He wanted out. The Braves wanted an impact bat to put with Chipper Jones. And the Dodgers just wanted to get rid of a cancer.
All parties got exactly what they wanted 16 years ago as the Braves finally completed a deal for Gary Sheffield. It had been a long road to get to this point as the Braves initially approached the Dodgers in spring training of 2001. Sheffield had an up-and-down 3+ years with the Dodgers after being part of the ’98 fire sale by the Marlins. The Florida native had been hesitant to leave the Marlins after signing a rich contract extension with the team. In that contract was a no-trade clause, or what Sheffield called his “blanket.”
After nearly nixing the deal to the Dodgers until Los Angeles agreed to all of his demands, he headed to the Dodgers and hit .312/.424/.573 with the team. He was arguably his best with the Dodgers. However, at times, he was also at his worst with the team.
Moreover, Sheffield sat out the 1999 season finale in Houston to ensure he would bat .300 even though the Astros needed to win to secure a playoff spot. Also, in a game he sat out the following season, he left the clubhouse before the end of the game at Dodger Stadium, unbeknownst to then-manager Davey Johnson, sources said.
In the spring of 2001, Sheffield gave the Dodgers an ultimatum. Either give him what amounted to a lifetime contract or trade him. He would late rescind the demand and didn’t force the Dodgers to deal him, but it also made it clear he wanted out. The Braves had expressed an interest when he first spoke up about wanting out of Las Angeles and after the 2001 season, they were even more open to the idea. Shortly before he was actually was traded, Sheffield said, “I don’t want to be a pain in the butt, but I don’t want to play there (Los Angeles). I’m sick of them.”
The Braves were coming off a disappointing 88-74 finish. Chipper Jones had raked throughout the year, hitting 38 home runs with a 1.032 OPS. He had precious little support as Javy Lopez, Andruw Jones, and Rafael Furcal all had down years. Brian Jordan chipped in a healthy .295/.334/.496 which certainly helped. Things were so bad that year that the Braves counted adding Julio Franco as one of their best moves. The Braves regrouped to sweep the Astros, but lost to Arizona in the NLCS. With Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine not getting any younger, the Braves needed a shake-up.
They got that with this trade. Sheffield could have blocked the trade, but he liked the Braves and had some friends on the team. He especially respected Bobby Cox and wanted to rejoin a winner. The Braves opened right field by sending Jordan in the deal. Jordan, who had starred with the Falcons in his NFL days, had a big first season in Atlanta but struggled in 2000. The following year, 2001, was a bounce-back campaign. Regardless, even at his best, Jordan was no Sheffield.
Also in the deal was Odalis Perez. He originally came up as a big prospect. He spent his first two years splitting time as a starter and reliever. After losing a year to injury, Perez threw 95.1 innings for the ’01 Braves with some pretty poor results. In 199 innings as a Brave, he had a 5.38 ERA. That said, he turned 23 in ’01 so the Dodgers had reason to believe his best days were ahead. A third player, pitcher Andrew Brown, had just 106.2 innings of professional experience after being a 1999 sixth rounder.
Adding Sheffield wasn’t the only move the team would make. They brought back Vinny Castilla, which shifted Chipper to left field. They would also have a rags-to-riches bullpen. Veterans Darren Holmes and Chris Hammond joined Mike Remlinger and John Smoltz to close things down for an increasingly vulnerable starting staff.
Sheffield would miss 20 or so games in 2002 but was his usual excellent self when he did play. On the year, he hit .307/.404/.512. Sheff was especially good in the second half, on-basing .460 with a .571 slugging percentage. The Braves would cruise to 101 wins behind the league’s best pitching staff that received a shot-in-the-arm from the improved Kevin Millwood and surprising Damian Moss. The aforementioned bullpen, which also included Kevin Gryboski and Kerry Ligtenberg, was lights-out. The offense, however, was a disappointment. Sheffield did his job and Chipper and Andruw Jones both had fine seasons as the Braves outfield was in a class of its own. The infield, however, struggled tremendously with Marcus Giles and Castilla both turning in subpar seasons. Furcal had his second consecutive disappointing campaign, on-basing just .323 with 27 steals in 42 opportunities.
In the NLDS, Barry Bonds hit three home runs off the Braves and they wasted a 2-1 advantage in the series to fall to the Giants. They never led at any point over the final two games. The team scored 26 runs in the series, but Sheffield did very little. He hit a solo homer and walked seven times, but the homer was his only hit in 16 at-bats. He did have an opportunity to do some damage in his final at-bat of the year. Furcal reached on an error to open the inning against Robb Nen. Franco singled after Furcal stole second, which put runners on the corners. However, Sheffield struck out. Chipper Jones ended the series by grounding into a double play.
The 2003 season was the final year of Sheffield’s deal – originally signed with the Marlins after the ’98 season. The Braves stayed the course on offense, adding Robert Fick to replace Matt Franco, but sticking with the rest of the lineup. They revamped the pitching staff, adding Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, and Shane Reynolds while being blindsided by Greg Maddux accepting arbitration. The bullpen was hurt considerably by defections as Remlinger and Hammond left for big money elsewhere.
