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The Yunel Escobar Trade: Atlanta’s Perspective

Earlier this afternoon Toronto and Atlanta consummated a trade that, at first glance, looks like a head-scratcher. Atlanta, ahead in the NL East by four games, traded their starting shortstop, Yunel Escobar, to the Blue Jays for a direct replacement, Alex Gonzalez, and two prospects. It’s easy to see Toronto’s perspective on this one, since they acquired a 27-year-old established MLB shortstop who has three more years until he reaches free agency. But why would the Braves trade away such a player for a 33-year-old in the midst of a career year that could come tumbling back to earth at any second?

Escobar established himself as a one of the league’s better shortstops last year, producing 4.3 WAR, fifth among shortstops in the majors. He accomplished that with a .357 wOBA, also fifth among MLB shortstops, and a slightly above average UZR. This year his defensive numbers have improved, a 4.4 UZR, but his offense has dropped off considerably. His wOBA has fallen all the way to .291, mostly because of his complete power outage. Of the 62 hits he’s collected this season just 12 have gone for extra bases, all doubles. That leaves his ISO at .046, sixth lowest among qualified major leaguers. The Braves just haven’t been realizing the production they expected from him.

Even so, it doesn’t seem likely that the Braves would trade a 27-year-old merely because he underperformed for half a season. They’re certainly playing to win this year, but that doesn’t mean they need to jettison a player who not only can help them in the future, but who might recover to produce a quality second half. From many accounts, the Braves based their decision on more than Escobar’s poor performance. There have been rumblings that the Braves don’t like Escobar’s demeanor and attitude, so perhaps they thought that his time had run its course in Atlanta. It wouldn’t be the first time it happened.

The Braves have a history of trading or otherwise getting rid of useful players with whom they became dissatisfied for one reason or another. For instance, a 22-year-old Tim Spooneybarger pitched very well for them in the bullpen in 2002, but they traded him in the off-season to Florida for Mike Hampton, who had pitched horribly in the first two years of his mega contract. Spooneybarger pitched 33 innings for the Marlins before requiring two Tommy John surgeries. Hampton went on to be a useful starter for Atlanta from 2003 and 2004.

Marcus Giles is another example of the Braves moving a player before his value bottomed out. From 2003 through 2005 he provided excellent value at the plate and in the field, producing 6.7, 2.9, and 5.3 WAR seasons. But in 2006 his production fell off from both ends, a .323 wOBA and a -5.6 UZR. The Braves non-tendered him rather than grant him a pay raise in his final year of arbitration. He signed on to play with his brother in San Diego, but was again horrible, a .283 wOBA and -4.7 UZR, producing -0.1 WAR. He hasn’t played in the majors since.

(And who could forget John Rocker, who was terrible from the second the Braves traded him in 2001?)

In terms of the present, Gonzalez provides the Braves with an instant fill-in at shortstop. He is in the midst of a career year, a .341 wOBA that rests mostly on the power of his .238 ISO. Power seems to be the only positive aspect of his offensive performance right now, as his OBP sits at .296. He still plays an excellent shortstop, a 3.1 UZR to this point, and he’s likely to continue providing the Braves with quality defense. On offense, however, chances are he’ll start hitting more like his .299 career wOBA.

The Braves did receive a couple of prospects in the deal, though neither ranked among the Blue Jays’ top 10. Marc Hulet mentioned that the two players, Tyler Pastornicky and Tim Collins, could have hit his Blue Jays top 10, but instead just missed the cut. Baseball America ranked Pastornicky 17th and Collins 19th in the organization. Pastornicky might have been the key to the trade, since he now profiles as a player who can eventually take over at shortstop. He’s just in A+ ball right now, but he’s just 20 and could move through the ranks to join the Braves in 2012. Here’s what BA says about him:

An athletic infielder, Pastornicky doesn’t have flashy tools but gets the most out of what he has. He has good instincts at shortstop, along with plus range and an average arm. He’s an above-average runner and basestealer, which opposing catchers quickly figured out as he swiped 57 bases between two Class A stops in 2009. Pastornicky has a line-drive stroke and projects as .275 hitter in the big leagues. The only thing he lacks is power, as he has hit just two homers in 636 pro at-bats. But as a potential top-of-the-order hitter who provides sound defense, he may not need it.

Tim Collins was an undrafted free agent when former Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi saw him play at Rhode Island CC. Chances are he fell out of the draft because of his frame — he’s listed at 5’7″ and 155 pounds — but he has done nothing but dominate in the minors. He walked a few too many hitters in 2008 and 2009, but he kept his strikeout rate remarkably high. This year, at AA New Hampshire, he has struck out 73 in 43 inning while walking just 16. Again, BA has a scouting report:

He gets outs with a solid fastball that tops out at 93 mph and a true 12-to-6 curveball that he spins really well. His quirky delivery helps him as well. He has a high three-quarters arm slot and does an especially good job of staying on top of the ball and driving down despite his height. He has a high leg kick and stands as far to the third-base side of the rubber as possible.

Scouts always have worries about the durability of smaller players, which probably hurts Collins’s stock now, just like it did in the 2007 draft. Still, he seems like a nice get for the Braves, who have already assembled a good bullpen. Like Pastornicky, Collins probably won’t crack the big league roster until 2012 at the earliest, though a mid-year call-up next year doesn’t seem all that outlandish a proposition.

After further examination, this trade doesn’t seem nearly as bad for the Braves as it did at first glance. Toronto still won their end, but that doesn’t preclude the Braves from claiming victory as well. They’ve gotten rid of a player whom they clearly do not like, and replaced him with a player who, if nothing else, will provide value on defense. The prospects also help out, and while neither projects as a future star both can be useful pieces in a year or two. Maybe it’s a win, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. But it doesn’t look like the clear loss I had imagined when digging into the topic.