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December 3, 2008
Transaction of the Day
A Peach of a Deal
Acquired C-R Tyler Flowers, SS-R Brent Lillibridge, 3B-R Jon Gilmore, and LHP Santos Rodriguez for RHP Javier Vazquez and LHP Boone Logan. [12/2]
While Sox fans have reason to be concerned that dealing Vazquez and not getting a starter close to ready coming back in the deal exposes them to a rotation of Danks, Buehrle, Floyd, humming a few bars, and getting back to Danks, Buehrle, and Floyd, let's remember that familiarity bred contempt for a few of the team's high-profile pickups of late, notably departing free agent Orlando Cabrera, but not excepting Vazquez.
Flowers is the obvious prize, though his glove work behind the dish is questionable enough that he's no sure thing. Which is not to say this is a bad pack, it's just that it's comprised of disparate parts, players on different trajectories moving at different speeds who might answer different needs at different times. Lillibridge can run and he can handle short well enough, but he was also highly overrated after a batting average-inflated 2006 season, and there's a pretty good chance he's just a utility player who allows the Sox to wean themselves from the Age of Ozuna once and for all. He's not a bad add, but he's also probably not a starting shortstop that lets the Sox move Alexei Ramirez to third instead of short, which means the Ramirez-at-short experiment isn't being ended before it gets started. Lillibridge also doesn't pose much danger for Chris Getz at second. So, he's filler.
What about the young third baseman, Jon Gilmore? Although he got a taste of Sally League last season before moving back down to short-season A-ball in the Appy League, Gilmore has yet to graduate to full-season league. That's fine-as a 2007 supplemental first-round pick in his age-19 season, the goal was to see how well the athletic former high school shortstop and quarterback adjusted to the pro game. He gets plenty of credit for a quick bat, readily reflected in his peppering Appalachia at a .337/.365/.473 clip, or what might be more easily described as a lot of singles and doubles. His glove work at third is still a bit rough, but he has the hands, arm, and grace to handle the position. Maybe these gifts mean that the Sox have found their new Joe Crede type a few years down the line. Maybe, and it's worth waiting to see, but still only a 'maybe,' with the acumen of Sox scouting duly taken into account. In the meantime, it's still looking like Wilson Betemit and maybe Josh Fields at third, a solid bit of placeholding I like, but might do less for you.
I really don't have a lot to say about Rodriguez, who isn't exactly a tall drink of water out of the Dominican: 6'5" but listed at 180, he's more of a swizzle stick, but 45 strikeouts in 29 GCL innings has a way of really catching the eye on the printed page, and those are the product of an arm that delivers 90-93 mph heat. Despite what five wild pitches might convey, reports on his wildness are not to be exaggerated.
Which brings us back to the player who has to make this deal really work, Flowers. Getting a top catching prospect is a good idea in the abstract, and it's interesting (in light of all the attention) that Kenny Williams managed to pull it off with a team that wasn't the Rangers. What makes him a prospect is that he's a catcher who hits, and heading into what will be his age-23 season, he's also ready for Double-A, which puts him into the range of possibilities as far as arriving at the end of '09 if that goes really well, and perhaps more reasonably 2010. (Which matters, in light of the club's financial commitment to A.J. Pierzynski through that very season.) He put the hurt on the Carolina League as something more than just a Three True Outcomes type, thwacking 32 doubles from a .288 clip while also delivering 200 walks and strikeouts in 520 PA (split almost evenly, 98 walks and 102 whiffs). While everyone's worked up over his exceptional AFL performance, I wouldn't get worked up over the numbers there-I still have that James Mouton hangover to live down-as much as they represent a continuation of his second-half breakout for Myrtle Beach, hitting .328/.454/.586 after the league's all-star break. If you want to believe that might make him the new Piazza, you can be forgiven that-it's clear that he's breaking out, and might climb the ladder fast.
