TOT – Braves Bet On Juan Cruz Before Selling High

TOT – Braves Bet On Juan Cruz Before Selling High

Transaction of Today…March 25, 2004 – The Atlanta Braves traded Richard Lewis (minors) and Andy Pratt to the Chicago Cubs for Juan Cruz and Steve Smyth.

There are two great principles to stick to as a general manager.

  • Always go for the high ceiling when possible. While you don’t want to rely completely on high-ceiling talents without a solid floor to stand on, if given the choice between an okayish floor and a high ceiling, take the latter.
  • Sell high whenever possible.

With right-hander Juan Cruz, John Schuerholz did both. I often give Schuerholz a good deal of grief. Whether it was his anti-Moneyball slant from his snoozer of a book, how he lucked into a perfect situation with a lot of talent and an unending payroll via Ted Turner, his decision to cash in the farm for a first baseman when he had no pitching to compete with, or his “staying around” presence after he moved up from the GM spot. But there is no doubt that Schuerholz is an intelligent person who made several smart – often low-key – moves that played up pretty big. We are going to talk about one pretty low-key move here and how it leads to a huge move later on.

That reminds me – a smart general manager knows to also buy low.

It was the spring of 2004 and the Chicago Cubs were left with the very real possibility of losing what was left of Juan Cruz’s remaining trade value. After a couple of years where he looked lost to begin his minor league journey, Cruz put it together in a big way in 2000. Over 140.1 innings at Class A and Class Advanced-A, Cruz pitched to a 3.27 ERA and 160 strikeouts. He also walked an obscene 78 batters, but as it was his Age-21 season, he captured a lot of attention. As the ’01 season loomed, Baseball America named Cruz their #17th best prospect in baseball.

He’d nearly break the top five the next year, striking out 137 in 121.1 innings at Double-A before being brought up to the majors, where he pitched to a 3.22 ERA in eight starts. The following spring, the Cubs named Cruz their third starter. Part of that was just circumstance as other arms worked their way back. Through nine starts, Cruz showed iffy control but also had a 3.74 ERA. Not too bad for a rookie. Nevertheless, Chicago moved Cruz to the pen for the remainder of the year. At first, they used him in some fairly high-leverage roles, but he quickly was relegated to lower-leverage outings. It was a confusing decision for the #6th-best prospect in baseball coming into 2002. Why not simply let him continue developing in the minors?

Cruz would remain in the bullpen to open 2003 despite fifth starter Shawn Estes pitching similarly as bad. After two months in the bigs, Cruz was demoted for most of June and July. At the tail-end of July, he was brought back up. First as a swingman and then, as the Cubs looked to limit the innings their big three of Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Carlos Zambrano threw, Cruz was the sixth starter. Overall, the numbers were pretty miserable. In 25 games, including six starts, Cruz had a 6.05 ERA. It was pretty surprising that he was added to the playoff roster, pitching once against the Braves in the NLDS.

In 2004, the Cubs brought back Greg Maddux to supplement their rotation as he joined the aforementioned Big Three along with Matt Clement. They also signed LaTroy Hawkins and another former Brave Kent Mercker – further limiting the ability of Cruz to make the team. That said, due to Prior being out to open 2004, plus yet another former Brave, Mike Remlinger, rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery, keeping Cruz wouldn’t have been that difficult.

But Chicago GM Jim Hendry decided to cut bait on his former top prospect, sending him to the Braves along with Steve Smyth to acquire Andy Pratt and Richard Lewis. It wouldn’t be one of his best moves.

What The Cubs Got

At the time, Pratt was a decent prospect. Atlanta acquired him two years prior from the Rangers for former 12th-round pick, left-hander Ben Kozlowski. Pratt was coming off two “meh” campaigns in the Rangers system before the Braves acquired the 22-year-old. He went to Greenville and didn’t “wow” anyone, but worked his way into a promotion where, over a half-dozen starts, Pratt flashed some of his potential. He even got into one game in September of 2002 with the Braves. The following season, he spent the year in Richmond, pacing the International League with 161 strikeouts to go along with a 3.40 ERA.

