There are few trades in the history of the Atlanta Braves organization as controversial as the deal which sent pitcher Adam Wainwright to St. Louis for outfielder J.D. Drew. While many feel the trade ended up being very uneven for the Braves over the long-term, few debate the impact Drew had on the team during the 2004 season. Adam Wainwright would emerge from being touted as the top pitching prospect in baseball to become one best starting pitchers of the past decade, while J.D. Drew would go on a magical run which resulted in one of the best offensive seasons the franchise has ever seen. This is the story of how those two roads intertwined.
As the Braves entered the 2000s, their dominance over the National League East had continued, but the problems that handcuffed the dynasty of the 1990’s persisted: regular season dominance followed postseason failure. With age catching up with many of the key pieces, the issues only seemed to be compounding.
By 2003, the names had begun to change. Gone was Tom Glavine. John Smoltz was still around, but he was now relegated to the closer role after years of arm troubles. Gone were all the role players: the Averys, the Blausers, the Lemkes. The names that did remain–the second wave of developed talent–were now the established veterans on the team.
General Manager John Schuerholz had done a great job filling in the holes as they were vacated, but age was becoming an issue. The Braves were continually one of the oldest teams in the National League, and from 2000 to 2003 the average age of the team had crossed the 30 year-old threshold. Following 2003, two huge (and older) names were about to hit the free agent market: Greg Maddux and Gary Sheffield.
One greater issue Schuerholz was also having to contest with in the second decade of excellence was a shrinking payroll. When Time Warner had bought out Turner Broadcasting in late 1996, Ted Turner’s obsessive control and open wallet would begin to play less of a role in the day-to-day operations. The Braves still had a payroll in excess of $100M entering the 2003 season, but with the purse strings tightening and Turner Field crowds dwindling, the club was expected to take a huge payroll cut prior to 2004.
This meant the likelihood of Maddux and Sheffield returning was quickly approaching zero. While other teams were adding payroll, Schuerholz now had to work on a budget. That meant the big name free agents would need to be replaced by alternative means.
December 8th would be a very crucial day for Schuerholz and the Braves. That was the salary arbitration deadline for all outgoing free agents, namely Maddux and Sheffield.
With Maddux the decision was an easy one. Prior to the 2003 season the club had offered Maddux arbitration following the finish of a five-year deal, and were stung when he accepted and would eventually sign for $16M. This move had thrown the Braves into a whirlwind as the club would have to make payroll cuts in January to accommodate a large salary they had not entirely anticipated. What resulted was an unfortunate salary dump of 2002 18-game winner Kevin Millwood to the Phillies for catcher Johnny Estrada. Because of this, no one was surprised when the deadline came and went with Maddux’s time in Atlanta coming to a quiet end.
Thankfully, the Braves had the depth available to fill an empty spot in the rotation. Righty Russ Ortiz would now become the de facto ace of the staff. Lefty Mike Hampton was entering his second season with the club and would complement the front-end of the rotation. Twenty-three year old lefty Horacio Ramirez had impressed many during his breakout season in 2003 and was expected to fill the middle of the rotation. A group of prospects, including #1 prospect Adam Wainwright and fellow top prospect Bubba Nelson, were expected to compete for the last two spots.
Schuerholz wasn’t entirely sold on his rotation, however. That winter he had repeatedly tried to pry Javier Vazquez away from the Expos, but had run into a brick wall when he refused to move Ramirez in any deal for the Montreal righty. As a fallback, a couple days after the arbitration deadline, the Braves general manager would lock-up former Rockies and Rangers starter John Thomson to a three-year deal to round out his rotation.
The story around Sheffield would be a different one entirely. The Braves were in a bidding war for the power-hitting outfielder who was coming off an incredible 7.5 fWAR season in Atlanta. Both the Yankees and Braves were offering the 35 year-old three-year deals, but the difference was in the money being levied. The Braves were staying hard around $30M, while the Yankees were approaching the $40M range. When Sheffield told USA Today he had reached a verbal agreement to head to New York, Schuerholz’s decision was clear: decline to offer arbitration to the slugger, or else face another possible situation similar to Maddux’s the winter prior.
Filling the hole left by Sheffield would now become priority number one in the Braves front office.
