The Phillies had already spent a lot of money on the likes of David Bell and Jim Thome, but they still had money to spend and had earmarked it for a starting pitcher. Free agents Tom Glavine, Jamie Moyer and even former Phillie Paul Byrd had turned down the Phillies and GM Ed Wade was starting to get a little nervous about who else he could find to fill a key spot in the rotation.
In Atlanta, the call came to cut the payroll and it caught Scheurholz by at least a little bit of surprise. After all, he wasn't in Kansas City or Milwaukee where those calls come frequently. He was in Atlanta, the reigning kings of the National League East. Money was never thought to be much of a problem, but now it was an issue. Scheurholz' first call wasn't to the Phillies. In fact, he tried almost everything he could think of to send Millwood elsewhere, but the teams with money to spend weren't interested. Their sites were set elsewhere and Scheurholz didn't have time to waste. Slowly, word about the Braves attempts at trading Millwood spread through the ranks of GMs and word even hit Philadelphia. Surely though, the Braves wouldn't let Millwood come to the city with that big old cracked bell, right?
Surprisingly, Scheurholz held his breath and looked to make a deal. To Wade's credit, he didn't volunteer names like Floyd, Madson or even Duckworth. As the talks went back and forth, the Braves figured they may be best to try to fill a future need behind the plate. Javy Lopez was entering the final year of his contract and if more cuts had to come down, Lopez would be a likely candidate to go. With no strong minor league candidate to replace him, Scheurholz went after Johnny Estrada, the Phillies best young catching prospect. Wade quickly made the deal, deciding to worry about the potential health problems of Mike Lieberthal later. He needed a top of the rotation guy and one had just fallen into his lap.
Now, the Phillies have the concern of trying to re-sign Millwood long-term or risk losing him. Potentially, that means letting him go back to the Atlanta Braves. Worst case scenario is that the Phillies would have rented Millwood for a season, lost Estrada, not made the playoffs and then allowed their staff ace to head back to division rival Atlanta. As that possibility looms, maybe the fact that Scheurholz somehow always gets the best of the deals he makes should become clearer. After all, the Braves have one of the best GMs in baseball and he doesn't make the wrong move too often.
Actually, Millwood has been more than just shear numbers for the Phillies. He has been a mentor to Brett Myers and to a lesser extent, Randy Wolf. Millwood found a way to wipe Myers' arrogance and ego off the youngsters rap sheet. Myers has blossomed and he has made no secret of the fact that Millwood has been a major reason for his success. Wolf is ready to assume the role of staff ace, but having Millwood around for the 2003 season has given the lefty a chance to ease into the job. Should Millwood leave, Wolf will be a better player because of the time that he had to watch Millwood lead the staff by example both on and off the field. Without Millwood, Wolf would have been forced into the job and needed much more on-the-job training than he will when he does take over somewhere down the road.
Will the Phillies be able to sign Millwood long-term. Nobody knows for sure, but there are positive signs. Their bullpen may be reshaped for next season. It's filled with potential free agents that could be costly to re-sign and rest assured, they won't all be back. Dan Plesac will likely retire, Terry Adams may be let go and Turk Wendell's fate in Philadelphia is still up in the air. The Phillies hold an option on Mike Williams and Jose Mesa has an automatic extension that kicks in the minute he finishes his 55th game of the season. One of them – possibly both – won't be back in Philadelphia next season. You can figure that the Phillies will do whatever they can to sign Rheal Cormier and will consider making Brandon Duckworth into a reliever. After all, he can't seem to pitch past five innings, so why ask him to? Minor leaguers Geoff Geary and possibly Greg Kubes are waiting in the wings as are others. Bottom line is that the bullpen may be younger and cheaper next season, even with Mesa's pending contract. In other words, there may be some money there to spend. Of course, the Phillies also have pay raises for some of their young stars kicking in next season, so any potential savings in one area may disappear for the sake of another part of the team.
