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Bourn Seeks Playoff Identity In Atlanta

The Braves finally got in on one of the most active trade deadlines in recent memory Sunday morning, when they acquired Michael Bourn from the Astros. In doing so, the Braves were able to part with quantity over quality and get a guy who perfectly fits their ballclub.

As Bradley Woodrum noted at the All-Star break, the Braves were only getting a .310 wOBA from their leadoff spot at the break, and matters haven’t improved any since. After Jordan Schafer and his anorexic .291 wOBA went down, the Braves had tried Martin Prado, Nate McLouth and Jose Costanza at leadoff. While the Braves at least gave us a chance to relive some choice Seinfeld moments, that wasn’t really helping them win ballgames.

Enter Bourn. Perhaps sensing he might be traded at the deadline, Bourn has been on fire for the past two months. Since the Astros hit Chicago at the end of May for a set with the Cubs, Bourn has been hitting .339/.388/.446, with 14 doubles, five triples and 21 stolen bases against just five times caught stealing. For the season, Bourn’s wOBA is a robust .353, eighth among qualified center fielders and certainly the best available on the trade market.

With McLouth on the disabled list and Schafer heading out in the trade, Bourn slides right into center for the Braves. Bourn has accumulated a WAR of 3.6 this season, and has established himself as just shy of a five-win player. Plug that into a spot in the lineup that had only generated 0.9 WAR so far thus season (25th in the Majors) and you have what should be an upgrade of at least a win over the remainder of the season — plus the Braves get him for 2012 as well. No matter what the total is for the rest of this season though, the Braves are setting themselves up as optimally as possible in that they slotted in the best available center fielder into one of the two black holes in their lineup. It’s a much better situation than the Braves would have faced had they acquired someone like Carlos Quentin and then had to figure out how to fake center field and keep all the big bats in the lineup at the same time.

The same can not be said due north in Philadelphia, where instead of allowing Hunter Pence to replace the warm-congealed-chunks-of-milk version of Raul Ibanez, they have once more partaken in tradition-is-best hijinks and sent down Domonic Brown instead. The difference between Bourn and Schafer is roughly three wins, very similar to the difference between Pence and Ibanez, but Brown narrows that gap significantly, and would likely have continued to narrow it in August, unfamiliarity with left field be damned. If the Braves do mount a comeback charge for the National League East crown, that will certainly be a decision the Phillies regret.

Also unlike the Phillies — and Giants and Indians — the Braves did not part with the cream of the crop on the farm in order to land Bourn. They land a year and change of Bourn without having had to sacrifice top-shelft talent. First, Schafer was obviously expendable in this deal. Few, if any teams carry three true center fielders on their roster, and with McLouth the better bat, the offense-starved Braves wouldn’t have had a spot for Schafer. Schafer had briefly resurrected his career this year as a defense-first guy, generating an UZR of 1.8 in just 440 innings in the field, and when the dust settles in Houston, he could end up with, if not a starting role, at least a Major League job throughout their rebuilding process.

The Astros also net three Minor League pitchers. Chief among them is Brett Oberholtzer, who while he didn’t make our own Marc Hulet’s top 10 this spring or Keith Law’s, he was ninth on Baseball America’s list. The 21-year old has held up well at Double-A, but his strikeout to walk ratio has dipped from 5.94 at High-A to 2.21 this season. His teammate in Mississippi, Paul Clemens, is two years closer to being able to rent a car, but performance-wise is his junior, as Clemens’ 3.80 FIP can’t touch Oberholtzer’s 3.36 mark. Finally, 26-year old Juan Abreu could fill the “Wild Thing” role for the Houston bullpen in the near term, as he is striking out more than 12 batters per nine innings but also walking more than five at Triple-A Gwinnett. All of these guys have some upside to them, and will supply Houston with much needed depth in their system, but none are likely to be missed in the same manner that recently departed pitchers like Jarred Cosart, Zack Wheeler and Drew Pomeranz might.

Outside of shortstop, where the Braves seem comfortable with the ineptitude of Alex Gonzalez, center field was hurting the Braves the most. Michael Bourn represents the best possible fit for that position, and in netting the next six-eight wins of his career without giving up blue chippers to do so, the Braves certainly win this deal in the short term, and possibly the long term as well.