Like Cruz, Pratt was trying to make a major league roster and pitched well in spring training, giving up one run in eight innings. But it was looking more likely that the Braves would let Jaret Wright have a shot to return to his former glory and secure the fifth starter role. It would be one of the Braves’ best decisions of that season. Pratt had options, but Atlanta rightfully believed they had probably seen his best already.

Joining Pratt in the trade was second-baseman, Richard Lewis. The 40th overall pick of the 2001 draft who wasn’t just from Georgia Tech, but also a Georgia boy out of Marietta, Lewis seemed like a great fit for the Braves. The production, though, hadn’t been all that notable to this point. His OPS during three years in the system where he climbed from Class Low-A to Class Double-A was .614, .714, and .646. That said, Lewis had great physical attributes and graded highly in intangibles. With his quickness, if the pop and hit tool came, he might become a second-division starter in the majors.

Neither Pratt, nor Lewis, would play much of a role for Chicago in the end. In four games, Pratt walked two more hitters (seven) than he retired (five) as a member of the ’04 Cubs. He actually didn’t allow a hit, yet was charged with four runs. It would be the final time Pratt threw in the majors. Over 20 games in the minors that season, Pratt had a 9.74 ERA as he struggled with wildness which was simply a new development for him.

By the beginning of September, he was the player to be named in a waiver deal that occurred four days before when Ben Grieve went from the Brewers to the Cubs. Pratt would continue to struggle with Milwaukee and, in May of 2006, the Brewers cut him. He appeared in 25 games with Somerset of the independent-Atlantic League to end the year. Sadly for Pratt, his career was over after the 2006 season. On the bright side, he has since found work as a baseball scout – most recently with the Mets.

Lewis had a big 2004, following up a decent run in the Arizona Fall League prior to the trade. In 130 games between Class Double-A and Class Triple-A, Lewis slashed .308/.364/.501 with 35 doubles, 11 triples, and 13 dingers. It looked like the Cubs were going to get something positive out of the deal despite Pratt’s struggles. But his next two seasons saw his OPS quickly slump back under .650. At the end of 2006, he was picked in the Triple-A portion of the Rule 5 draft by the Royals, where he spent one forgetful season. In his three follow-ups to his Southern League MVP campaign of 2004, not much had gone right. He also played a summer in the Atlantic League, but his professional career was done after 2008.

Unlike Pratt, Lewis’s time in baseball effectively ended and he took his Georgia Tech major in Business Management into – shocker – the field of business. He’s held a number of positions in the Atlanta area since.

What the Braves Got

This is going to mainly focus on Juan Cruz, so let’s touch on Steve Smyth first. A southpaw the Braves originally drafted in the 13th round in 1998, but did not sign, Smyth headed to the Cubs after being a fourth-rounder the next year. The former USC Trojan advanced quickly up the system, arriving in the majors by 2002 and pitching in eight games, including seven starts. To say it didn’t go so hot is a bit of an understatement. He allowed 27 earned runs and nine homers in just 26 innings. I’d like to tell you he got another chance to rectify his career 9.35 ERA, but I try not to lie to you.

His time with Atlanta was brief. He appeared in seven games, including four starts, with Greenville as a 26-year-old. After walking 19 in 22.1 innings, the Braves decided to cut bait and released Smyth. He was picked up by Juan Cruz’s future team, the A’s, and spent about a year in their system with little success before they also cut him in June of 2005. Smyth spent a couple of seasons in independent ball and the Mexican League, never staying too long in the same place. His final season was 2008. Unlike Pratt and Lewis, I don’t have much of an update for him.

No disrespect to the other three players in the deal, but Cruz was the star. Despite pitching in the season’s opener and third game of the year, 2004 got off to a slow start usage-wise for Cruz as he was often forgotten in Bobby Cox‘s bullpen. Not because he didn’t earn more playing time, but because he was Cox’s “oh shit” pitcher. The guy who comes in if a starter leaves early (like April 22) or the game goes deep into the night (like April 9 vs. the Cubs). In fact, over a three-week period starting April 13 and ending on May 2, Cruz got into just one game.

