Millwood for Estrada Looking Better for Braves

Phillies might wind up missing Estrada.

During the Phillies nationally televised game Saturday against Atlanta, Fox put up one of those interactive polls where viewers could vote on a question. The question was, <i>who got the better end of the Kevin Millwood for Johnny Estrada trade?</i> It's an interesting question that is still a little difficult to answer. It also looks like the viewers didn't give it the thought that the question truly requires.

At the time the Phillies sent Johnny Estrada to Atlanta for pitcher Kevin Millwood, Phillies fans were amazed by the deal. Clearly, the Braves had hit the panic button in trying to cut payroll and came up with a gift for Philadelphia. After all, Millwood was an established starting pitcher - the exact fit that the Phillies needed - and Estrada was thought of as a good prospect, but was basically a backup catcher to Mike Lieberthal and the Phils already had Todd Pratt for that job.

Now, with a year-and-a-half to have evaluated things, the deal doesn't look nearly as lop-sided as it may have at first glance. In the Fox Poll, 66% of the viewers who responded said the Phillies got the better end of the deal.

For his part, Kevin Millwood came to the Phillies with a 75-46 record with a career ERA of 3.73 with Atlanta. He was the perfect fit after the Phillies had been spurned by free agents Jamie Moyer and Tom Glavine among a couple others that they inquired about. Millwood seemingly fell into their laps.

In his first season in Philadelphia, Millwood started the year by dazzling the Philadelphia faithful. Less than a month into the season, he threw a no-hitter at Veterans Stadium, which would go down as the last no-hitter at The Vet before the old lady was gracefully felled by dynamite less than a year after Millwood's gem. All seemed wonderful. Then, late in the season, Millwood hit a wall. Early on in many starts, he looked tired and his velocity would drop from time to time. Soon, the somewhat large build that Millwood came to spring training with - that's a nice way of saying he looked out of shape - was pointed to as the problem. Millwood had simply run out of gas.

As the Phillies kept hoping for their newly anointed ace to get a second wind, the breeze never really came. By the end of the season, Millwood saw what started as a strong season finish with a 14-12 record and a 4.01 ERA. Not a bad year by most accounts, but short of the promise that came with Millwood's early season performances. Soon, Millwood was the target of fans' anger and as he left his last start at home to a chorus of boos, the right-hander tossed his glove into the stands, seemingly saying that he was done with his time in Philadelphia. With free agency beckoning, it appeared that Millwood would be leaving the City of Brother Love.

Just prior to the trade, the Braves found out that Greg Maddux would accept arbitration. That meant that somebody's contract had to go and Millwood was the one. Phillies fans should have known better when they all thought that Braves GM John Schuerholz got fooled. Schuerholz is perhaps the best GM in baseball and he knew what he was doing when he made the trade. Rather than focusing on the fact that Estrada hit .228 while taking over for the injured Mike Lieberthal in 2001 and followed that up with a .181 average in a short audition in 2002, Schuerholz focused on what he saw in Estrada's future. The Braves kept Estrada at AAA for most of the 2003 season letting him play everyday rather than sit and watch Javy Lopez. When Estrada did show his face in the majors, he hit .306 in 16 games with the Braves.

What Schuerholz did was look into the crystal ball. He saw the Braves needing a replacement for Lopez, who would possibly walk in free agency following the 2003 season. He knew he needed someone to fill those shoes down the road and also knew he could patch together a starting rotation in 2003 that would still be formidable. Now, with Lopez in Baltimore, the Braves have seemingly moved ahead without missing a beat behind the plate. Estrada has taken over and has handled the staff well while posting a .362 average. Last season's pitching staff was in fact good enough for the Braves to win another division title, so the deal didn't seem to hurt Atlanta too much in that regard either.

The Phillies meanwhile saw Millwood go into free agency only to accept arbitration from the Phillies. It's possible that Millwood will again test free agency this winter and it's possible that this time, the offer of arbitration won't be there because of the development of pitchers on their major league staff and the young prospects that are ready to push the likes of Millwood aside at the major league level. Without an offer of arbitration, the Phillies would get no compensation if and when Millwood were to sign elsewhere. If Millwood helps the Phillies to the World Series this season, his stay in Philadelphia might still be considered a success and the deal might look decent to Phillies fans. Short of that, it could turn out to be a deal that didn't deliver the desired punch that the Phillies thought it would.

Meanwhile, with Mike Lieberthal getting older, the Phillies look at their farm system and see no heir apparent to take over behind the plate. That means they'll have to draft catching help early and perhaps, often in this week's draft and then hope Lieberthal hangs on until one of them can make it to the majors. The alternative is to trade for catching in the near future, which will cost in terms of prospects that the Phillies would have to give. Of course, the Phillies might be able to throw big money at a free agent catcher when Lieberthal does finally run out of gas.

When you look at not just how the deal has worked for both organizations up until now, but also consider the long-term consequences, perhaps at least some of the 66% of viewers who think the Phillies got the better part of the deal might want to reconsider.

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