There were options on the market, both via free agency and trade. Vladimir Guerrero, Juan Gonzalez and Jose Guillen were all names the Braves had been tied to in varying levels of interest; however each would command too much for the Braves to make a serious run at them. Trade candidates were equally frustrating. The two main targets for the team were Jacque Jones from the Twins and Richard Hidalgo from the Astros. Jones was eliminated first, as the Braves weren’t able to fill Minnesota’s need for bullpen help, and they would eventually land Joe Nathan from the Giants. Interest in Hidalgo would dissipate after Houston would not budge on paying a portion of the $12M due to the former seven-win player.
Schuerholz’s interest would then turn to the St. Louis Cardinals and oft-injured outfielder J.D. Drew, who had grown up in Georgia and had never quite lived up to the astronomical hype that surrounded him.
J.D. Drew had already developed quite a legacy before he even stepped onto a Major League field. If you think the fall-out surrounding current wunderkind Bryce Harper is crazy, you obviously don’t recall the mythical status Drew reached in the mid to late-90s.
Drew burst onto the national scene during his time at Florida State, a time when the Seminoles were the dominant team in college baseball. He was the biggest name on the biggest program in the country, breaking school, conference and national records on the way to winning the 1997 Dick Howser Trophy and Golden Spikes Award as the best player in the country.
The wheels began to fall off shortly thereafter, however. Controversy arose after the Phillies selected him #2 overall in the 1997 MLB Amateur Draft, but Drew and agent Scott Boras refused to sign with Philadelphia and the 22 year old headed to the independent leagues, waiting for the 1998 draft to roll around and try it all again.
The Cardinals would take a chance on Drew with the fifth pick in 1998; the lefty signed for $7M, and cracked the ML roster by September of that season. Drew would spend much of May and June in the minors in 1999 after nagging injuries lead to struggles to start the season, but would still amass a 2.5 win season despite the demotion. The 1999 campaign would very much be a microcosm of his career in St. Louis.
From 2000 to 2003, Drew would never make more than 500 plate appearances in one season with the Cardinals because of a laundry list of injuries, but would still put it all together when he was in the lineup to the tune of a 13.6 fWAR. While it was a tumultuous four seasons, there was no denying the phenom still had all the potential to be an elite player. The problem was putting it all together and remaining healthy. By the winter of 2003, with free agency looming and patience having waned, the 27 year old was on the block.
Talks between the Braves and St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty progressed quickly. Mere days after the Braves had declined to offer arbitration to Sheffield and allow him to head to New York, Drew’s name was tied to an Atlanta deal.
Early talks centered around three players: Drew from St. Louis and pitchers Jason Marquis and Ray King from Atlanta.
Marquis was a pitcher who had been given multiple opportunities for success in Atlanta, but hadn’t had a breakout season yet. He had made forty starts over parts of four seasons, but just couldn’t break through the glass ceiling. Despite only being 25, with shoulder concerns mounting and having spent half of 2003 at Triple-A Richmond, the righty’s time in Atlanta was running short.
Ray King had established himself as a serviceable every day lefty over three seasons with the Brewers and Braves. With Steve Kline being the only left-hander in the Cardinals bullpen, the inclusion of King was an obvious one.
But Jocketty wanted more for his troubled outfielder.
The name at the top of his list–and at the top of a lot of GMs lists in the 2003-04 off-season–was 23 year old left-hander Horacio Ramirez. The 22 year old had been a fringe prospect for the Braves prior to making the jump from Double-A Greenville to the Braves rotation in 2003, and compiling a 12-4 record in 29 starts, despite only being worth 1.4 fWAR with a 4.72 FIP. But like most young lefties, if you show even the slightest chance at a future, you become a hot commodity.
But just as with Vazquez and the Expos, Schuerholz wasn’t budging. With Maddux leaving, the Braves had plans for the lefty and they didn’t intend on creating holes in one area to fill holes that existed elsewhere.
So the Cardinals brass turned their attention elsewhere: 22 year old, Top 100 prospect Adam Wainwright.
Wainwright was already viewed by the baseball world as being one of the top young pitchers in the game. Prior to the 2003 season, Baseball America pegged the 6’7” righty as the #18 overall prospect in all of baseball. And while he didn’t light up the Southern League the way many expected that season, he remained the organization’s top pitching prospect and a pitcher many scouts would write-in as a future ace.
