The 2002 Braves had an issue – The Big Three was splitting up. Tom Glavine flirted with the idea of leaving for New York while Greg Maddux was expected to be on his way out as well. The latter would ultimately accept arbitration, but the Braves naturally felt that some other team would hand him – and Scott Boras – a mega-deal that would take Maddux away. John Smoltz was still rolling along, but as a shutdown reliever rather than a tremendous starter. And while the 2002 Braves led the NL in ERA, the expected losses of Glavine and Maddux had them nervous – especially because Jason Marquis and Damian Moss weren’t exactly awe-inspiring as rotation depth.
So, the Braves got creative. They packaged Moss in a deal for Russ Ortiz and brought back Paul Byrd as a free agent. But a month before that flurry of moves (which included Maddux accepting arbitration and the rushed trade of Kevin Millwood to the Phillies), the Braves pulled off what was a bit of a head-scratcher. I should probably say that “a bit” is a massive understatement. On this day 14 years ago, the Braves finalized a trade to acquire left-hander Mike Hampton from the Marlins.
This was actually the conclusion to one of the most complicated trades in baseball history. It starts without the Braves, though this deal doesn’t happen without Atlanta. The Marlins and Rockies, who both just finished up their first decade in baseball, got the ball rolling with a trade that was less about players and more about contracts exchanging hands. Going to the Rockies were catcher Charles Johnson, outfielder Preston Wilson, reliever Vic Darensbourg, and utility player Pablo Ozuna. Johnson and Wilson were due to make about $13.5 million in 2003 and each had deals beyond that season. Going to the Marlins were speedy outfielder, Juan Pierre, and Hampton. Pierre was pretty cheap at that point as a third-year player and would pay big dividends for the Marlins less than a year later as they shocked the world with a Championship in 2003. Pierre was just 3-for-7 in stolen base attempts in the playoffs, but on-based .481 in the World Series and .343 in the NLCS.
But the key player in this deal was Hampton. He finished second to Randy Johnson in the 1999 Cy Young voting as an Astro before spending a year in Flushing with the Mets. The Rockies, looking to show that they could scrap together a rotation of stars to match their offense, spent heavily before 2001 on Hampton and fellow lefty – and former Brave – Denny Neagle.
The experiment was a failure. The Rockies went 73-89 in Year 1 of the Hampton/Neagle fronted rotation as they matched the NL’s best offense with its worst pitching staff. Hampton exemplified both sides of that dynamic by winning a Silver Slugger with seven homers and giving up 31 homers on his way to a 5.41 ERA/5.21 FIP. His follow-up campaign was even worse. In 2002, he walked more batters than he struck out and failed to reach 200 innings for the first time since 1996.
The Rockies were ready to move on and tried to rid themselves of Hampton’s contract. However, finding a taker would be problematic. Sure, uncovering a team willing to take on the left-hander’s salary was bad enough, but any kind of trade would require a team that had some big contracts to pass over to the Rockies while Colorado had to pump in some monster cash to offset Hampton’s cost. Oh, and there was another problem – Hampton had a no-trade clause. And even though the first trade happened, the Marlins were not a team Hampton was willing to play for. Ironically, Hampton didn’t want to be a Marlin because the soon-to-be World Champions weren’t a “contender.”
However, the Braves were. But how would the finances work? As the Los Angeles Times‘ Ross Newhan wrote, “the Florida Marlins will basically subsidize Mike Hampton’s attempt to regain his pre-Coors Field form with their division rival Atlanta Braves.” For the first three seasons, the Braves would be responsible for just $5.5 million for the former Cy Young runner-up’s robust salary. This was because Atlanta would receive an unheard of amount of $36.5 million in cash to cover salary over the first three seasons. Only $6.5 million was coming from the Rockies, who absorbed Johnson and Wilson’s contracts rather than shower another team with money. Instead, the Marlins would pay $10 million a season for three years for a guy who wasn’t a Marlin long enough to even receive a jersey.
There were also reports that the Braves were “averaging” out the total that they were responsible for when it came to Hampton – which came out to about $48.5 million in total over six years. Since $43 million would be due over the final three years of the deal, some suggested the Braves were putting future salary commitments on the payroll for those small salary years so that their total due to Hampton in current and future salary was just over $8 million a season. This was never confirmed from what I have seen, but was fun forum talk back when forums were a thing.