In this organization, concern over his catching skills is less of a stumbling block than it was with a team that has Brian McCann. Even so, concerns over his receiving skills and his bulk should give his new organization pause; without improving his footwork and release times, throwing out 28 percent of opposing baserunners in the Carolina League seems likely to go down against more polished basestealers at higher levels. More interesting still in the winter of speculation over whether or not CC Sabathia's too big a signing to risk, in physical as well as financial dimensions. Keep in mind that Flowers isn't simply big-listed at 6'4" and 245 pounds, he's taller and heavier than Lance Parrish, and heavier than Andy Allanson and Joe Mauer, the largest backstops of recent memory. Search through Baseball Reference (all hail Sean Forman), there have been only six catchers who were both 6'2" or taller and 230 or heavier since 1901: Ernie Lombardi, Javy Lopez, Pete Varney (briefly a White Sox backup backstop in the '70s), and three current catchers, Ronny Paulino of the Pirates, A.J. Ellis of the Dodgers, and Colt Morton with the Padres. Lopez and Lombardi were never considered defensive assets, but the latter three get good marks. However, everyone on this list is smaller than Flowers, and as Kevin Goldstein noted in his Top 11 for the Braves, it's not a good weight.
To recap, I can accept a big bet on Flowers being something at the plate because of the development curve, even while I think that taking the risk that he could pan out at catcher is pretty speculative. Basically, the bat could play at first and DH, and in an organization employing Jim Thome for one more year and Paul Konerko for two, that has value to the Sox even if he doesn't pan out at catcher. Gilmore and Rodriguez are long-term markers, guys we won't really know whether the tools translate into high confidence-level projectable results for another couple of years, but both are worth having. Lillibridge might have the most name recognition; you'll get over that.
Was it worth tearing out one plank of the rotation that propelled the Sox to the postseason this year? I'm inclined to think so, because Vazquez wasn't cheap, the Sox need all kinds of talent, and this year's division title was something of a nice surprise that helps buy Kenny Williams and company breathing room and credibility as they embark on a rebuild. The real question is whether or not they could have gotten more, but that's speculative and best. If they were talking turkey with the Braves but couldn't land one of the center fielders, it's easy to suggest you take your Vazquez and go elsewhere, but given that a lot of teams don't have any more love for the well-traveled right-hander than the Sox had, that's easier said than done, and there's not much reason to anticipate he's got another 2007 season in him, not in light of his performance in the other four of the last five years.
The Braves haven't been to the playoffs since 2005, not for lack of trying. In that time, regearing the lineup with younger, better parts continued as smoothly as before, with prospects like Brian McCann, Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, and seemingly Jeff Francouer all successfully integrated. Think about that for a second: three quality up-the-middle regulars, with Jordan Schafer and Gorkys Hernandez on the way up to potentially complete the set. Add that sort of good stuff to Chipper Jones on one corner or another, and you have a lineup that ought to be part of a contender. Same old Braves, right?
The problem's been the team's pitching.* However, last year's reunion rotation didn't solve all their problems, nor did the recent abandonment of what had been a decades-long experience with the fundamental replaceability of most relief pitching. Keeping the rotation going with thirtysomethings hasn't really worked out so well in the last several seasons: eventually, old men break down or peter out. Mike Hampton was less than what they needed, and then he wasn't even that the last four years. John Smoltz got old, Tim Hudson's busted, and bringing back Tom Glavine proved as lamentable in practice as it appeared at first blush. Anticipated retread successes, another regular feature in the glory days, with John Thomson and Jorge Sosa didn't work out. Home-grown hurler Chuck James disappeared under a welter of walks and homers before breaking down. Nabbing Jair Jurrjens from the Tigers and Jorge Campillo off the rejects pile kept things going nicely last season, but that did not a rotation make, and the Braves' unit finished 11th in the league in SNLVA Rate, 12th in Expected Wins, and next to last in starter innings pitched in 2008.
So yeah, they need starting pitching. They also have a gaggle of desireable prospects, and apparently they still want to give this contending thing a shot, rather than curl up for a year and wait for the kids. Like a lot of teams, the Braves aren't affording themselves the time to rebuild, and they instead focus on retooling. That can mean making space for the kids once they come, but it also means some more of the same, getting somebody else's thirtysomething starter, somebody already under contractual control. Landing Vazquez is just the latest iteration of this particular play, and while I like the deal, it's important to recognize that this is an act of repetition to keep this club hanging around an 80-win talent level that automatically puts you in the playoff picture in the senior circuit.