The Braves hand was forced. If they wanted their man, they had to act. Schuerholz would make one counter: if the Cardinals wanted Wainwright, he would need one more piece. The selection would be super-utility player Eli Marrero. The versatile veteran could catch, play 1B, and all three outfield positions, filling the Braves need for depth at multiple positions.
All was settled.
The Braves would send pitchers Adam Wainwright, Jason Marquis and Ray King to the Cardinals. In return they would receive outfielder J.D. Drew and bench piece Eli Marrero.
Well, how did it all play out?
As I mentioned in the intro, Drew would end up having one of the single greatest seasons in Atlanta Braves history. Not only that, but his 8.6 fWAR would end up as one of the top ten seasons of the 2000’s by players not named Bonds or Rodriguez. The oft-injured RF would end up playing 145 games in 2004, and have the only season in his fourteen year career where he made 600+ trips to the plate. Without Drew, the 2004 Braves likely have a much more difficult time putting away the National League East.
Unfortunately, Drew’s time in Atlanta would be limited to the one magnificent campaign. Thanks to the breakout season, Drew would command a price tag that the Braves had little chance to match. So, a little over a year after the trade, the outfielder was signing a five-year, $55M deal with the Dodgers.
The other piece that came to Atlanta would also have an impact. Eli Marrero would end up becoming part of a LF platoon (with Charles Thomas) that would amass a 3.6 fWAR in barely 500 PA. Accounting for 1.6 of that fWAR, the Braves would sell high the following December, using the utility player to try and acquire bullpen depth. It wouldn’t pan out, as the hard-throwing Jorge Vazquez would only work nine innings with Atlanta.
Jason Marquis and Ray King would have an impact in St. Louis, but it wasn’t of great significance. Marquis would peak early, posting a 1.4 fWAR, but horrid 4.55 FIP in 32 starts during his first season in St. Louis, before imploding to the tune of negative value (-0.4 fWAR) over his remaining 65 starts. King would continue to be an everyday lefty during his return to the NL Central, but would only contribute 0.5 fWAR in 163 appearances over two seasons.
The elephant in the room is Wainwright. We all know of his dominance at this point. Twenty game winner, two-time 19 game winner. Two-time Cy Young runner-up. World Series champion. Since 2007, only nine starting pitchers have been worth more fWAR (31.2) and only six have had a lower FIP (3.12). No one will argue, Waino has been one of the best pitchers of the current generation and the ace everyone anticipated.
And what of that untradeable piece John Schuerholz wouldn’t part with, Horacio Ramirez?
He would make only nine starts in 2004, and would essentially be shutdown for the season after suffering a shoulder injury at the end of May. He would never recover. Ramirez would work his way back to the starting rotation in 2005, but another injury-plagued season in 2006 would limit him to fourteen starts and his Braves career would be over. Ramirez would combine two full seasons and two partials into 2.8 fWAR before being sent to the Mariners in December 2006. Schuerholz would end up landing a decent return, however, getting Rafael Soriano in a straight-up deal for the lefty.
So much of the fallout of the Drew/Wainwright trade focuses on the two marquee names at the top, but things ran much deeper than that.
John Schuerholz was in a very interesting position as he entered the 2003 off-season, and had multiple opportunities to come out a winner, but his reluctance to part with a fringe prospect who showed a couple bright spots was ultimately his demise.
It’s one of the few trades that, really, no matter how you slice it, was a failure on the Braves part. If the Braves pull off Drew/Marrero for Ramirez/Marquis/King the legacy of this trade ends up much different and the balance swings very much in the Braves favor, even if the two pieces coming over were one-offs.
By including Wainwright in the deal, it would have taken a huge bust from the top prospect for the deal to swing back into the Braves favor. Even two or three seasons of mediocre starts would be enough to swing the deal back even. And had the Braves held onto him? The organization wouldn’t have had the resources to re-up with the righty before he hit the free agent market.
Unfortunately for Schuerholz and the Braves organization, one of the lasting legacies of a very successful two decades will be a deal he was forced into making because of some circumstances largely out of his control.