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Original Issue

Shuffling Aces

While the A's were dealing away two top pitchers, the Braves and the Yankees were busy stacking their decks

A whirlwind week, in which he had remade his team's starting rotation into one of the National League's most formidable, had ended, but there wasn't a hint of weariness in John Schuerholz's voice on Sunday. "It's been a very busy, very challenging time for us," the longtime Braves general manager said, "but also very, very exhilarating."

The feeling was mutual among a handful of G.M.'s of other pennant contenders, after four of the game's premier starters--all ranked in the top five in winning percentage among active pitchers, and the owners of eight Cy Young Awards combined--either changed teams or appeared poised to do so. Last Thursday, Schuerholz made a trade with the A's for righthander Tim Hudson, a former 20-game winner, and the Mets introduced their prize free-agent signee, former Red Sox ace righthander Pedro Martinez. On Saturday the Cardinals acquired lefthander Mark Mulder, a 17game winner last year, in a trade with the A's. And at week's end a three-team, 10player deal was in the works that would send Diamondbacks' lefthander Randy Johnson to the Yankees.

"It's extremely difficult for these [blockbuster deals] to happen," Schuerholz said. "But the aces have the biggest contracts, and as teams seek financial flexibility, they see that trading their aces is a way to provide that."

The Braves went into the off-season intent on upgrading a rotation that led the NL with a 3.74 ERA, then was shelled in the postseason by the Astros. "Our starters did a great job for us last year, but we wanted to get back to the old-fashioned Braves' way of building championship teams with dominant starting pitching," says Schuerholz. Instead of re-signing free-agent starters Russ Ortiz, Jaret Wright and Paul Byrd, Atlanta spent the money on Hudson and All-Star closer Dan Kolb, who was acquired in a Dec. 11 trade with the Brewers. The Kolb deal frees starter-turned-closer John Smoltz to return to the rotation, where he won 157 games from 1988 through '99. The remaining spot is to be filled by Horacio Ramirez, a 25year-old lefty who had a 2.39 ERA in nine starts last year before suffering a season-ending left shoulder injury in May.

The A's, on the other hand, were one of those teams seeking financial flexibility and thus felt compelled to part with two thirds of their Big Three (only lefty Barry Zito remains), a trio that had combined to win 234 games since 2000. With Hudson due to make $6.5 million this season, his last before free agency, and Mulder set to earn $6 million, the A's were facing a payroll in excess of $70 million (up from $59.4 million in 2004)--"above our means," said Oakland G.M. Billy Beane.

Other teams had no problem paying to beef up their rotations. The Red Sox gave former Cubs righthander Matt Clement, who has a 69--75 career record and erratic command, a three-year, $25 million deal. But no clubs made bolder moves than the Braves and the Yankees did. In addition to Johnson, New York was to get another lefty, Kaz Ishii (13--8 last year), from the Dodgers in the three-team trade, to go with free-agent signees Carl Pavano and Wright (chart, below).

As Schuerholz summed it up, "We're pleased with what we've been able to do--and I'm sure other teams are pleased with what they've done with their staffs."