LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Big trades can happen anywhere, and a crowded hotel bar is certainly no exception.
Walt Jocketty and John Schuerholz settled into a couple of cocktails and some good conversation on the first night of the 2003 Winter Meetings at the New Orleans Marriott. The bar is in the middle of the lobby, so everybody could see the two men -- at the time the general manager of the Cardinals and the Braves, respectively -- huddled together.
The sight of GMs chatting at the Winter Meetings is commonplace, but serious business is typically reserved for the teams' hotel suites, behind closed doors, where nobody can see and privacy is ensured. But not on this night. Jocketty and Schuerholz were deep in talks about a trade that would send J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero to the Braves for Jason Marquis, Ray King and, ultimately, pitching prospect Adam Wainwright.
A deal like this is what gives the Winter Meetings, which are being held this week at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort, so much intrigue.
Of course, negotiating a trade in a buzzing hotel lobby has its limitations.
Former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry stopped by to chat. Hendry, like everybody else in the place, assumed Jocketty and Schuerholz, who had become friends over the years, were relaxing and having a drink before the meetings officially began the next morning. Hendry popped in and out of the conversation a few times, which forced the two to turn their trade talk into small talk.
"He kept wanting to chat it up," Schuerholz joked.
After a few minutes, Jocketty nudged Hendry away.
"Jim, we're trying to have a meeting here, buddy," Jocketty said.
Jocketty and Schuerholz eventually agreed to meet in the Braves' suite the next day.
"High noon," Jocketty said.
Schuerholz had broached a potential trade that centered on Drew the previous month before the GM Meetings in Phoenix. Atlanta needed a power bat to replace free agent Gary Sheffield, who eventually would sign with the Yankees. St. Louis needed pitching following a season in which it finished second in the National League in scoring, but 11th in ERA.
Between the initial phone call and the face-to-face meeting that first night in New Orleans, Jocketty and Schuerholz discussed and debated players and ideas not only with each other, but with their respective assistants, scouts, managers and coaches.
Gathering and debating information and opinions was an incredibly enjoyable part of the process for both.
"It's our competition," said Jocketty, currently GM of the Reds. "It's our playing field."
Both men asked a lot of questions and listened to as many people as possible as they debated the merits of the deal.
If we trade Drew, how do we replace his offense?
If it means trading Wainwright, do we do it?
"I've always had the belief that you hire really good and capable people who you trust, and you empower them," said Schuerholz, who is now the Braves' president. "You listen to them. If you surround yourself with enough of those kinds of people, they will more often than not give you the information, the analysis, the evaluation, their instincts and their gut feeling on trades like that. That's how I've done every trade in my life -- the good ones, the bad ones, the mediocre ones, the great ones, the ugly ones.
"I used the same process. The people that worked for me knew that I was going to rely on their input. I was going to rely on their judgment, their evaluation, their professionalism. And then I would have the responsibility, as all general managers do, to filter all of that information, process it all, evaluate who gave it to me and what their strengths were and how reliable they are in these kinds of circumstances, in these kind of deals, and go forward."
The Cardinals felt they had enough offense to compensate for Drew. They also knew they could save about $5 million in projected payroll by shedding his salary, which might allow them to sign his replacement, plus find more pitching.
The Braves loved Drew's talents. He could be spectacular at times, posting a 1.027 OPS in 2001, but he had trouble staying on the field because of injuries. Drew also would become a free agent following the 2004 season, and with Scott Boras as his agent, negotiations would be difficult.
The Braves felt they had a shot at keeping the Georgia native beyond 2004, but more important, they felt they had a team poised to make a run deep into the postseason and win a World Series. They had won 101 games in each of the previous two seasons.
Atlanta was on the brink, and the Braves believed Drew could push them over the top. They needed to take a shot.
But how far would they go? Marquis had great stuff, but he would be a middle-of-the-rotation starter in St. Louis. King was a left-handed reliever who held lefties to a .200 average in 2003.
They were good pieces that would help the Cardinals' pitching staff, but they were not enough to get an everyday talent like Drew. So the Cards pushed for more. They wanted Wainwright, the Braves' first-round pick in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft.
Schuerholz flatly rejected Wainwright's inclusion more than a couple times, but Jocketty remained patient and persistent.
"One thing I learned is John was very anxious to try to make a deal for J.D. Drew," Jocketty said.
"I know they wanted him bad," echoed Jerry Walker, who has been one of Jocketty's top advisors in St. Louis and Cincinnati.
The Braves made no bones about it, either.
"I give the Cardinals credit for understanding that and sensing that and knowing that," Schuerholz said. "They could up the ante."
General managers are asked to walk a fine line between winning today and keeping their organization on solid footing for the future.
