Money among many factors in Millwood deal

PHILADELPHIA -- You can call John Schuerholz a lot of things. But don't call him crazy.

You think the Braves wanted to trade Kevin Millwood to Philadelphia?

You think they wanted to hang by their TVs Sunday, watching Millwood pitch a no-hitter for somebody else?

You think they wanted to let Millwood go off and become an ace for a team whose main goal in life was to force the Braves to start their offseason golf program as early this autumn as possible?

The answer to those questions, in order, would be: No. No. And, uh, NO!!!

So how did it happen? How did Millwood get to the team and the ballpark where he no-hit the previously fire-breathing Giants on Sunday? How did he wind up getting traded to Philadelphia, of all places, for the promising but anonymous Johnny Estrada?

It took a lot of weird circumstances, all right -- some that were obviously within the control of the Braves and Phillies and some that weren't.

"I'll be honest with you," Schuerholz told us recently when the subject of Millwood's December trade to the Phillies came up. "I had a list of 29 general managers that we called when we made this trade. The first 28 said no. So I wound up picking up the phone and calling Ed Wade. You think I wanted to send him there? Of course not. But the alternative was not offering him a contract and not getting anything for him."

Those 28 other general managers knew what Schuerholz knew: That Millwood was in the last year of his contract. That he was unsigned. And that, thanks to the miracle of the arbitration process, he was going to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million this year (he wound up signing a one-year deal with the Phillies for $9.9 million).

In a brutal economic winter, those 28 other teams didn't have an extra 10 million bucks floating around to spend on one pitcher for one year. Even the Braves didn't.

"We knew, once (Greg) Maddux accepted arbitration, that we were going to be over budget," Schuerholz said. "We projected him (Maddux) to wind up in the neighborhood of $15 million. So it didn't take many calculators to figure out that if we kept Kevin, we were going to wind up over where our (payroll) number was supposed to be."

Only one team had that much money in the budget for a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher -- the Phillies. But that was an accident, too. That money was supposed to have been long gone by the third week of December.

The Phillies had spent the previous month and a half working furiously to sign a big-name free-agent starter. But Tom Glavine turned them down. And Jamie Moyer turned them down. So did Chuck Finley. And Paul Byrd.

Little did they know all those turn-downs were going to lead to the sight of their consolation prize pitching the second no-hitter by a Phillie in Philadelphia since 1898. That isn't how luck has tended to fall for the losingest baseball franchise of all time.

Now, though, that consolation prize's manager, Larry Bowa, calls Millwood a more important addition than even Jim Thome from the standpoint of pure baseball considerations.

"If someone had told me this winter that we'd wind up getting Millwood," Bowa laughed recently, "I'd have said, 'Right. Who'd we have to give up? Pat Burrell?'

"I'm not taking anything away from all the other guys we pursued over the winter," Bowa said. "But Millwood is younger than all of them. He helps our staff from top to bottom."

To get him, the Phillies had to trade away a 26-year-old catcher who had been an All-Star at four different minor-league stops. So Johnny Estrada wasn't exactly Joe Schlub.

But the Phillies had just extended Mike Lieberthal's contract through 2005. Which meant they had already planned to shop Estrada to fill whatever hole or holes they couldn't fill through free agency. The Braves were a year away from the post-Javy Lopez era. So voila. These two teams had themselves a match.

The whole production, from Schuerholz's first call to Wade through the news conferences in Atlanta and Philadelphia, took less than 24 hours.

"People say, `Why didn't you just non-tender him, to keep him away from Philadelphia?'" Schuerholz said. "And my answer is this: Don't you think, if we'd non-tendered him and let him become a free agent, that the first team standing in line with $10 million would have been the Philadelphia Phillies?"

But money issues aside, there were other questions, too, of course.

In Atlanta, it had always been clear that Greg Maddux was a true No. 1 starter. And Tom Glavine was a co-No. 1. And before closing entered his life, John Smoltz had won a Cy Young Award himself. What WASN'T clear was whether Millwood, despite his three seasons of 17 wins or more, could step up to be a legitimate ace in Philadelphia.

"I think everybody who pitches in the big leagues, or any league, should want to be the best, to be that type of guy," Millwood said. "Now I'm getting that chance here, to be the No. 1 guy. It seems to me that if you don't want to be on top in this game, you shouldn't be in it."

Well, it may only be six starts into Millwood's life as an ace. But it's safe to say that if the Phillies had it to do all over, they wouldn't ask for Johnny Estrada back.

Their new ace is 4-1. He has more wins than any Braves starter. He has given up two earned runs or fewer in five of his six starts. He has allowed four hits or fewer in four of them. And he has made occasionally erratic 22-year-old wunderkind Brett Myers his personal project, which seems to have worked to the benefit of both of them.

The only down side to all this, from the Phillies' standpoint, is that the clock is still ticking toward Millwood's free agency.

His agent is Scott Boras, who is no doubt working as we speak on a 400-page book that will prove conclusively that Millwood has had a better career than Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton and Maddux put together. And happy as Millwood has clearly been, he has told the Phillies repeatedly he isn't interested in talking about a long-term deal yet.

So who knows? In a year, Millwood could even be back in Atlanta. And Johnny Estrada could look like a steal -- in the long run, anyway. But in the short run, this looked on Sunday like possibly the Phillies' greatest trade ever.

Say, have we mentioned that this no-hitter raised Millwood's career record at the lame-duck Veterans Stadium to a ridiculous 8-1? There's a new ballpark rising right out of the Vet parking lot at the moment. So one thing is certain: Whether Millwood re-signs in Philadelphia or not, his days pitching at the always-scenic Vet are numbered.

Hmmm. Think the Phillies would agree to play every fifth game at their old park if that's what it took to keep Millwood around? Millwood admits that if this keeps up, he has at least considered making that a future contract demand.

And if they say no?

"Then I might have to sit down in front of a bulldozer," Millwood chuckled.

But not yet. On Sunday, he was the bulldozer, the Giants were the rubble, and the Phillies sure were glad those other 28 general managers were out of money when John Schuerholz called last December.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.