Trading Young Pitchers Never Easy

Within the last week the Atlanta Braves have traded two of their top three pitching prospects, Jose Capellan and Dan Meyer. BravesCenter's Bill Shanks talked earlier in the year with two Braves executives about the difficulty of trading top prospects.

First it was Adam Wainwright, a year and a day ago. Then last spring it was Andy Pratt, Jung Bong, and Bubba Nelson. On trade deadline day in July, it was Matt Merricks. And now, it's Jose Capellan and Dan Meyer. The Braves produce talent like it's a toy on a Wal-Mart assembly line. But over the last 366 days, they've also traded prospects like they were going out of style.

This brings us to a reminder of the two functions of the minor league system. First, it must provide talent for the big league team. The last few years that function has played out well as Horacio Ramirez, Adam LaRoche, Nick Green, and Charles Thomas have all come up and assumed significant roles. Then the other function is to provide players for General Manager John Schuerholz to trade to help improve the ball club in other areas.

The key to ensuring that both of those functions are fulfilled is for the minor league to be stocked with talent. It must be strong enough to sustain hits from having either function play out. When a player ascends to the big leagues another one almost immediately is needed to take his place in line. For instance, when Adam Wainwright was traded, it was essential there was a pitcher like Bubba Nelson on hand to be available for a promotion to Atlanta or for a trade.

General Manager John Schuerholz is running a business. Is it his preference for our own players to make it to Atlanta? Certainly. However, if there is a deal that is best for this organization, he's got to make it. That doesn't make things easier for the folks in the scouting and farm departments, the people that have found and developed the minor leaguers involved in the deals. They know these kids personally, and it's tough to see them go.

"When we have to move a player, you have to understand it's part of the game," says Dayton Moore, Braves Director of Player Personnel. "The minor leagues exist to support the major league team. But it's difficult. It's hard. But our job is to sign and develop major league caliber players and to help our team continue to win championships or to use players in trades for our major league team to help our team win championships."

Since John Schuerholz took over as the Braves General Manager in October of 1991, he has made 31 trades involving 40 pitchers. The Braves have discovered that if they need a veteran at the big league level, they must have pitching available to deal. But Moore says it's still not easy for anyone to give up talented pitchers.

"Well I want to tell you right now John Schuerholz agonizes over trading these younger players, if not more than us," Moore says. "He really does. I see it in his face, and I see it in his body language. He loves these guys. But he's accountable. There's a very small window of opportunity for every major league player to win a championship. Your organization, your front office, your general manager owe it to those players to do everything they can to fortify that team."

And that's exactly what the Braves have done once again. With Jaret Wright and Russ Ortiz out as free agents, the team had to make changes to strengthen the bullpen. Could the Braves have given those two rotation spots to rookies Jose Capellan and Dan Meyer? Certainly. However, to give the team its best chance of being competitive for 2005, John Schuerholz had to look for a more sure thing. To be able to move two ace pitchers in John Smoltz and Tim Hudson into the rotation surely gives the Braves a better chance to not only win next season, but also be leading contenders for a World Series appearance.

"I believe you build for your future by trying to win today," Moore says. "You've got to win. I'm not saying your mortgage the farm. I don't think we've done that. We've worked hard to create depth here. We've always dealt players from a position of strength. John's the master at that. He's orchestrated that very well."

And now it's Moore's job, along with Scouting Director Roy Clark, to go and find more pitching talent. Capellan and Meyer could possibly have tremendous big league careers. But two things must happen for their potential success to not directly impact the Braves. First, the Braves must look for pitching in next year's draft. Two years ago, the Braves took twelve pitchers with their first fourteen picks. Then last year, Atlanta drafted only two pitchers in their first seven picks. So expect the 2005 draft to have a good amount of pitchers in the early rounds.

Secondly, the current pitchers in the system must step up to the next level. The Braves held onto Kyle Davies since they believe he is the best pitching prospect in the system. Davies must be ready in case Smoltz or one of the other starters gets hurt. Now that Meyer and Capellan are gone, Atlanta's two most readied arms for the big leagues, Davies assumes that role. Atlanta thinks Davies is a top-of-the-rotation starter and will fit right into the rotation in 2006.

But it's the other pitchers behind Davies that must step up in order to keep the assembly line rolling. There are several right behind Davies that will be counted on to be ready if needed including Zach Miner, Macay McBride, and Blaine Boyer. Then three arms headed to AA in 2005, Anthony Lerew, Matt Wright, and Chuck James, must do well in order to keep the logjam tight at the top. The Braves also must get solid seasons from kids at both A-ball affiliates in 2005, since after this coming season they'll be the ones that will be going trying to catch John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox's eyes.

The 2003 draft class included pitchers that have now become decent prospects. Jake Stevens and Sean White will probably be in Myrtle Beach, while Chris Vines, Luis Atilano, Paul Bacot, and Matt Harrison will be in Rome. The Braves need a couple of those guys in Rome to do exactly what Stevens did last season, separate himself from the others. The Braves feel like any one of those kids can do just that.

Last year after Wainwright and Nelson were traded, the Braves had to have someone move up and become a better prospect. Capellan, Meyer, and Davies did just that. Now that two of those three are gone, they'll look for more pitchers to do the same.

It's happened before. Why would anyone think it wouldn't happen again? That depth is the key to the Braves success. Always has been and always will be.

Bill Shanks can be reached at

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