know that deal helped them win in 1987.

Everyone hopes Wainwright has a magnificent career, and chances are he will. This is probably not the last time the Braves will trade a tremendous pitching prospect. Remember, the Braves have the best pitching depth in baseball. All of them can't make it with us, so many (like the ones listed above) will go on to other teams and do well. That's the gamble you take with trading pitching prospects. But thankfully, Atlanta has the depth in place to replenish the pipeline every time one has to go away.

Bill Shanks hosts "The Braves Show," a weekly television show on the Atlanta Braves. He can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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