The phrase “salary dump” is certainly nothing new to Atlanta Braves fans of recent vintage.
The Braves engaged in a number of payroll-shedding trades during the 2014-17 rebuild, getting rid of such players as Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Chris Johnson and Craig Kimbrel because they were either too expensive or soon to become so. Many of those moves netted a strong prospect haul, but others were done strictly to pare down the payroll in the interest of future “financial flexibility.”
However, there was a time when the Braves ran one of the highest payrolls in the sport. Long-time owner Ted Turner threw money around often haphazardly in the early days he owned the team, but began to spend wisely once John Schuerholz came on as general manager in 1991.
The Braves continued to have a Top 10 payroll well into the first decade of the 2000s, but years of talent acquisition during the 1990s came home to roost 17 years ago this month. Heading into the winter of 2002-03, Atlanta had some decisions to make, particularly in terms of its pitching staff.
Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who had combined for six Cy Young Awards (five with the Braves) from 1991-98, were poised to become free agents that offseason. Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield and John Smoltz (then Atlanta’s closer) were all due to make better than $10 million in 2003.
Also destined to earn big money in 2003 was pitcher Kevin Millwood, who had gone 18-8 with a 3.24 ERA and had earned 3.2 bWAR as the Braves’ No. 3 starter the previous season. The 28-year-old right-hander — who had been drafted by the Braves out of a North Carolina high school in 1993 and had made his MLB debut in 1997 — was entering his final season before free agency, and appeared set to more than double his 2002 salary of $3.8 million.
The Braves took a pre-emptive strike against the potential departure of Maddux and Glavine on Nov. 19, 2002, when they pulled off a complicated three-team trade with the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins that landed Mike Hampton in Atlanta. Hampton was two years into an 8-year, $121-million contract he’d signed after the 2000 season, but had posted a 6.44 ERA in Denver.
The Marlins ended up eating most of Hampton’s $13 million-plus salary in 2003, while landing outfielder Juan Pierre from the Rockies and reliever Tim Spooneybarger from the Braves. The Rockies got catcher Charles Johnson and outfielder Preston Wilson, among others, from Florida.
Glavine was approaching his age-37 season, but was seeking a four-year deal, with at least three years guaranteed. According to a report in the Nov. 23, 2002, edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Braves offered $9 million guaranteed for 2003, plus three option years.
Thus, it should have surprised no one when Glavine left the Braves on Dec. 5, agreeing with the New York Mets on a three-year, $35-million deal that also included a vesting option for 2006. After 16 seasons and 242 victories in an Atlanta uniform, the two-time Cy Young winner was gone.
Under the terms of baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement at the time, teams could offer salary arbitration to pending free agents (a similar system to the current Qualifying Offer, except that the salaries were negotiable). If the player chose to leave via free agency, the player’s old team would gain a draft pick.
Offering arbitration to a pending free agent was considered automatic in those days, since players nearly always rejected it. Thus, the Braves on Dec. 7 offered arbitration to Maddux, who was not only represented by super-agent Scott Boras (whose clients nearly always tested the free-agent market) but was also entering his age 37 season and looking for one more big free-agent pay day.
With Glavine gone and Maddux having one foot out the door, the Braves made two more moves to shore up their pitching staff. On Dec. 17, 2002, Atlanta traded left-hander Damian Moss (the Braves’ No. 4 starter that season) and reliever prospect Merkin Valdez to the San Francisco Giants for Ross Ortiz, an innings-eating right-hander who was due to make $4.66 million in 2003.
On Dec. 18, the Braves signed veteran right-hander Paul Byrd to a two-year, $10 million deal (with $3 million of that due in 2003). Byrd, who won 17 games for Kansas City in 2002, joined an Atlanta rotation that now included Millwood, Hampton, Ortiz and youngster Jason Marquis, who had made 22 starts in 2002.
The next day, however, a bombshell rocked the Braves’ offseason and busted their 2003 budget.
On Dec. 19, Boras notified the Braves that Maddux had accepted arbitration. After a year in which he posted a 2.62 ERA in 199.1 innings, Maddux was sure to get a raise from his previous salary of $13.1 million.
A story by Thomas Stinson in the Dec. 20, 2002, edition of the AJC noted Atlanta’s sudden surplus of starting pitching. It theorized that Millwood — whose agent was also Boras, coincidentally or not — was the most likely to be traded, and included the pitcher saying in part, “it’s totally in the hands of the Braves as to where I play next year.”
Stinson’s closing sentence read thusly: “The team might take its time. Schuerholz left town for the holidays Thursday.”
Well, not exactly.
That very day, the Braves pulled off what remains a shockingly one-sided trade. They shipped Millwood to the division rival Philadelphia Phillies for 26-year-old catcher Johnny Estrada, who had a .619 OPS in 343 at-bats spread over two seasons.
Of course, the Braves didn’t really need a catcher, as Javy Lopez was due to make $7 million in 2003 and light-hitting Henry Blanco was still around as Maddux’s personal receiver. But the Phillies and GM Ed Wade knew the Braves were over a payroll barrel, and negotiated accordingly.
To be fair, Lopez was set to become a free agent after that season, and Estrada had been an above-average hitter (at least for a catcher) in the minors. But make no mistake, this deal was about dumping payroll for the Braves.
“We had no choice but to try and manage our payroll as best we could, and we had to trade Kevin Millwood to do that,” Schuerholz told the AJC. “It wasn’t a pleasant or easy thing to do.”