Of himself, Vazquez is a decent enough pickup, a mid-rotation starter who's flirted with being slightly more than that at times. Last season's .504 SNLVA Rate doesn't sound great, rating 91st among all big-league starters with 100 IP, a big drop from his 2007 mark of .566, but of a piece with his 2006 mark of .500. Arguments that he'll be happier and perhaps more dominant in the NL have to go back to his Expos days more than five years ago, and conveniently overlook that he was as adequate as ever in his season with the Snakes in 2005 (.531), which wasn't all that much better than his much-lamented season with the Yankees in '04 (.520). It's more important to accept that his range is as a guy who'll give you 30 starts or more, and give you solid performance, not dominance. That's entirely acceptable, of course, especially when the alternative might be a call to a tanned, rested, and forever unready Rick Behenna.
The change of leagues is going to help him of course, but not really because getting out of the Cell is going to make a big difference for him-in his three seasons as a White Sock, he allowed 4.4 R/9 against 4.9 R/9 on the road. No, what's going to make a difference for Vazquez is his problem with getting through the sixth inning, which has been especially tough for Vazquez in recent seasons. As a matter of timing, that's usually around when a starting pitcher is seeing the heart of the order the third time, but in the NL, with the pitcher's slot generating easier outs, that might happen a little later in an individual start. If Vazquez's problem is a combination of the best hitters getting a good look at him and running out of gas around his 90th pitch, that can be mitigated a bit by a manager more inclined to recognize the need to hook him while the hooking's good, instead of a skipper who dares you to finish what you started, and then gets understandably cranky when you predictably don't. Assuming the exchange of the pitcher for the DH helps avoid his past problems of hitting the wall against a lineup's best the third time through, Vazquez could wind up with a superficially excellent-seeming season if Bobby Cox hooks him after six innings. Cox wouldn't have to be obvious about it and insult Vazquez's dignity-NL skippers always have pinch-hitting and double-switch possibilities to bring into play-and Vazquez wouldn't really be a radically different pitcher. He'd simply be given the advantage of being lifted before he was pushed into too many of those unhappy third at-bats against the people who can hurt him.
The financial element of this deal shouldn't be underrated. While Vazquez isn't cheap-$23 million over 2009 and 2010-put that money in the context of the current market. You simply can't get a known quantity like Vazquez for a two-year deal from among this winter's free agents. Put this move up against spending more over three or four years for some mid-market rotation regular, and this move comes across as especially inspired as an adaptation to what little time the Braves have left to run as Chipper Jones' ballclub. If they can't make a better play at contention in 2009 than they have the last three years, it won't be a matter of turning the page-it will have already been turned and glued shut.
Finally, on the most fundamental level you have to credit the Braves for what this deal boils down to in terms of impact at the big-league level: they got a solid mid-rotation starter, and they didn't have to give up any of their better prospects in the deal. Sure, skip putting Jason Heyward or Tommy Hanson into an exchange of this nature, but they didn't even have to deal from their second rank, the guys like Jordan Schafer and Gorkys Hernandez, and this despite the fact that they're making a trade with a team that needs a center fielder? Admittedly, if the Sox had gotten Hernandez or Schafer, that would have been a real coup, but I don't mean to beat up on Kenny Williams in this space-he did apparently try to get them, and he didn't. The Braves were willing to deal from depth in prospects and take on salary, and working with an organization that could use the salary space and the talent. From Frank Wren on down, the Braves deserve credit in targeting Vazquez-rarely in Ozzie Guillen's favor for any great length of time-and getting him relatively reasonably with prospects they could afford to trade away.
As for getting Logan, I guess I'm of two minds on the subject. He's a lefty who cooks with gas, but he's also acquired a rep as a guy not especially gifted with a lot of aptitude. Maybe Roger McDowell will reach him where another good pitching coach, Don Cooper, apparently struggled, but I'm reluctant to get as enthusiastic about adding Logan as I was yesterday about the organization's grabbing Eric O'Flaherty on waivers. If I had to put O'Flaherty, Logan, and Jeff Ridgway in some particular order, that would be it, and it's nice that all of them have better than average velocity for southpaws. While I doubt that Emperor Charles V was talking about lefty relief help when he picked Plus ultra as his motto, I guess the Braves can take some satisfaction in achieving Redundancy plus ultra.
*: I know, as well as multiple meltdowns from among their non-Chipper options on the corners, but we'll set that aside for the time being-this is just my argument.