I have been in contact with Bill Shanks who has written a book called “Scout’s Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team.” Bill is a lurker here and thought we'd be interested in an excerpt from the book about the Chris Reitsma/Bubba Nelson June Kune Bong trade in 2004. Enjoy and thanks, Bill
In this special presentation to RedsZone readers, we present an excerpt from the new book “Scout’s Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team.” The book talks about traditional scouting practices and is an answer to “Moneyball,” which was written several years ago. “Scout’s Honor” also talks about the importance of having young pitchers in the farm system available to trade to improve the big league club. In this excerpt, Shanks tells the story of the Chris Reitsma / Bubba Nelson trade from Spring Training of 2004.
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 19: TRADING ADAM AND BUBBA
With the trade of Adam Wainwright, Bubba Nelson assumed the position as the Braves’ best pitching prospect. He went to Spring Training with an outside chance at being Atlanta’s fifth starter and perhaps a slightly better shot at winning a bullpen position.
“I definitely went into spring training with a mindset that I was going to make the team,” Nelson says. “I had a lot of confidence in that. I thought I had a good opportunity with a lot of spots open, regardless of whether I was going to be starting or be coming out of the bullpen. I stepped it up a little bit with my offseason workout routine and I did a lot of work on the side with my pitching mechanics to try to get ready for spring training. I thought I was a highly rated prospect.”
As spring training progressed, two things became obvious. First, the Braves really wanted Nelson to go back to AAA. He pitched only sparingly in big league games during March. Also, the Braves were having trouble with their bullpen. Schuerholz had signed former Cubs right-hander Antonio Alfonseca and former Marlins left-hander Armando Almanza over the winter to join their bullpen. But Almanza was battling a nagging injury and Alfonseca struggled. He had an ERA of 7.36 in nine games, allowed 18 hits in 11 innings and walked six. Kevin Gryboski, one of the most trusted relievers in Bobby Cox’s bullpen the last several years, had some questions with his shoulder. Finally, Trey Hodges, who pitched in 51 games out of the Atlanta bullpen in 2003, struggled with his control by walking 12 batters in 13 innings.
So Schuerholz set his sights on a handful of relievers for a potential trade. The main objects of his desire were Cubs right-hander Juan Cruz, a flamethrower often compared to Pedro Martinez, and Reds righty Chris Reitsma, who possesses one of the best changeups in the game.
When Schuerholz called the Reds, there was instant interest in having discussions. Dan O’Brien had been brought in over the winter as General Manager to help turn the Reds franchise around. He had extensive scouting and player development experience with the Rangers, Astros, and Mariners, and his father, Dan O’Brien, Sr. was a longtime baseball executive with the Rangers, Mariners, Indians, and Angels. O’Brien knew some of the philosophies he wanted to install with the Reds were some of the same beliefs of Schuerholz and the Braves, most notably to accumulate as much young pitching as possible. He got his chance to start the process when Schuerholz called.
“Organizationally, coming in here and being a newcomer, we had a definite need to develop some starting pitching from within our organization,” says O’Brien. “It had been a deficiency, an acknowledged one. There are very few organizations that would have any sufficient depth in pitching to provide us with two starting pitchers. There’s no doubt that the Braves do an excellent job of not only identifying but also developing pitchers from within their organization. The trick is to select the right ones.”
O’Brien and Schuerholz spoke for about a week. As the discussions evolved, a potential deal took a variety of shapes and sizes. The Braves keyed in on Reitsma, while the Reds had two main targets: left-hander Jung Bong, who had spent most of the 2003 season as a reliever in Atlanta, and Bubba Nelson.
“We were not necessarily predisposed to trade Chris Reitsma,” says O’Brien. “But they had a need in their bullpen to set up Smoltz. We were very forthright in saying that there had to be multiple starting pitchers coming back our way in order to make it work. So we went from that premise. You have prospects classified into different categories based on their future potential. Basically you try to position yourself to be able to acquire as many of the desirable prospects as possible in any given transaction. We had those two individuals in the upper end of their system. Obviously Jung Bong had spent much of the year in 2003 with Atlanta and Bubba Nelson – both of whom we view as starters. We knew they would not be of immediate help to our ball club, but we knew that down the line this was a trade that we needed to make.”
Schuerholz made the deal for Juan Cruz on Thursday, March 25th. Atlanta sent lefty Andy Pratt and AA second baseman Richard Lewis to the Cubs in exchange for the twenty-five year old righthander. The Braves saw Cruz as a pitcher who could either start or relieve, but with a solid rotation, his immediate need would be in the bullpen. Lewis was considered a very solid prospect, but with Marcus Giles entrenched in Atlanta, his road to the majors was blocked. Pratt was simply lost in a numbers game in the Braves bullpen.
Nelson was one of many of the Braves minor leaguers who went to an Orlando restaurant that night to wish Pratt and Lewis well. It was an eerie scene, as the kids were saying goodbye to teammates they had been around for several years. It made many of the prospects wonder who would be next, considering they had lost Wainwright, Pratt, Lewis, and late in the 2003 season, right-handed prospect Matt Belisle in a trade with the Reds. The Braves were using their farm system to improve the big league club, and no one felt safe.
“I felt I could be traded,” Nelson admits, “but at the same time, I wasn’t going to let it bother me because I just had to go out and do what I had to do. I knew anything was up in the air.”
The next morning, Friday the 26th, Nelson reported to minor league camp. He had pitched well in big league camp, but the Braves felt he needed more time in AAA. Chino Cadahia is the Braves Field Coordinator, essentially in charge of spring training on the minor league side. Chino moves from field to field on a golf cart, organizing the training and monitoring the progress of the players.
But on this morning he had another duty. Nelson was on Field 3 stretching with some of his teammates when he saw Chino calling him over to get in the golf cart.
“He didn’t say anything to me really,” Nelson says. “I kind of knew something was up. I could tell on his face. He’s always got that bright look on his face and he’s always saying good things to me, and I didn’t hear anything out of him. Normally, he’d be talking, but he was just silent. I know Chino better than that. So I knew something was going on.”
Nelson and Cadahia arrived at the Braves minor league clubhouse at the Disney Complex. Cadahia led Nelson to a back conference room where the coaches usually meet before and after practice. Waiting for him was the Braves Farm Director, Dayton Moore.
“When I walked in the room Dayton’s eyes were red,” Nelson explains. “I could just feel the air was tense as soon as I walked in the room.”
“You’ve been traded to the Cincinnati Reds,” Dayton told Nelson.
Bill Shanks’s new book about scouting and player development is “Scout’s Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team.” It can be purchased at Barnes and Noble, most of your local bookstores, and it is available online. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org