The 2004 Atlanta Braves season is remembered most, and not fondly, for one particular trade that has stung Braves fans for years.
No, I’m not talking about the Chris Reitsma deal.
In December of 2003, the Braves sent Jason Marquis, Ray King and prospect Adam Wainwright to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero. What most Braves fans recall is that Drew and Marrero played one season in Atlanta that didn’t result in a championship and then went elsewhere. Wainwright, meanwhile, came up for the Cardinals in 2005, was still pitching for the Cardinals in 2020 with a 3.15 ERA and 1.051 WHIP and has racked up three All-Star Games, four top-three Cy Young finishes and a 2006 World Series ring.
But what doesn’t get remembered is that Drew and Marrero were very good for the Braves in 2004.
Drew led the team in WAR at 8.3 – more than double Chipper Jones, next in line at 4.0 – as well as home runs with 31, OBP at .436, SLG at .569 and OPS at 1.006. He was second only to Chipper in RBIs with 93, and he also notched a .305 batting average. For his part, Marrero recorded 10 homers and 18 doubles with 40 RBIs in just 90 games, while batting .320 with an .894 OPS.
The season itself was a roller-coaster ride. In what felt like a pattern over the later years of the Braves’ division title run, Atlanta started out very slowly. In fact, the Braves were 32-38 as late as June 23 that year. They trailed the division-leading Florida Marlins by 6.5 games and were even further back of the Wild Card.
The poor start was perhaps reflected by the All-Star game selections that year, as only catcher Johnny Estrada made the roster for the Braves in 2004. For his part, Estrada had a career year, notching career highs across his entire slash line with a .314 batting average and .828 OPS while playing a career high in games at 134.
The second half of the pattern also played out for the Braves in 2004, though. After June 23, they delivered a scorching 64-28 record, while the Marlins went 44-47 in the season’s final months to fall to third place behind the Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies. In the end, the Braves won the division by 10 games after pushing the division lead to as many as 11 and cruising to another NL East title.
That sent the Braves to the NLDS against the Wild Card Houston Astros. Under the rules of the day, the Astros didn’t face top seed St. Louis because they both played in the NL Central.
While Estrada continued his hot hitting into the postseason, hitting .353 with two home runs and six hits in 17 at-bats, Drew and Chipper Jones did not have a great series. They combined for just eight hits in 40 at-bats and neither man managed an extra-base hit. Drew also logged seven strikeouts for the series.
Instead, the Braves had to rely on Andruw Jones and Rafael Furcal to provide offense. Andruw scorched the Astros with a 10-for-19 series that included two homers, two doubles and four RBIs, while Furcal wasn’t far behind with an 8-for-21 effort and a pair of home runs of his own.
On the mound, the Braves also experienced a letdown. Starting pitcher Jaret Wright had been phenomenal during the regular season, but he got shelled for 10 earned runs in 9 2/3 innings over two starts in the NLDS. Those were both losses for the Braves in games 1 and 5, and despite 5 scoreless innings in the series from Hall of Fame starter-turned-closer-turned-starter John Smoltz, the Braves were battered for a team ERA of 7.04 with a 1.717 WHIP in the 3-2 series loss.
As bad as that loss was, it got worse in the coming months. Drew left in free agency to later sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Marrero got traded to the Kansas City Royals for a guy named Jorge Vasquez that appeared in all of seven games for the Braves. Wright also left in free agency and signed with the New York Yankees. The Braves were able to bring in Brian Jordan and a few other pieces for 2005, but 2004 and the gamble to bring in Drew for perhaps one good year remained a missed opportunity.