Face facts: Schuerholz blew it

Braves GM John Schuerholz can only blame himself for making the horrible mistake of trading Kevin Millwood to the Phillies.

Originally Published: December 20, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

The question of the day is:

What does John Schuerholz know, that we don't?

And the answer is:

Very little, at least when it comes to Kevin Millwood and Johnny Estrada.

So what the hell happened?

The only thing that makes sense is that Greg Maddux blind-sided Schuerholz.

How good is Estrada?
Another question we might ask is, "Does John Schuerholz really think that Johnny Estrada is going to help the Braves?"

What Schuerholz said was, "He's the total package. He's a good receiver, has a good arm and handles a pitching staff real well. He's got a good bat. We've sort of had him on our radar screen for a couple of years. It wasn't a knee-jerk reaction."

Good bat? Estrada is 26, he spent most of last season in the International League, and there are a dozen guys just as good, kicking around in Triple-A and waiting for a major-league catcher to get hurt.

That's not to say Estrada won't end up with a nice little career; he might. But considering how many teams are anxious to trade for one year of Bartolo Colon -- who's going to make nearly as much money in 2003 as Kevin Millwood -- does it really make sense that Schuerholz couldn't get more than Estrada for one of the better pitchers in the game? No, it doesn't. Which indicates some pretty crummy planning in Atlanta.
Rob Neyer

Today Schuerholz said, "With Kevin's arbitration number projected to be $10 million this season and with Greg Maddux accepting arbitration we were $15 million over budget." Not coincidentally, Maddux figures to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million next season, which means Schuerholz had the payroll in working order before Maddux accepted arbitration, which means Schuerholz didn't think that Maddux would accept arbitration.

But Maddux did accept arbitration. Now, you can argue that Maddux should have made his intentions clear a couple of weeks ago, which would have made things easier for Schuerholz and the good baseball fans of Georgia and points north and west. But Maddux was simply taking care of himself, presumably hoping that somebody came up with a multi-year contract to his liking. Nobody did, so he'll take his $15 million and spend another season with Leo Mazzone. Hard to argue with that.

No, the problem is that Schuerholz screwed up. Yes, he was put in a tough spot, but he sort of put himself there. If the Braves didn't want to pay Maddux $15 million, they didn't have to offer him arbitration. If they did want to pay him $15 million and they thought there was even a chance he'd accept, then they should have spent the last week telling people that Millwood might be available. And then, when all that failed, they should have simply released Millwood. Because (as Joe Sheehan points out), the benefit of having Estrada is more than outweighed by even the chance that some team other than the Phillies would have signed Millwood.

And why did the Braves trade Millwood on Friday? Millwood's a valuable property, and you can't help but think that if Schuerholz had waited -- until January, or February, or even March -- he could have gotten more than a backup catcher for an 18-game winner.

This is just a guess -- we'll eventually know the whole story -- but I think that when Maddux surprised the Braves by accepting arbitration, somebody at AOL-Time Warner said to Schuerholz, "Whoa there, big fella. You're $15 million over your 2003 budget, and you need to get a lot closer to your 2003 budget before 2003."

Baseball executives will be hard to reach for the next couple of weeks, so apparently Schuerholz figured if was going to make a deal, he had to make it now. And there may even be a bit of petulance working here, too. "You want me to trade Millwood? Fine, I'll trade him. Today. To the Phillies. For somebody you never heard of. Happy now?"

See, the problem is that Millwood is the Braves' best pitcher. Let's look at the Braves' three best starters last season, sans the ERA column:

 
        W- L    IP   HR   K   BR/IP 
Tom    18-11   225   21  127   1.28 
Greg   16- 6   199   14  118   1.20 
Kevin  18- 8   217   16  178   1.16 

It's true that Glavine (2.96) and Maddux (2.62) both posted lower ERA's than Millwood (3.24), and ERA does count. But you add everything up, and Millwood pitched exactly as well as Glavine and Maddux.

The problem is that (John) Schuerholz screwed up. Yes, he was put in a tough spot, but he sort of put himself there. If the Braves didn't want to pay (Greg) Maddux $15 million, they didn't have to offer him arbitration. If they did want to pay him $15 million and they thought there was even a chance he'd accept, then they should have spent the last week telling people that (Kevin) Millwood might be available. And then, when all that failed, they should have simply released Millwood.

And that was last year. Next year, Millwood is likely to out-pitch both of his ex-teammates, because 1) he's significantly younger, and 2) he's got significantly better stuff. You don't believe me? Just wait and see. And those of you who play in Rotisserie leagues will find that Millwood is significantly more popular than Glavine or Maddux in your drafts next spring.

I don't know if this has ever happened before. I don't know if a division-winning team has, in the following offseason, traded its best pitcher to its top rival.

And who's to blame? Not the man in charge. As Schuerholz told ESPN, "The economics in baseball stink. The economics stink, and if this isn't a clear enough signal to the doubters and naysayers, to be forced to trade an 18-game winner to your arch enemy ... The economics stink."

Schuerholz is frustrated today, so we should probably cut him a little slack. Once he simmers down a bit, he'll probably admit that the "economics of baseball" have been a great help to the Braves for quite some time, and they're still a great help.

It's also worth noting, I think, that the "economics of baseball" didn't force the Braves to commit $11.5 million on Vinny Castilla and Javier Lopez -- two guys who can't really hit -- in 2003. Give Schuerholz that $11.5 million back, and he could have had the best rotation in the league and $1.5 million for a better third baseman than the one he's got.

Schuerholz is right, though: something sure does stink.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason.

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