In the end, the Braves would owe Hampton $2M in 2003 and 2004, $1.5M in 2005, $13.5M in 2006, $14.4M in 2007, and $15 million in 2008. There were expectations that the Braves could do for Hampton what they had done with so many, including John Burkett (see more on Burkett). In addition, those three low-salary years could have bought the Braves enough time and financial flexibility to re-sign one of their two big free agent starters – likely Glavine. Ultimately, that never happened for one reason or another and the Braves would move on with Byrd and Ortiz before being blindsided by Maddux returning.
Before we look again at Hampton’s run with the Braves, let’s not forget that the Marlins did get two pitchers from the Braves in exchange for Hampton and $30 million or so. Ryan Baker was a right-handed reliever out of UNC-Charlotte who had made a cameo in Double-A the previous season. He had a good velocity, but also was prone to big innings and I’m not talking about the good kind. He would play three years for the Marlins, but only reached Triple-A for one game before his career came to a close. Another right-handed reliever, Tim Spooneybarger, had a live arm and nothing he tossed to the plate stayed straight. He never seemed to jive with pitching coach Leo Mazzone despite having a productive season in 2002. He was expected to do some big things, but arm troubles completely killed his career. He pitched just 33 games for the Marlins in 2003 before missing all of 2004. He returned and pitched in just four games at high-A ball in 2005. After two more years on the shelf, he made a brief six-game comeback with the Orioles’ low-A squad in 2008. And…that’s his career.
Hampton did bounce back in 2003 for the Braves. He lowered his ERA to 3.84 and got his FIP down to 4.08. However, while that was a big improvement over his Rockies’ days, it paled in comparison to the form he showed as a frontline starter for the Astros and Mets. In full disclosure, deep metrics, which did not exist at the time, actually show that he was much more comparable to his best years with Houston and New York than at first glance. Regardless, Hampton was seen as a success story for the ’03 Braves. He even took home his first Gold Glove and his fifth consecutive Silver Slugger. It would be the final year he would win an award.
In 2004, Hampton would start 29 games for the Braves, but his numbers did decline. The highlight of his season came on October 7 against the Astros in Game 2 of the NLDS. He held serve with Roy Oswalt before the Braves got to Brad Lidge to tie up things and force extra innings. In the 11th, Rafael Furcal hit a walk-off two-run homer to tie up the series at 1-1. Three days later, Hampton even worked a scoreless inning of relief in Game 4, which the Braves won as well to force a Game 5. They would lose that game, though.
Hampton started 2005 on fire. He carried a 1.67 ERA to the end of April. While his “former” team, the Marlins, touched him up for five runs in his first start of May, he got back on track in his next start against another former team – the Astros. In his best individual performance of his time with the Braves (and the 2nd best of his career according to game score), Hampton faced a batter over the minimum as he shut down Houston over nine shutout innings. He allowed a pair of singles, walked one, induced a pair of double plays, and struck out three over the 98-pitch masterpiece. For good measure, he hit an eighth-inning home run. It was the 21st complete game and ninth shutout of his career. It was also the last instance of each individual accomplishment.
His 2005 season took a quick detour after its promising beginning. He was hurt in his next game and would pitch just four more times over the rest of the season. It was the beginning of what Braves’ fans remember the most about Hampton – the injuries. He would miss both of the next two seasons and made 13 forgetful starts for the Braves in 2008.
Over six seasons, the Braves paid Mike Hampton $48.5 million for 85 starts, a 4.10 ERA, and just a .202/.250/.347 slash as a hitter. I realize that’s excellent for a pitcher, but even his bat was a letdown. His good moments such as the 16-0 shutout and his playoff effort in 2004 were overshadowed in a move that just didn’t work for the Atlanta Braves in any shape or form. Getting Hampton was supposed to work as Leo would do his magic while giving them the financial flexibility to bring back one of their Hall of Fame starters. While Maddux returned, it wasn’t the way the Braves had intended.
Hampton would stick around for two more seasons, though he only pitched ten games – all out of the bullpen – after missing most of 2010 with rotator cuff surgery. He would retire at the end of spring training the following year. It was the end to a career that began in 1990 in the Arizona Summer league for the Mariners. Interestingly, he returned to the Mariners last year as a bullpen coach under Scott Servais, who once served as his catcher.