As I sit here watching the bullpen blow another John Smoltz lead, it has me thinking a bit. Maybe it will be good to just go ahead and trade the Braves’ ace pitcher. Maybe we owe it to him to not let him suffer through the second half of the season. Maybe we owe it to him to give him another shot at a World Series title.
Cause he certainly won’t get a ring with the team he’s on right now.
Don’t get me wrong. I would prefer to have John Smoltz finish his career in a Braves’ uniform. I would prefer to have him anchor the rotation next year, with Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton right behind him. I think that could be a tremendous threesome at the top of the staff.
But you have got to know that one team in particular is going to come after Smoltz. The Detroit Tigers have the best record in baseball. Yes the Detroit Tigers. Put yourself in their shoes. You know that Smoltz has ties to the Tigers, that it was not only his first team, but also his favorite childhood team. You know that having an arm like that in the stretch drive and possibly in the playoffs could finish this dream season with a championship.
If you were the Tigers’ GM, would you come after him? Sure you would.
And if the Braves continue this pace, it’s going to be more inviting to Tigers’ GM Dave Dombrowski to call John Schuerholz. He’s going to think the Braves will be more willing to move Smoltz if they continue to fall back in the wildcard race, which is the only race they are still involved in – and just barely.
The Tigers have two young stars in their rotation, Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander, along with veterans like cameraman-thrower Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson. Plus, former Braves’ farmhand Zach Miner has stabilized the rotation after Mike Maroth went down with an injury.
But add Smoltz to that rotation and the Tigers might be the overwhelming favorite to win the World Series. Yeah, that’s right. The team that has the best record in the game right now might actually be the favorites if they acquired Smoltz, who is the all-time leader in postseason wins and in postseason strikeouts.
I don’t think it’s a question of whether the Tigers will come after Smoltz. They’d be crazy not to. But the question, of course, is whether or not the Braves would trade him. The rumors that broke out last week were exaggerated. Smoltz simply was asked by FOX and then ESPN if he would consider a trade if the Braves dropped out of the race. Smoltz was honest with them, as he usually is, and said he’d have to listen if something like that happened.
And there was nothing wrong with that. Why wouldn’t he say that? Smoltz didn’t go to Schuerholz asking for a trade, and Schuerholz is not actively shopping him. But with this Braves team sinking day by day, it’s a logical question to ask: If the Tigers come calling, will Schuerholz, and then subsequently Smoltz, be interested in a deal?
Let’s take the latter first. Smoltz does not want to leave the Braves. He’s big in the Atlanta community, with a school for his kids he’s helped finance. He is the face of this franchise, and his departure would mean the Smoltz-Glavine-Maddux era of Braves’ baseball would be officially over. But the chance to go home and play for the team he grew up rooting for, and the team he thought he would play with before the 1987 trade that brought him to Atlanta might be too much to pass up.
Smoltz loves Atlanta, and I really think he would prefer to end his career in a Braves’ uniform. But the chance to win a World Series for his hometown Tigers…there’s no way he’d turn that down. If it’s another team, like the Yankees, he’d say no. But the Tigers? Yeah, he’d probably say yes.
But the first big decision would be in Schuerholz’s lap. He’s got to know the potential ramifications for trading Smoltz. Some fans, no matter what the team would receive back in a trade, would hate the thought of Smoltz leaving. We’ve already lost Glavine and Maddux in the twilight of their careers, and the thought of Smoltz possibly ending his career in a uniform other than Atlanta’s is not pleasing.
However, Detroit has the ability to tempt Schuerholz. They have tremendous young pitching talent to offer in a deal for Smoltz. The first name has already been mentioned, reliever Joel Zumaya. The 21-year-old right-hander has been outstanding in the Tigers’ bullpen this season, with a 2.37 ERA in 32 games, 48 strikeouts in 38 innings pitched. He features a fastball that has been clocked over 100 mph, and most feel he’s a star closer waiting to happen.
With all the Braves’ bullpen trouble, the ability to possibly get a young stud closer is tempting. The team is already developing a number of young relievers, like Joey Devine, Blaine Boyer, and Will Startup, but the addition of a hard-throwing closer like Zumaya could finish it off.
If Schuerholz decided Detroit does have the talent to tempt him into a Smoltz trade, he should not stop with Zumaya. Remember in 1987 the Braves got Smoltz, a 20-year-old kid in Double-A, for Doyle Alexander. Now Alexander was a decent veteran pitcher, and he helped the Tigers win the American League East that season. But Alexander was not a Hall of Famer. With Smoltz, we’re talking about a probable Hall of Famer here. The Braves should ask for more than just Zumaya in exchange for Smoltz.
Yeah, Zumaya is more advanced than the prospect Smoltz was 19 years ago, but we’re pretty much talking about the Tom Seaver of our era. We’re talking about the most prolific playoff pitcher of our generation, so the price for Smoltz should be extreme. The public should look at any deal for John Smoltz and say, “Well the Braves sure did make out good on that deal.”
And that can happen if the Tigers include another pitcher in the deal, along with Zumaya. My first preference would be Zach Miner. Yes, that Zach Miner. He’s the same Zach Miner that we traded to the Tigers last year in the Kyle Farnsworth deal. Look at the numbers Miner has put up since the trade (including his time in AAA Toledo last season and early this season): 13-2, 2.62, 20 games started, 100 hits allowed in 116.2 innings, 34 earned runs, 50 walks, and 78 strikeouts.
In his first five major league starts, Miner has done very well. The Tigers might not want to give him up, but they’ll kindly replace him with Smoltz in their rotation. And the Tigers still have other long-term options for their rotation to replace Miner.
Many in the Braves’ organization loved Miner’s potential for a middle-of-the-rotation starter, and with Smoltz gone, they’ll need more options for the rotation in 2007 and beyond. Since the Braves know Miner, he would have to be their preference over two other young pitchers that might be on the table in a Smoltz trade discussion.
Humberto Sanchez and Jordan Tata are the other pitchers that might interest the Braves. Sanchez is a 23-year-old right-hander that has put together terrific stats this season. He’s 8-4 with a 1.77 ERA in 15 games between AA and AAA. Sanchez also has 111 strikeouts in 96.2 innings. Like Miner, Sanchez is also considered a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Tata turns 25 this September, and he entered this year as the Tigers’ 7th best prospect according to Baseball America. The Tigers rushed him to the big leagues early this season as a reliever, but he’s in Triple-A now as a starter.
Schuerholz should demand that the Tigers give up two players for Smoltz. Again, this is a pitcher that will go into the Hall of Fame, so the price should be sky high. And with Smoltz possibly being the piece that could get the Tigers into its first Fall Classic in 22 years, they shouldn’t worry about the price.
I would think less than ten percent of the Braves’ fan base would like Smoltz traded, but if the bullpen keeps blowing Smoltz’s victories, the entire BravesNation might hope, for his sake, that John gets a better shot at getting 200 career wins. And if, in return, the Braves can help set up their future pitching staff, it might go over a bit better than you might think in the public’s eye.
But the first step belongs to the Detroit Tigers, and they would be completely nuts to not pick up the phone and at least ask Schuerholz about Smoltzie. And then, that’s where the decisions will get tough.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look at the Braves’ traditional front office philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves’ Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.