But life changed for Cruz once May hit. He started to get into every third or fifth game – even pitching a few back-to-backs. The more he pitched, the more confidence Cox started to have in him. Oh, there were a few stinkers here and there, but once his ERA would climb above 4.00, Cruz would quickly lower it back down. By June 29, his ERA had dropped below 3.00 and it would never again go higher. While Cruz wasn’t getting holds or saves, he was pitching a few higher-leverage innings. Mostly, though, he gobbled up low-leverage innings for the Braves.

Despite that, Cruz became an important member of the pen, throwing 72 total innings with a 2.75 ERA and 70 K’s. He was the guy who often kept games from getting away from the team. In fact, in games he pitched, the Braves were 19-31. But don’t get it wrong – his success was a reason that record wasn’t worse. Again, he only got two holds all season. But what he did exceptionally well was give the Braves chances to win games that, with a lesser pitcher, would not have been possible. For his success, he earned six wins out of the pen. I’m not a win-loss guy, but I can still respect the accomplishment. He didn’t blow one lead all year.

His season continued into the playoffs. Unfortunately, as did his penchant for pitching in mostly games the Braves lost. He took the ball in Game 1, 3, and 5 against the Astros. The Braves lost each game. While he wasn’t responsible for any one loss, he did allow four runs during the series so he wasn’t sharp either.

But all in all, it was a very good year for a guy who was floundering without a purpose.

Though…there were some warning signs. Despite much better results, his rate of homers allowed remained about the same as they had with the Cubs. As did his walk rate. And while it’s difficult to imagine John Schuerholz scouring the stat-sheet in 2004, it also seemed unlikely that someone didn’t catch on to the fact that his BABIP was seventy points lower in 2004 than it had been in 2003. Certainly, Cruz was more talented than 2003 showed, but he probably wasn’t the guy the Braves saw in 2004 either.

Now, all of this talk isn’t to say Schuerholz was desperate to deal Cruz to cash him in. Even if the Braves didn’t move Cruz, he was still a valuable piece. But moving him when his value was at its highest remained the better move.

Tim Hudson | Rich Anderson / CC BY-SA via Wikipedia Commons

After the season was over, Juan Cruz joined young southpaw prospect Dan Meyer and another player whose value was at its highest in Charles Thomas as Atlanta acquired Tim Hudson from the A’s. In contrast, Billy Beane was moving Hudson while his value was at its lowest. He missed time in 2004, but more importantly, he was a year away from free agency. In return, Beane bought high on two players who would predictably decline and a prospect who couldn’t stay healthy enough to become the pitcher both the Braves and A’s thought he could be.

Cruz’s time in Oakland lasted one ugly season. He pitched 28 times, allowed 27 runs in 32.2 innings, and walked 22. Nearly two years to the day he joined Atlanta, he was shipped off in another late spring move to the Diamondbacks for Brad Halsey. He rebuilt his value in Arizona, once again becoming a good arm to have in the pen, but not the guy you count on in crunch time. That said, Arizona felt more confident he could handle high leverage chances than the Braves did and used him in those opportunities more often. After a couple of forgetful seasons with the Kansas City Royals – both because of performance and injuries – Cruz resurfaced in Tampa Bay in 2011 as sort of a rally killer. He inherited 30 runners that season – 17 more than he had with Atlanta – and stranded all but six of them.

Cruz’s final year in the bigs was 2012 with Pittsburgh. He carried a 2.78 ERA and doubled his career saves total entering the year with three, but was released that August. He’d work in the Dominican Winter Leagues for a couple more seasons and briefly was a member of the Phillies’ organization but never suited up for them after asking to be released following Philadelphia’s signing of Chad Durbin. I’m sure at the time Cruz didn’t think nobody else would come calling. But nobody did.

Who Won the Deal?

I don’t think you really need me to run the numbers to say that the Braves win this one. At the time, they bet on the best player in the exchange and it worked out well for them during 2004. But where this deal becomes a laugher is that Cruz also accounts, on the second level of this trade, for a third of Tim Hudson’s value to the Braves.

Kids, if Juan Cruz teaches us anything, it’s to bet on high ceilings of players and sell high when possible.

Keep reading for more transactions of the Past

TOT: The Deal That Sent Eddie Mathews Away
TOT: The Melk Man Arrives With Arodys
TOT: Chris Hammon Flirts With History

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