But great GMs can't live in fear that one of their big-name, highly-rated prospects might live up to the hype. Baseball is littered with "can't miss" prospects who never fulfilled their potential. The Marlins traded Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers in 2007 for Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz, Mike Rabelo and Dallas Trahern. The Indians traded Cliff Lee to the Phillies in 2009 for Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Lou Marson. The Phillies traded Lee to the Mariners a year later for Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez.
Those are just three trades in recent years where highly-regarded prospects failed to meet expectations.
"Professionally, we all thought Adam Wainwright was going to be a good pitcher, but until he does it, he's still a prospect," said Bob Gebhard, who was one of Jocketty's top advisors in St. Louis and now works with the D-backs. "Look through the history books."
"I've always told our people, our most important responsibility is evaluate our own players so we know them better than anybody else knows them," Schuerholz said. "We've made a number of deals because our Minor League players were highly evaluated by the team we were talking to. And our evaluation might not have been quite that strong. So we were comfortably willing to make those deals. There was a discomfort in trading Adam. There was a discomfort."
The Cardinals' brain trust -- which included Jocketty, Walker, Gebhard and Tony La Russa -- walked to the Braves' suite for their noon meeting on Dec. 13. Atlanta's group included Schuerholz, current Braves GM Frank Wren, Jim Fregosi, Bobby Cox and others.
The Cards sat on one side. The Braves took the other. Schuerholz sat at the head of the room.
They went back and forth with various proposals, but the Cardinals held firm in their request for Wainwright. They said they would not make the trade unless Atlanta included him in the deal. Knowing how much the Braves desired Drew, Gebhard even asked about a fourth player from Atlanta.
Schuerholz threw up his hands.
"It makes me want to cry to give up Wainwright," he said. "I cannot give up another player."
The Braves eventually left the suite to have a council meeting in the hallway.
"It was a longer one than ordinary, because there was a lot of debate," Schuerholz said. "In a group of six, there was only one person who said, 'I wouldn't do that deal.' In the end, the vast majority ruled and we went forward."
Schuerholz declined to name the dissenter, although one source said it was former scouting director Roy Clark, who drafted Wainwright.
The Braves returned to the room to say they would include Wainwright.
The two GMs shook hands. The deal was done.
Drew had a monstrous season for the Braves in 2004, hitting .305 with 28 doubles, eight triples, 31 home runs and 93 RBIs. He walked 118 times for a .436 on-base percentage. Drew's 1.006 OPS ranked 16th highest in Braves history, which includes seasons in Boston and Milwaukee, and ninth highest in Atlanta history.
The Braves won 96 games to win the NL East before losing in five games to the Astros in the NL Division Series.
Drew ultimately signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Dodgers.
"Drew probably had his best year ever," Schuerholz said. "He did exactly what we needed to have done, but we suffered some injuries to our pitching staff, and our pitching diminished. But J.D. had the best year of his career playing for us. So we got what we needed. But unfortunately, this is the nature of our business. The rest of our team didn't stay together, physically and ability-wise. While he did his job, we couldn't maximize on that. That's the nature of what we do. We make these judgments. We make these analyses. We had an overwhelming positive feeling in our group to do all the things in our deal because we needed a guy like J.D. Drew."
Marquis went 15-7 with a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts, King went 5-2 with a 2.61 ERA in 86 appearances and the Cardinals used the money saved on Drew to sign Jeff Suppan and Reggie Sanders. The Cards won 105 games and the NL pennant before the Red Sox swept them in the World Series.
Wainwright made his big league debut in 2005 before joining the Cardinals' bullpen full time in '06. He replaced injured closer Jason Isringhausen in the postseason and helped the Cards win the World Series.
Wainwright moved to the rotation in 2007, and he quickly developed into one of the best pitchers in baseball.
"It was a fun trade," Jocketty said. "I've always admired John. I call him my idol. I've always looked up to him. It was fun dealing with a guy who is one of the top guys in the game. We felt it was a good deal for both sides. We both ended up with what we wanted and needed, and we were both satisfied. That's always been my philosophy, because you want to be able to work with the club again."
"This was before everybody was deep into the statistics," Gebhard added. "You looked at your scouting reports. You made calls to your Minor League managers who may have seen some of these players in the Minor Leagues. You get their opinions. You try to gather all the information you can to make the best trade possible. In the perfect world, two general managers have to continue to work with each other, so you try to make it fair for both parties."
But make no mistake: in the end, this is a competition -- just like the one on the field.
"I'd be disingenuous if I said as a general manager you don't want to make a trade that you didn't get the best of," Schuerholz said. "It doesn't have to be by a wide margin. It could be one or two percent. You want to have a deal that helps your team. If it also helps the other team, so be it. None of us are Boy Scouts. We're all competitive and aggressive. We all want our team to get better. We make deals to make our team better."
These days, most trades are discussed, debated and consummated via phone, email and text. A five-player trade hashed out over cocktails in the hotel bar at the Winter Meetings? That happens less and less.
Maybe this year will be different.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.