Tuesday, December 2, 2008

They Have Had Good Luck With Players Named Javier

The Javier Vazquez deal seems pretty much official at this point. Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer David O'Brien says the Braves are giving up minor leaguers Brent Lillibridge, Jon Gilmore, Santos Rodriguez and Tyler Flowers for Vazquez and left-handed reliever Boone Logan. Those names aren't officially official yet, but O'Brien's awfully good at his job, so I'll work under the assumption that he's right here.

The Braves have coveted Vazquez for years, dating back to 2002, when they reportedly refused to trade Horacio Ramirez for him. So the fact that Vasquez is finally a Brave isn't much of a surprise; he was destined to spend time in Atlanta, if only when he turned 42 and started casting about for NRIs.

Fortunately it didn't come to that. Vazquez has never lived up to either his stuff or his peripherals. He had a 4.67 ERA last year despite 200 strikeouts in 208 1/3 innings. His career ERA of 4.32 (just five percent better than league average) is well above what his strikeout rate and K/BB ratio would indicate.

A lot of that is tied up in his home run rate; he's given up more than one home run per 10 innings in every year of his career. Moving away from the American League and New Comiskey Park and setting up shop in Turner Field should help there. What Vasquez does do with consistency is eat innings; since 2000 his lowest innings pitched total is 198, and he's usually well above 210. For a Braves team that's had serious issues keeping pitchers healthy and taking their turn in the rotation, Vazquez's reliability will be helpful.

The biggest loss in the group going to Chicago is Flowers, a powerful catching prospect whose name was thrown around in the aborted Jake Peavy discussions. Flowers hit .288/.427/.494 in the hitter's hell that is Myrtle Beach; he was slightly old for the league, but he backed up that performance by going to the Arizona Fall League and clobbering the pitching there.

Losing Flowers stings. GM Frank Wren can rationalize trading him by pointing out that the Braves have a 24-year-old All Star locked into the catcher's position for the next decade or so. That certainly makes Flowers more expendable. But he was hardly locked into the first base position; Flowers has played 92 games at first base in his minor league career, and playing that position he could conceivably have made it to Atlanta in 2009. It would have required a scorching start in AA and yet more struggles for Casey Kotchman, but it was possible.

Wren's fears on that score were undoubtedly somewhat assuaged by the presence of Freddie Freeman, an 18 year old who put up an .899 OPS in Low-A ball.

The other big loss is shortstop Brent Lillibridge. Lillibridge came over from the Pirates in the January 2007 Adam LaRoche-Mike Gonzalez trade. At that time he was a speedy shortstop with impressive plate discipline and surprising pop. But after two years in the Braves system his best performance came at Richmond in 2007 where he put up an unimpressive .287/.331/.436 line.

His performance cratered last year. He struggled mightily in Atlanta, and that garnered most of the attention from fans, but even in Richmond he only managed to hit .220/.294/.344. Lillibridge struck out 90 times in 355 AAA at-bats, which would be a troublesome rate from a slugging first baseman. For a speedy, diminutive shortstop, it's not going to earn him any friends. It's far too early to shovel dirt on Lillibridge's prospect status, and the White Sox could use a talented young shortstop, but I can't shed too many tears.

I'm not familiar with Gilmore and Rodriguez. Santos struck out scads of hitters in Rookie Ball, but the road to the majors is strewn with the corpses of pitchers who struck out scads of hitters in Rookie Ball. Gilmore became a decent OBP guy in my Baseball Mogul simulations, so he's got that to anticipate.

Strictly as a talent swap I like this deal, and I give it a tentative thumbs up, even with Flowers involved. But I worry about the strategic wisdom of the trade. The whole idea of the "success cycle" has become a tiresome meme (thanks Baseball Prospectus!), but it has some validity. Vazquez is a nice pitcher, but the Braves are not a reliable innings eater away from competing in 2009. Nor are they two good pitchers away from competing. Wren can fill an oil tanker with money and back it up to AJ Burnett's door, but Burnett and Vasquez aren't going to haul Atlanta to Philadelphia's level. Unless Wren adds a slugger at one of the corner outfield positions, the Braves are going to need an otherworldly helping of luck to reach the playoffs in 2009, even with those two pitchers.

If the Braves had passed on Vazquez and held on to Flowers, he might have blown up in AA and pushed his way into Atlanta's lineup. Or they could have dangled an elite catching prospect on the trade market and used him in a deal for a younger asset at a position of need. He could also tank against AA pitching and lose all his value. That's the gamble you take.

Vazquez is signed through 2010 at $11.5 million per year; it appears the Braves will be paying all of that.

1 comment:

Tanto said...

The Braves have been after Vazquez for so long that it's weird to actually have him. I swear that there are records of the Braves having interest in Vazquez on primitive cave paintings. Now all the Braves need to do is acquire Ken Griffey Jr. and Juan Pierre and the triad of "Guys we should go get" will be complete.

I don't think the Braves are going to miss any of the guys they gave up in this trade -- it's basically a utility infielder and three lottery tickets -- but I agree that the insight it gives us into the front office's mindset is distressing. Thankfully, it appears that they're concentrating mostly on free agents at this point, and while I'd just as soon not see them offer A.J. Burnett 75 million dollars, it's just money, and if they must acquire veterans I'd rather see them go that route rather than the "Trade all the prospects" one.

I can't help but be mildly annoyed that this is the offseason when the team decides to start spending -- the offseason when it helps them the least. Spend some money in 2007 and the Braves are in the playoffs, spend some money in 2009 and they can wage a spirited battle for third place.