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July 14, 2010

Transaction Action

Going Gonzo

by Christina Kahrl and Kevin Goldstein

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Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Traded SS-R Alex Gonzalez, LHP Tim Collins, and MI-R Tyler Pastornicky to the Braves for LHP Jo-Jo Reyes and SS-R Yunel Escobar; designated RHP Ronald Uviedo for assignment. [7/14]

CK: So, we're all in understanding that this Yunel Escobar character and Bobby Cox don't seem to be likely to swap Christmas cards in the years to come, right? Cuteness aside, this was a lovely little move by Alex Anthopolous, and exactly the sort of thing he should be doing this season. Converting some or many of the veterans enjoying fine seasons on a surprisingly competitive Jays team isn't cynical, it represents a realistic appraisal of what this team's place is in the great chain of major-league being: fourth place in the AL East, again. Rather than stoically perpetuate that destiny, Anthopolous continued doing what he set out to do from the start, going about making something out of very little. This deal could very well be one of the foundation stones of that effort.

It's also a kudo to Anthopolous for exploiting position scarcity. Converting his off-season risk with Alex Gonzalez's spotty track record and considerable injury history into a talent the Jays will be able to use into the future might even shut up the folks who were so quick to condemn that off-season acquisition of an entirely employable veteran shortstop. With another potentially weak shortstop market to look forward to-another heaping helping of Alex Gonzalez, anyone?-he acquired a three-and-a-half-year answer for his organization at the position. While there was plenty of winter snark about Gonzo being worthless aside, those kinds of players can have value, especially to a contender that sees itself short of one. Even so, there was no way that Anthopolous could anticipate hitting this particular motherlode, in terms of being able to trade up at the cost of an additional pair of organizational players (albeit a pair with big-league upsides).

Escobar's performance this season has been fine in the field, and he's walking as well as ever. What's changed in his batting that has effectively ruined his season so far are two things: his pop-up rate has spiked dramatically, from a career rate that was below six percent before the season, and is at 16 percent in 2010. That suggests a lot of fruitless attempts to power pitches, but his strikeout rate hasn't changed any, while his BABIP has predictably dropped from .310 or better the previous three seasons to .270 this year.

Where things really get interesting is that you're putting him on the Blue Jays, a team where you've got plenty of free swingers with power-the exact opposite of what Escobar's become in 2010. Will working with hitting coach Dwayne Murphy and Cito Gaston help fix him? Or will they end up trading walks for power? An interesting point of comparison might be Fred Lewis, who came over this spring in another one of Anthopolous' nice little moves. Like Escobar, Lewis was coming over from the NL, and his walk rate has dropped while his power rates have improved-that without adjusting for moving to the tougher league and playing against the AL East an unhealthy amount of the time. Asking whether it's a matter of coaching or environment is to revisit the nature/nurture debate without being able to find an easy answer, but if Escobar's power comes back and his pop-up rate comes back down, that'll be another feather in Murphy's cap.

KG: For the Braves, Jo-Jo Reyes is just the throw-in in this deal, that extra guy who evens things up a bit. He's been given plenty of shots in the big leagues, with a 6.40 ERA over 194 innings to show for it, but if you see him on the right day, you still see a guy who at least should get big-league hitters out. A second-round pick in 2003, Reyes took some extra time to develop due to 2004 Tommy John surgery and knee problems the following year, but he has well above-average velocity for a left-hander, sitting at 90-92 mph while peaking at 95, but the pitch has always been a bit flat, and his curveball and change are no more than average. It's surprising that a move to the bullpen has never been tried with him, because with his ability to just let it fly in short stints, he might have more of a big-league future there.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Acquired SS-R Alex Gonzalez, LHP Tim Collins, and MI-R Tyler Pastornicky from the Blue Jays for LHP Jo-Jo Reyes and SS-R Yunel Escobar; designated RHP Ronald Uviedo for assignment. [7/14]

CK: Betting on Alex Gonzalez while he's slugging a career-high .497 in his age-33 season, seems crazy on more than a few levels, but ridding Bobby Cox of Escobar at least came with a goodie basket in the form of a pair of players who could end up being good secondary players in the major leagues. But Gonzo? He of the .296 OBP? Does this really sound like a win-now move?

In fairness, it was a winning move for the Red Sox last season, as his bat rallied after the trade, that despite entering a pennant race in the widely acknowledged best division in baseball. One thing to keep in mind as far as evaluating Gonzalez is how much injuries have marred his career from 2006-09. He didn't enjoy a fully healthy campaign in any of those four, missed 2008 altogether, and had to play through an injury-sapped 2009 made worse by the Reds' insistence on playing him at less than 100 percent as he made his way back, because they had their needs, and they figured he was close enough. So relying on his total record over recent seasons is a great way of obscuring our shot at a clean read on what Gonzo is good for. Once he'd healed up last season, he was a much better ballplayer once he came over to Boston.

