ATLANTA - A team that already has baseball's best starting pitching is trying to strengthen its rotation.
Sources indicate the Braves are making a strong bid for Phillies right-hander Curt Schilling, who has a limited no-trade clause in his contract, but would agree to be traded to Atlanta.
Schilling, who will be in town Monday when the Phillies open a two-game series against the Braves, could switch clubhouses while he's here if the two teams can agree on a package of prospects.
Phillies general manager Lee Thomas is said to want a pair of pitching prospects in return for Schilling, who is 10-8 with a 3.50 ERA for baseball's worst team. The Braves are loaded with young pitching prospects and sources indicate they would be willing to include two in a deal for the right-hander.
"We need to and we hopefully will make some sort of deal that will help us, not just a trade for the sake of making a trade," Thomas said last week.
There are several pitchers at Class A Macon that would be attractive to the Phillies. The Braves might be willing to part with one or two of the following pitchers: Right-hander Rob Bell (9-5, 3.46 ERA), left-hander Bruce Chen (8-4, 3.69 ERA), right-hander Jason Marquis (11-4, 3.42 ERA) or left-hander Odalis Perez (3-4, 1.22 ERA). Or, the Phillies may attempt to pry right-hander David Cortes away from the Braves. Cortes was 2-0 with a 0.58 ERA at Macon before being promoted to Class A Durham, where he is 1-0 with a 2.16 ERA.
"Lee Thomas has told people I'll call whoever called," manager Bobby Cox said. "I don't think there's anything more than that. (Schilling) would make a lot of difference to a lot of teams. I think everybody is looking (for pitching)."
There's two reasons why the Braves are interested in Schilling. First, he would enhance a solid rotation, then he could move to the bullpen for the postseason and be a dominant setup man for closer Mark Wohlers. Second, with Schilling, the Braves would have some insurance if they are unable to sign free agent Greg Maddux this winter. Or, they could decide not to pursue Maddux if they acquire Schilling.
Pulled aside before the start of Saturday night's game in Columbus, Ohio, and told he was being called up by the Braves, Mike Cather tried to maintain his composure.
"You say, okay, but deep inside you're doing backflips," he said. "When I told my parents they just about dropped dead."
Still unable to believe their good fortune, Cather, Kevin Millwood and Chad Fox boarded a plane in Columbus, then turned toward each other and started laughing.
"It was a good day," Cather said. "I'm excited. I'm really anxious to get out there. This is the test of a lifetime."
The three young pitchers were among the first arrivals in the clubhouse Sunday afternoon, arriving more than five hours before game time. They were greeted warmly by a team desperately in need of some solid work from the bullpen.
Millwood, regarded as one of the game's best pitching prospects, will start the second game of the July 22 doubleheader in Chicago. Before then he will work from the bullpen and may pitch an inning tonight in relief of Chris Brock.
The right-hander, 5-0 with a 1.73 ERA at Richmond, says a more aggressive approach and less focus on strikeouts are the keys to his success.
"I'm going after hitters and not worrying about strikeouts," Millwood said. "I just try to get them out. Quick outs instead of striking everybody out."
Cather's route to the major leagues led through the independent Northern League, where he pitched for Winnipeg for half a season in 1995. That move was forced on him when he walked out on the Rangers after being asked to be a replacement player during the '95 strike.
Six weeks later, the Rangers released him, despite an 0-2 record and 3.32 ERA at Class AA Tulsa. Pitching at Winnipeg turned into a blessing in disguise.
Cather developed two new pitches while he was there, including a changeup he throws with three fingers which he calls a `sloth'. He doesn't have a dominant fastball like Millwood, but he throws two different fastballs, two different sliders, plus the changeup.
"That was a great experience in Winnipeg," he said. "I learned a lot in that league. I figured out a lot of things."
Fox's story is just as compelling. He blew out his elbow last July 16 while pitching at Richmond and underwent `Tommy John' surgery to replace a ligament July 23.
"I pulled out of Richmond that night in tears not knowing if I'd ever pitch again," he remembered. "I was pitching well this year and just hoping for a chance to pitch here in September."
Veteran catcher Tim Spehr arrived with the trio of young pitchers to replace the injured Javy Lopez. Released by the Royals and signed as insurance when Dave Valle retired last month, Spehr realizes his time here might be short, but that he'll probably return as a third catcher for the postseason.
"I was just looking for a chance when Kansas City released me," Spehr said. "I knew I probably wouldn't be able to hook on with a major league job. (Returning in October) is in the back of my mind, but just because they've carried three catchers before doesn't mean they'll do it again this year. You don't want to get your hopes up too high."