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.
2,000 days ago, Pirate fans attempt to stage a protest, but it fizzles. 1,000 walk out of the place after the second inning, but 28,000 paid for seats.
2,000 days since Carlos Beltran homers twice in one game for the second straight day. It’s the third time he’s ever done that.
3,000 days since former pitcher John Cerutti dies at age 44.
3,000 days since, with the 2004 season ending, many prominent players appear in their last game, including: Edgar Martinez, Barry Larkin, Ray Lankford, Andres Galarraga, Todd Zeile, and Pokey Reese. Art Howe manages his last game, too.
4,000 days since the Reds sign free agent pitcher Jose Rijo, who has been out of baseball so long he’s already appeared on the Cooperstown ballot.
5,000 days since Ivan Rodriguez drives in nine runs in one game, the most by a catcher in decades. He’s 4-for-5 with two home runs, including his first career grand slam.
5,000 days since Houston steals seven bases in one game.
7,000 days since Curt Schilling‘s first great postseason performance, shutting down Toronto 2-0 in Game Five of the World Series. This keeps the Phillies alive after they dropped three of the first four and also provides rest for the team’s worn out bullpen.
8,000 days since the Rangers sign free agent reliever Rich Gossage, who didn’t pitch in the majors the year before.
9,000 days since Dave Winfield sets a record by driving in his 29th RBI of April.
9,000 days since Roberto Alomar swats his first home run.
9,000 days since umpire Dave Pallone accidentally pokes Pete Rose, which Rose responds to by twice shoving Pallone. The NL suspends Rose 30 days for this.
10,000 days since the Yankees retire Phil Rizzuto‘s number.
40,000 days since pitcher Chick Fraser becomes one of the few hurlers to hit a walk-off home run. He hits it off Hall of Famer Iron Man Joe McGinnity for a 2-1 Phillies win over the Giants in 12 innings.
1876 Jimmy Williams, turn-of-the-century batter that led the league in triples three times in four years, is born.
1881 Branch Rickey, greatest executive in baseball history, is born.
1888 Fred Merkle, famous for not touching second base, is born.
1889 Toledo joins the American Association, which was the NL’s rival major league back in the day.
1899 George Pipgras, pitcher, is born.
1900 Gabby Hartnett, Hall of Famer catcher, is born.
1903 Kid Nichols signs on to be the pitcher-manager for the St. Louis Cardinals.
1904 Spud Davis, catcher, is born.
1921 Baseball owners vote to return the World Series to a best-of-seven games format. It was best-of-nine from 1919 to 1921.
1921 The Yankees make a big trade with the Red Sox. Boston gets Roger Peckinpaugh, Rip Collins, Jack Quinn, a fourth player, and $100,000 from the Yankees in return for Bullet Joe Bush, Sad Sam Jones, and Everett Scott. Almost all the players in this trade will have nice careers. Quinn and Jones will pitch until the 1930s, and Peckinpaugh will be a very nice shortstop for the 1920s. Scott will set a record for most consecutive games played that Lou Gehrig later shatters.
1926 Commissioner Judge Landis meets with Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Smokey Joe Wood about allegations of a fixed game in 1919. Dutch Leonard, the man who leveled the accusations, does not attend out of fear that Cobb will hurt him.
1926 St. Louis trades Rogers Hornsby to the Giants for Frankie Frisch and Jimmy Ring. Hornsby was not only St. Louis’ star second baseman, he was also their manager in the recently completed championship season.
1929 Boston Red Sox manager Bill “Rough” Carrigan resigns from his job. This is his second and final stint at Red Sox manager. He led them to a world title the first time around, but now the talent is lacking. He’ll never manage in the big leagues again.
1940 Connie Mack buys a controlling interest in the Philadelphia A’s from the Shibe family for $42,000.
1946 The Tigers released catcher Paul Richards, who will become a very successful manager.
1949 Cecil Cooper, Brewers first baseman in the 1980s, is born.
1949 Oscar Gamble, slugger for 1977 South Side Hit Men and possessor of the greatest Afro in baseball history, is born.
1958 Bill Veeck and his partners win majority control of the White Sox.
1960 Charles O. Finley buys 52 percent of the Kansas City A’s from the estate of Arnold Johnson for $2,000,000.
1960 Jose DeLeon is born.
1972 Gabby Hartnett dies on his 72nd birthday.
1974 The Yankees release what’s left of starting pitcher Sudden Sam McDowell.
1975 The Phillies trade future manger Johnny Oates to the Dodgers.
1976 Aubrey Huff is born.
1977 Seattle signs free agent first baseman Bruce Bochte.
1978 Willard Mullin, once honored as sports cartoonist of the century (largely for his creation of a Brooklyn “Bum” cartoon), dies at age 76.
1979 David DeJesus, outfielder, is born.
1981 James Shields, pitcher recently acquired by the Royals, is born.
1982 David Wright, Mets third baseman, is born.
1983 Milwaukee trades starting pitcher Jim Slaton to the Angels. Slaton won 117 games with the Brewers, which is still the most in franchise history.
1983 The Giants sign free agent Manny Trillo.
1984 The Yankees trade veteran shortstop Tim Foli, slugger Steve Kemp, and money to Pittsburgh for infielder Dale Berra, prospect Jay Buhner, and a third player. Buhner is the most important player here, but instead of reaping the benefit of him, the Yankees will later trade him to Seattle for an aging Ken Phelps.
1989 Boston releases longtime reliever Bob Stanley.
1989 Detroit releases former ace reliever—and 1984 Cy Young Award and MVP winner—Willie Hernandez.
1991 The Mets sign free agent second baseman Willie Randolph for the last season of his career.
1993 Seattle trades shortstop Omar Vizquel to the Indians for a pair of players and cash.
1995 Baltimore signs free agent B.J. Surhoff.
1996 Minnesota signs free agent closer Gregg Olson. This move won’t work for them.
1999 Milwaukee trades Fernando Vina to the Cardinals.
1999 Seattle signs free agent Mark McLemore, who will have a nice career for them.
2000 In Cuban baseball, Faustiano Corrales fans 22 batters, a new record for a nine-inning game down there.
2001 The Jean Yawkey Trust announces that partners will need to a unanimous vote to sell 100 percent of the club to John Henry.
2002 Chicago signs free agent starting pitcher Shawn Estes.
2005 The Dodgers sign free agent Kenny Lofton.
2007 The Mariners sign Carlos Silva as a free agent. This turns out to be a terrible signing, as Silva wins five decisions while losing 18 over two years with them before being traded to the Cub for the ruined shell of Milton Bradley.
2007 Philadelphia signs free agent left fielder Geoff Jenkins.
2010 The Indians sign free agent Austin Kearns.
2010 The White Sox sign free agent relief pitcher Jesse Crain.
2010 The Padres sign free agent second baseman Orlando Hudson.