Going to the numbers:

2006 Red Sox .255 .299 .397 .236 5.1% 15.6% .282 14% .142 -.156
2007 Reds .272 .325 .468 .268 5.6% 17.4% .298 19% .196 .044
2009 Reds .210 .258 .296 .200 5.6% 13.3% .231 13% .086 -.305
2009 Red Sox .284 .316 .453 .260 3.1% 18.2% .325 25% .169 -.004
2010 Blue Jays .259 .296 .497 .274 4.9% 18.7% .274 19% .238 .066
Career --- .248 .294 .402 .240 4.9% 18.4% .283 18% .154 ---

Despite time spent in the Gap, he didn't particularly profit from it, with just a .233/.290/.397 career line there. While his ghastly 2009 is largely responsible for that, even in his big 2007 season, he hit .242/.309/.440 there, against .306/.343/.500 everywhere else, or a lot like Alex Gonzalez at home, and more like an MVP candidate on the road. So he's never been a particularly park-generated fiction, but has instead been a guy easy to dismiss and tough to really get a clean read on because of injuries.

In the broad strokes, for the Braves this represents picking up about a win's worth of difference on offense if both Escobar and Gonzalez hit as they have. Escobar might or might not, but the problem with Gonzo is that he won't, because how real is his 2010? Well, completely real in terms of what's in the books already-he did all that stuff, against righties and lefties, without any particular park benefit. But he's come down considerably since his big April (.629 SLG), hitting .247/.287/.442 all told since May Day, or he's hit very sluggily, without providing his teammates behind him in the order many opportunities to hit with men on base. That said, in terms of his slugging at a career-high clip this season, he's done it despite facing some of the toughest pitching in baseball in terms of slugging allowed. Does that mean he can keep it up, while coming over to the easier league? That would be a too-high expectation, but I don't think a SLG of .450 as a Brave is that unrealistic, assuming he stays healthy-which is a huge if in Gonzo's case.

Since Gonzalez is only signed for this season, however, that's only a three-month bet that Frank Wren is making. It's a tough roll, given Gonzo's past history, it's effectively a bet for forever where Bobby Cox is concerned, because this deal really boils down to preferring Gonzo in Cox's last hurrah, and giving the skipper another strong defender who has experience with pennant races, where Escobar has an unhappy shared past with Cox. Should a manager have that much say over a franchise's future? Considering the Braves have so many other win-one-for-Bobby bets down on the pitching staff (with the additions of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito), or Troy Glaus' short-term deal instead of finding a long-term fix at first base, trading for Gonzalez is somewhat consistent. This is the end of the Braves as we knew them, a last run for Cox and Chipper Jones. Some of them will get out alive: Wren's future teams will have Jason Heyward and Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Brian McCann, but this season just became that much more a bookend on a period of franchise history that began in 1991.

On that score, with an eye to the future it's worth noting that there is also an element of salary dumping involved here, although it's somewhat subtle if you only focus on 2010 paydays, and not on the matter of team control. Gonzalez is only under contract for this season, where Escobar's about to enter his arbitration years, and with the club's 2011 option on Omar Infante, they may very well feel fine with their current options at shortstop, perhaps keeping Gonzo for a season if they like one another's company well enough, or effectively until they determine whether or not Mycal Jones is their eventual shortstop of the future.

If they don't retain Infante and/or Gonzo, there isn't a lot to choose from in next winter's market, but it says something, that they'd prefer Gonzo now and uncertainty later, to giving Escobar an unavoidable raise via arbitration. In terms of partial season expenses, that's not much of an outlay now, and it won't be relative to what Escobar stood to get with a threat of the panel to help him 2011-13. No doubt the bean-counters at Liberty Media are delighted.

Add in the worthwhile talent added to afford the Braves Bobby Cox's apparent preference to uninvite Yunel Escobar from his last campaign, and it's a deal I can understand from the Braves' perspective, if not exactly like it unreservedly.

KG: While he's not the best prospect in the minors, little lefty Tim Collins is certainly many scouts' favorite. Undrafted out of high school, former GM J.P. Ricciardi signed Collins out of a tryout camp (they're from the same hometown), and three-and-a-half seasons later he's in Double-A as a 20-year-old (he turns 21 in August) with 294 career strikeouts in 194 2/3 innings. It's obvious why he wasn't drafted, as even his listed height of 5-foot-7 is kind, but he has not only gotten it done at every level, he's downright dominated, with career rates of 13.6 strikeouts per nine innings against just 5.9 hits allowed. With arm action that is reminiscent of Tim Lincecum (how else could a kid this small throw this hard?), he sits at 90-92 mph and can touch 94, while his over-the-top delivery gives him deception, as well as a true 12-to-6 curveball that's a plus pitch, plus a solid-average changeup that provides a weapon against righties.

"If he was 6-foot-3, you'd be comparing him to Norm Charlton," said one scout who recently evaluated Collins. "I hate to classify him as a future specialist, because even though he's going to shut down left-handers, he's good against righties too." He's a pure reliever, almost solely because of his size, and his stuff just isn't good enough to close, but that doesn't mean he's not valuable. "He could be a middle guy, or even a set-up man," concluded the scout. "I could see him in a variety of relief roles, many of them high-leverage, but the bottom line is he's a big leaguer." Expect Collins to begin his Atlanta career at Double-A Mississippi, but he should get to Triple-A Gwinnett before the end of the year, and get a very real look for a big-league role next spring.

Pastornicky's father played ten games for the Royals in 1983, and is currently a scout, so it's no surprise that his son earns high marks for his makeup and baseball intelligence. He's a undersized grinder with one outstanding tool: his speed, which rates as a 60-65 on the scouting scale. He plays a good-not-great shortstop, and his arm is a bit short for the left side, but he can hold his own there, which helps his profile as a future utility player with a good approach and excellent contact skills.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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