In what could be called the biggest trade since the Braves acquired Fred McGriff from the San Diego Padres eleven years ago, the Braves traded three players Thursday for ace pitcher Tim Hudson of the Oakland A's.
Wow. It's a big deal. The Braves are always after pitching, and there's zero doubt that Hudson is a great one. With John Smoltz on his way back to the rotation, the Braves have a chance to have their best group of starters in years.
There's one thing that I believe everyone will agree on when looking at this trade: Hudson is one hell of a pitcher. He has established himself as one of the best pitchers in the game. He's 53 games over .500 (92 wins and 39 losses). That's lethal for a guy who has started only 183 games in his big league career.
After growing up a Braves fan, Hudson now gets to walk out on the Turner Field pitching mound in an Atlanta uniform. The great thing for him is he won't even have to step into the role as the ace; John Smoltz will no doubt get that declaration, at least until the season starts. But Hudson, who will turn 30 years old next July 14th, could be in the Braves rotation for the next five or six years.
There are two things to worry about with Hudson – only two. First, he missed some time last season with a bum hip. The A's said he was just fine, and the Braves seem to believe them. But it will be something to watch and see if the problem flares up at all next season. Secondly, Hudson is a free agent after next season. The Braves have got to lock him up into a long-term contract. This is the type of pitcher you want to build your team around. Considering his southern roots and his years as a Braves fan, you have to like their chances of locking Hudson up. But they can't underestimate the importance of getting a new deal done soon, so they won't be caught, as they were this year with J.D. Drew.
The price for Hudson was high: pitchers Dan Meyer and Juan Cruz and outfielder Charles Thomas. The reason the A's continued to push the Braves for a deal was Meyer. Even after the Braves said no to giving them Marcus Giles, the A's were persistent in showing interest in Meyer, whom they believe can step into their rotation as the fourth or fifth starter in 2005.
Meyer was an excellent prospect for the Braves. They also believed he had the stuff to become a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher for them, but his timetable may not have been as advanced as it will be in Oakland. Meyer would have gotten a chance to win the Braves 5th starter's job next spring, but chances are he would have returned to AAA Richmond with a chance to come up at some point next season. The Braves have no doubt that Meyer will be a successful major league pitcher, but since that was who the A's demanded, they were not going to allow Meyer get in the way of obtaining Hudson.
Juan Cruz seemed to be a pitcher without a role. The Braves handled Cruz with care during the 2004 season, and most believed they were saving him to become one of their starting pitchers next year. But with all the quotes from John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox this winter, you rarely heard them mention Cruz. Only last Saturday night did you finally hear Cox mention Cruz as a candidate for his starting rotation, but that was after the Brewers had just turned down a trade offer from Atlanta involving Cruz himself.
It's obvious that the Braves, while acknowledging his talent, were not sure how successful Cruz would be as a starting pitcher. If they had been, they would have had him start a few games last season when they needed a spot starter. Instead, Travis Smith got the call. What does that tell you?
Cruz had value, and maybe the A's will give him a chance to start in the big leagues. I believe most in the Braves Nation were also curious as to what Cruz might do if given thirty-something starts. But obviously, the Braves were not.
Then the third player was Charles Thomas, Atlanta's hero from the 2004 season. Don't be foolish to think that the Braves resurgence in late June didn't have to do with the fact that Mr. Thomas made his debut in the same week. He was extremely instrumental in helping get the Braves out of whatever it was they were in. "Chuckie T" brought an energy and enthusiasm that was terribly needed in that Atlanta clubhouse.
The Braves did not want to give Charles Thomas up. However, when the alternative was to give the A's a couple of young minor league pitchers (Kyle Davies and Jake Stevens), the Braves reluctantly gave Thomas to the A's. Here's a kid who was on the verge of being released in spring training a few years ago, a kid that went from being the fourth outfielder on the Opening Day roster of the AAA Richmond Braves this past April, to being the primary starter for the Atlanta Braves.
His story will be legendary. His contributions will never be forgotten.
Atlanta fell in love with Charles Thomas. They loved seeing him dive for balls and run hard and backup bases from the outfield. He showed a special spirit that is not in all players. He knew how hard his trip was to get to the big leagues, and he didn't take one minute for granted. There was no tomorrow for Mr. Thomas. He played like there was no tomorrow. Charles played like he might never play again in the big leagues, but in the end, he'll just never play again for the Atlanta Braves.
Hopefully, the Oakland A's will give him the chance to play everyday over one of their OBP kings. Charlie deserves the chance. The only solace of him leaving is that he'll be going to his original home. Even though he lives in Asheville, North Carolina, the first ten years of his life were spent about an hour outside of the Bay Area. So hopefully he'll prospect going home, just like the Braves hope Tim Hudson will.
Getting Hudson, especially without having to give up starting second baseman Marcus Giles, was a no-brainer. The Braves had to do it. If you had to bet they'd be able to re-sign Hudson, take your chances. I think the Braves know this is not the same deal as J.D. Drew. Hudson doesn't have an agent that looks after his own best interest instead of his client, so I'm sure as long as the Braves offer a fair deal (how about a four-year, $40 million extension?), Hudson will likely re-sign.
Meyer and Cruz could easily be 15 game winners for the Oakland A's next season, and there's no doubt that Charles Thomas could take Oakland by storm just as he did Atlanta. But the Braves needed an ace pitcher to go into the postseason. Jaret Wright and Russ Ortiz were never going to scare the hell out of anybody, but Hudson and John Smoltz certainly will. The combination of the two right-handers should be the most dominant and dangerous in the National League. That's what the Braves were looking for.
It's very rare that a trade is easy to make. Dan Meyer and Charles Thomas are two people I know very well, and I was looking forward to them continuing their careers in an Atlanta uniform. I'm going to miss them and it's going to sting like the devil when I turn on SportsCenter and see Charlie diving for a ball or Dan three-hitting the Mariners. But it was Tim Hudson, one of the best pitchers in our game.
Tim Hudson is going to make the Atlanta Braves a better team. His presence once again, after a two-year absence, gives the Braves the title of having the best rotation in the game. And for that, no one can fault GM John Schuerholz for pulling the trigger on this deal.
Bill Shanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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