The reaction was one of incredulity, with AJC columnist Mark Bradley writing “Can we pretend the past month never happened? Can we reverse all this bewildering movement? Can we return to those halcyon days when the Braves seemed clever?”
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon wrote that the trade “qualifies as grand theft auto.” In a Philadelphia Daily News story entitled, “Braves make Phillies’ Christmas merrier,” Philadelphia manager Larry Bowa was quoted as saying, “I thought the trade was too good to be true.”
So how did it all turn out?
Maddux ended up earning $14.75 million in arbitration for 2003, but posted one of the worst years of his career to that point. He went 16-11, but his ERA ballooned to 3.96 and he allowed more hits (225) than innings pitched (218.1). After the season, he left Atlanta for good, returning to the Chicago Cubs on a three-year deal.
Glavine had an awful year with the Mets — going 9-14 with a 4.52 ERA — but stayed in New York through 2007, when he won his 300th career game. He came back to the Braves the following season at age 42, but made just 13 starts before his arm gave out.
Millwood — who was awarded $9.9 million in arbitration for 2003 — was roughly league-average in two seasons with the Phillies, posting a 99 ERA+ the first season and a 93 ERA+ the second (he agreed to a one-year, $11-million deal for 2004 after being offered arbitration). However, his sixth start in Philadelphia was one for the ages.
On April 27, 2003, Millwood pitched a 1-0 no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, striking out 10 and walking three. The game’s lone run came with one out in the first inning, when Phillies center fielder Ricky Ledee homered off Giants starter Jesse Foppert.
The Phillies went 86-76 and finished third in the NL East in 2003 (a 6-game improvement from the previous year), but were beginning to put together the team that would win five straight division titles from 2006-10. Jimmy Rollins was already a lineup mainstay, while Chase Utley made his major-league debut that season (Ryan Howard joined the Phillies in 2004, Shane Victorino in 2005, Cole Hamels in 2006).
The Braves fell from first in the National League in ERA to 10th in 2003, but more than made up for their pitching troubles with the greatest offensive team in franchise history. Lopez, Sheffield, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones and second baseman Marcus Giles were all dynamic hitters that season, as the Braves scored 907 runs and won 101 games. (Alas, they lost in the National League Division Series for the second straight year, this time to a Chicago Cubs team led by power pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.)
Estrada played in just 16 games and batted just 39 times for the Braves in 2003, as Lopez had a career year. He batted .328/.378/.687 with 43 home runs (nine better than his previous career high and 32 more than in 2002), before leaving Atlanta to sign a big free-agent deal with the Baltimore Orioles.
Estrada became the Braves’ regular catcher in 2004, and was an all-star when batted .314/.378/.450 with nine homers and 36 doubles. His numbers fell way off in 2005 — he posted a .670 OPS — and he was traded to Arizona that offseason for pitchers Lance Cormier and Oscar Villareal. Estrada had a good year with the Diamondbacks in 2006, but was out of baseball by the end of 2008.
Millwood moved on to the Cleveland Indians on a one-year deal in 2005, leading the American League with a 2.86 ERA. That led to a 5-year, $60-million contract with the Texas Rangers, but the right-hander posted ERAs of 4.52, 5.16 and 5.07 in his first three years in Arlington.
Millwood rebounded with a 3.67 ERA and a 13-10 record in 2009, which led the Rangers to trade him to Baltimore for reliever Chris Ray. After a poor year with the Orioles in 2010 — a 5.10 ERA and league-worst 16 losses — Millwood continued to bounce around the league.
At age 36, Millwood signed a minor-league contract with the New York Yankees for 2011, but opted out of his deal in May. He latched on with the Boston Red Sox, but again exercised an opt-out in August before signing with Colorado.
After making nine starts with a 3.98 ERA with the Rockies, Millwood could gather no more than another minor-league deal for 2012, this time with the Seattle Mariners. In what proved to be his final season, Millwood went 6-12 with a 4.25 ERA in 28 starts in Seattle after working his way onto the big-league roster.
Millwood announced his retirement in early 2013, finishing his career with a 169-152 record, a 4.11 ERA, 2,083 strikeouts in 2720.1 innings and a 106 ERA+. In 16 MLB seasons, he was worth 29.8 WAR.
As you can see, Millwood did not exactly re-write the record books after he was traded by Atlanta, but it’s hard to say the Braves didn’t miss him in 2003. Maddux pitched well in his one postseason start, but Hampton gave up six runs in 12.2 innings in his two appearances vs. the Cubs and Ortiz was blistered for six runs in 10.2 innings in his two outings.
(Byrd never threw a pitch for the Braves in 2003. The 32-year-old right-hander was troubled by elbow discomfort in spring training, and eventually underwent Tommy John surgery in July. He came back in mid-2004 to post a 3.94 ERA in 19 starts.)
Millwood had a 3.92 postseason ERA as a Brave, including two starts against the Giants in the 2002 NLDS in which he allowed four runs and struck out 14 (with no walks) in 11 innings. He beat San Francisco 7-3 in Game 2 and lost 3-1 in the decisive Game 5 (with Ortiz, of all people, the winning pitcher).
Another postscript to the Millwood trade is that it was the most-recent one between the Braves and Phillies. Atlanta has made at least one player-for-player trade with 25 of the other 29 MLB franchises since 2013, but hasn’t made a deal with Philadelphia in 17 years.
After the way the last one turned out, it’s easy to understand why.
Sources: BaseballReference.com; Newspapers.com; ESPN.com