The result was a team that flipped the script. The offense was one of the league’s best while the pitching staff was mediocre. In contract years, Lopez and Castilla bounced back. Sheffield had one of his finest seasons and Giles and Furcal combined to form one of the most productive double-play combinations in the league. There was not an easy out in the lineup. Even the Fick/Franco platoon at first base was solid.
It was a good thing they hit so well because the pitching staff was horrendous. Maddux had his poorest year as a Brave and while Ortiz was durable and picked up 21 wins, he was not an ace. Hampton looked better than he had in Colorado but was never the star the Astrodome had made him seem. Reynolds, signed when the team waffled on the idea of giving the fifth starter job to Jason Marquis, was well past his prime while Horacio Ramirez, performed as well as Horacio Ramirez could perform (which was never that good).
By comparison, the starting staff was a Godsend compared to the bullpen. Atlanta had brought in Roberto Hernandez and Ray King along with holdovers Gryboski and Holmes to set up things for John Smoltz. Rookies Trey Hodges and Jung Bong were also in the mix. The results were pretty miserable across the board. Late-season additions like Will Cunnane, Kent Mercker, and Jaret Wright helped provide some depth, but this wasn’t your father’s Braves. They would go as far as their lineup took ’em.
In the NLDS, the Braves faced the Cubs. Again, the series would go to five games and again, Sheffield was basically absent. Actually, for Game 4, he was absent completely with a bruised hand. The Braves would win that game 6-4 to force the series back to Turner Field. Even when Sheffield was in the lineup, he didn’t do much, going 2-for-14 with an RBI. Both hits were singles. It wasn’t only him – the best offense in the league hit just .215 against the Mark Prior/Kerry Wood-led Cubs. But Sheffield’s failure in back-to-back playoffs did little to endear him to Braves fans as he headed into free agency.
Sheffield was interested in returning to Atlanta, but the Braves had bigger concerns. They were in Year 2 of a cost-cutting model. Under Ted Turner, the team spent lavishly for both players, behind-the-scenes executives, and baseball operations employees. The new ownership was tightening the purse strings and John Schuerholz wasn’t going to be able to bring back Sheffield, who naturally balked at the idea of taking a pay cut. However, Schuerholz was also gunshy about offering arbitration. Contrary to today’s qualifying offer system, teams had until mid-December to offer arbitration. If the player signed before, compensation was automatically given to the team that lost a free agent. If the team didn’t offer arbitration, they couldn’t negotiate with the player anymore. They also wouldn’t get any compensation. The previous winter, Schuerholz was forced to trade Kevin Millwood after Maddux surprisingly accepted arbitration.
The whole baseball world knew the Yankees wanted Sheffield and had the ability to provide him the salary he wanted. The Yankees were waiting to see what the Braves would do. Either they could offer arbitration and force the Yankees to give up a draft choice or refuse to offer arbitration and protect yourself from Sheffield pulling a Maddux. The Yankees won the game of chicken as the Braves passed and instead acquired J.D. Drew as they retooled. Sheffield landed his deal with the Yankees and would play six more seasons.
If you’re curious the Yankees would later lose their first-round pick to the Dodgers for signing Paul Quantrill. The Dodgers would draft Blake Dewitt with that pick. Other selections that were made after Dewitt’s selection and before Atlanta’s first pick of the 2004 draft (which came in the second round) included J.P. Howell, Gio Gonzalez, Huston Street, Yovani Gallardo, Seth Smith, Hunter Pence, Dustin Pedroia, Kurt Suzuki, and Jason Vargas. Of course, it’s hard to know if any of these players would have been on the Braves’ radar should they have received the Yankees’ top selection instead of the Dodgers.
Meanwhile, the man Sheffield replaced, Jordan, had an injury-shortened pair of seasons in Los Angeles. On the bright side, he was productive with a .802 OPS. He played one year in Texas before finishing up his career with a pair of subpar seasons back in Atlanta. Andrew Brown, the “other guy” in the deal, would be traded to the Indians in another trade for a temperamental outfielder – Milton Bradley. He would pitch in nine games for Cleveland before he was dealt to the Padres. A half-year later, he was sent to Oakland for…Milton Bradley. He played pitched 64 times with the A’s in 2007 and 2008, but injuries and poor play ended his career just a couple of years later. He finished with a 3.84 ERA in 73 games – all in relief.
Finally, there was Odalis Perez. In his first season with the Dodgers, Perez excelled. He finished with a 3.00 ERA in 32 starts with four complete games and a pair of shutouts. Both of his shutouts were dominant one-hitters and earned him a spot on the All-Star team in 2002. He gave up an unearned run that day and struck out two. The Dodgers thought they had unlocked his potential, but his follow-up campaigns were not nearly as excellent. He was traded in 2006 and after pitching for the Royals and Nationals, his major league career was over before he turned 31.
Gary Sheffield was a model citizen in Atlanta. The team didn’t try to handle him and playing under a manager that he respected seemed to do wonders for Sheff. The only noise he created was on the baseball field where his quick swing led to a plethora of long flyballs and screaming liners. However, when the Braves needed his bat the most, it seemed like it disappeared. Meanwhile, Atlanta ultimately didn’t miss any of the players they surrendered. The trade was a winner for John Schuerholz, but only a minor one. They would continue to chase that elusive second ring.
It’s a chase that continues to this day.