December 5, 2013
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Thursday, December 20, 2012
10 years ago today, one of the strangest and most seemingly inexplicable trades of he 21st century occurred. On Dec. 20, 2002, the Atlanta Braves sent star pitcher Kevin Millwood to the Phillies straight up for back up catcher Johnny Estrada. An established pitcher for a backup catcher? What in Sam Hill is going on?
Well, to be fair, Estrada wasn’t just a backup catcher. He had starting catcher talent. In fact, he’d start for the Braves from 2004-05, making the All-Star team in 2004 thanks to a surprisingly high .314 average. That was a bit of a fluke—but only a bit of a fluke. Estrada later hit .300 with Arizona in 2006. Though 2004 would prove to be Estrada’s only All-Star game selection, that’s one more All-Star team appearance than Millwood has had since the trade.
Ah, so that’s it—this trade was about getting up and coming talent, in exchange for aging talent. Is that what happened here?
No, not really. The trade wasn’t that simple. First, it wasn’t a old codger for young cub trade. Though Millwood had a lot more experience, he was just 18 months older than Estrada. Millwood was on the verge of his 28th birthday when the trade happened, so you’d think he’d be entering his prime.
Certainly he was pitching like someone in his prime. In 2002, Millwood went 18-8 with a 3.24 ERA for the Braves, reviving the promise of his breakthrough 1999 campaign when he went 18-7 with a 2.68 ERA.
Well, maybe Atlanta didn’t think Millwood would maintain that level of performance—and sure enough he didn’t. Perhaps the Braves brain trust believed that December 2002 was the time to sell high on Millwood.
No, that can’t be it. If you’re selling high, you’re not selling for a backup catcher. And while the Braves eventually made Estrada their starting catcher, he had just 39 PA for them in 2003. Maybe you can accept a 21-year-old putting up such little playing time, but Estrada was 27 that year.
In fact, the Braves had no real use for a catcher period in 2003. They still had their star catcher, Javy Lopez. Though his contract would be up after 2003 and the team let him go, that doesn’t explain the Millwood-Estrada trade either. Are you going to sell one of your best-regarded players for a non-prospect backup catcher in his mid-20s in the hopes than he’ll eventually turn into something in a few years? And are you going to make a trade like this to a division rival?
No, none of these ideas explain the trade. They all suffer from the same flaw—they try to explain the trade on baseball terms. That had nothing to do with this trade. Financial terms—that had everything to do with the trade.
By 2002, the Braves longtime owner Ted Turner had become subsumed by the AOL/Time Warner conglomerate. And that company needed to shed some costs in its various companies. The Braves were one subsidiary ordered to slash expenses. So out the door went Millwood.
As it happens, it wasn’t nearly as bad a trade as it appeared. WAR thinks it’s nearly an even trade, with Estrada providing the Braves 1.8 WAR versus 2.5 for Millwood in Philadelphia. Millwood only spent two years with his new team, and was merely adequate in his first year, and not even that in his injury-riddled second season. He’s had his ups-and-down since then—with an AL ERA title as an Indian in 2005 and a dismal 4-16 record with the Orioles in 2010.
Even despite Millwood’s toils, he’s been a better player overall than Estrada. But being a better player had nothing to do with the trade that went down 10 years ago today.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that happened X-thousand days ago). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d prefer to just skim.
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