The opening of Citizen's Bank Park will give the Phillies some added revenue and make Philadelphia a more enticing place for players to come to as free agents. That revenue and the chance for Millwood to return as a team leader on a young team headed for good things could be enough to bring Millwood back. After all, Millwood has become enamored with the city and feels wanted, respected and needed. Those are just the kind of intangibles that will make him think long and hard before he heads back to Atlanta. After all, the Braves traded Millwood and made him the odd man out of their plans after he had worked to achieve success and respect within the organization. There are some minor scars there that haven't yet healed.
In Atlanta, it's been another season of winning and seeming domination. Estrada has seen only glimpses of the majors this season, spending most of the year at AAA Richmond. Lopez has put up huge numbers, leading many to believe that the Braves won't let him walk after the season like was long thought. Suddenly, he and not Estrada may be the Braves "catcher of the future". In fact, the Braves dangled Estrada as trade bait near the deadline, but never did pull the trigger on a deal that would have sent him elsewhere.
Just what has the Millwood deal meant for fans in Atlanta? For that, we turned to Andrew Bare of BravesCenter.com:
John Schuerholtz had a headache. $10 million dollars worth of headache, to be precise.
Tom Glavine was gone, and to the Mets at that. Russ Ortiz had been acquired at the cost of Damian Moss, a minor league pitcher, and most importantly, roughly $4 million in additional salary. Paul Byrd had been signed at the cost of $3 million for the 2003. Schuerholtz had offered arbitration to Greg Maddux because…well, because this is Greg Maddux for God's sake, and when first ballot Hall of Famers leave town, you want to get something for them.
Except Maddux didn't leave town. He accepted the Braves' offer of arbitration, and suddenly, Atlanta was faced with the prospect of having to pay him up to $15 million for 2003. $4 million for Ortiz. $3 million for Byrd. A projected $10 million in arbitration for Kevin Millwood. It all added up to a payroll roughly $10 million over the budget set by AOL-Time Warner. And so the dogs of war were let slip inside Schuerholtz's head.
Most people cure headaches with Tylenol, Advil, maybe Aspirin. John Schuerholtz used a guillotine.
The trade that sent Millwood to Philadelphia for AAA catcher Johnny Estrada was a veritable onion of devastation for Braves' fans. There were so many layers of stupidity to that deal, Braves fans are still stupefied by it.
Braves fan 1: Hey, they just traded Kevin Millwood to Philadelphia for Johnny Estrada.
Braves fan 2: The guy who played Ponch on C*H*I*P*S?
Braves fan 1: No, that's Erik Estrada. Johnny played in AAA last year.
Braves fan 2: How'd he do?
Braves fan 1: He had a .322 OBP.
Braves fan 2: How old is he?
Braves fan 1: 27
Braves fan 2: Can we go back and get Erik instead?
The unfortunate irony of the off-season was that Schuerholtz went into it planning on re-signing Glavine, keeping Millwood, and letting Maddux walk. So of course Glavine and Millwood are both playing elsewhere while Maddux is still in the Atlanta rotation.
The great debate amongst Braves fans this winter revolved around the question of who the better pitcher was: Maddux or Millwood. There's no easy answer to that question, and it's still debatable. Maddux had the better ERA, more Win Shares, and of course, the whole Hall of Fame thing going for him. Millwood had youth, endurance, and the better peripheral statistics. But Millwood has undeniably mixed in more brilliance than has Maddux, and once again, the peripherals are there for Kevin.
The Braves are a surprisingly good offensive team. They've got a brilliant, untouchable John Smoltz lurking in the bullpen for the 8th and 9th innings. The middle relief core, after a rough start, seems to be rounding into shape. What the Braves need, more than anything else, is a tough, durable number two starter, a guy who can go deep into games, and do so effectively.
They had a pitcher like that. Now he pitches for their chief divisional rival. It's easy to bemoan that fact, but the undeniable truth is, the situation is entirely of John chuerholtz's own doing.
He traded David Cone for Ed Hearn. Twice.
Andrew Bare can be reached at AndrewBare29@hotmail.com.