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December 23, 2009

On the Beat

Midweek Update

by John Perrotto

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Frank Wren had one big chip available in an effort to try to get his team over the hump and better positioned to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2005. The Braves' general manager played it Tuesday; time will tell whether he used it wisely.

Wren was in the unusual and enviable position of having six major-league caliber starting pitchers for five spots, providing him the opportunity to trade one in an effort to bolster the offense. Thus, he shipped right-hander Javier Vazquez and left-handed reliever Boone Logan to the Yankees for outfielder Melky Cabrera, rookie right-handed reliever Mike Dunn, and top pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino.

Vazquez was one of the top starting pitchers in the major leagues last season, finishing ninth with a 7.4 SNLVAR. Yet the Braves decided to gamble and trade Vazquez, who can become a free agent at the end of the season. Vizcaino has the potential to be the biggest part of the return for the Braves, as BP's Kevin Goldstein ranked him as the Yankees' second-best prospect behind catcher Jesus Montero just a day before the trade. However, Vizcaino will likely be pitching at Low-A Rome when next season opens, and he will have no impact on the 2010 pennant race, something the Braves hope to be a part of after staying in the National League wild card chase until the last days of the 2009 season.

Thus, it is Cabrera who the Braves hope can help right away. The 25-year-old has been long on hype throughout his career but short on production. In fact, Cabrera was the closest thing resembling an anchor in a Yankees' lineup that led the major leagues in runs scored last season with an average of 5.65 a game. The center fielder had a .267 EqA, the lone regular with a mark lower than .287. Thus, you get the feeling Yankees GM Brian Cashman isn't crying over spilled Melk, especially in the wake of acquiring a capable replacement two weeks ago at the winter meetings in Indianapolis by trading for the Tigers' Curtis Granderson.

Yet Wren believes the 25-year-old switch-hitting Cabrera can bolster a Braves' lineup that was 17th in the majors with an average of 4.54 runs scored a game. Cabrera is expected to play right field, joining a starting outfield that presently includes Matt Diaz in left and Nate McLouth in center but seemingly lacks an impact bat. Throw in the fact the Braves would be forced to rush first base prospect Freddie Freeman to the major leagues if the season started today and it's hard to see how the offense is very much improved, pending subsequent pickups.

It also seems Wren might have forced the issue by trading Vazquez now instead of waiting for better offers, especially when the free agent market is soft on starting pitching this winter. Wren, though, believes he made the right deal. "I don't think there was anything magic to the timing other than when you find a good match," Wren said. "When we started getting deeper into conversations over the weekend, we thought we found a good match-then we just felt it was time to move forward. We wanted to look for the deal that improves our club the most."

Though they won't admit it publicly, the starter the Braves wanted to trade was right-hander Derek Lowe. He had just a 3.1 SNLVAR in 2009, the first season of the four-year, $60 million contract he signed as a free agent, a deal the Braves would love to take back. Since there was no chance they would part with young ace Jair Jurrjens, the Braves knew Vazquez was their most alluring bait.

The Braves now have money to play with in order to find help at first base, the outfield, or both. There is a feeling they will eventually re-sign first baseman Adam LaRoche as a free agent because it is a move being strongly advocated by third baseman and franchise icon Chipper Jones. The Braves have also been mentioned as a possible suitor for another former Yankees center fielder, free agent Johnny Damon, who could play left field and allow Diaz to slot as the fourth outfielder.

Of course, the Braves could just put 20-year-old mega-prospect Jason Heyward in their Opening Day outfield, but they would prefer to give him a little more time at Triple-A Gwinnett after he played just three games there at the end of last season then missed most of the Arizona Fall League season with a strained buttock.

"We feel like we've got some good pieces for our outfield, and we want to add more offense," Wren said.

---

The Yankees loaded up on free agents last winter, spending an almost incomprehensible $423.5 million to sign Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. This winter, Cashman has gone the trade route in his attempt to strengthen a team that went 103-59 and won the World Series last season, as he has dealt for Granderson and Vazquez.

While Cashman hasn't been quite The Cash Man this time, the Yankees did take on the three years and $25.75 million remaining on Granderson's contract and will pay Vazquez $11.5 million in 2010. That leads to the age-old question of whether the Yankees have an unlimited budget. "I do have a number I'm working under," Cashman said. "We will be under that number."

The Yankees seem determined to stay under $200 million, as even the sport's most well-heeled franchise is sensitive to claims it bought the franchise's 27th World Series title with last winter's spending spree. Yet there are many people around baseball who believe owner Hal Steinbrenner will give Cashman the OK to go over the $200 million threshold to sign a premier free agent such as Matt Holliday or Jason Bay to fill the hole in left field created when they decided not to re-sign Damon last week.

Cashman, though, is adamant that neither Holliday nor Bay is coming to New York. "We'll continue to look at any remaining pieces, but it won't be a big piece," Cashman said. "So any speculation about some high-end players with dollars attached on a large scale would be inappropriate."

---

Holliday is still unsigned with the holidays fast approaching, and agent Scott Boras said there is no sense of urgency to have him under contract before the calendar turns to 2010 a week from Friday.

"The acquisition of a franchise talent is not about a wristwatch," Boras told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold. "That's about all I can tell you. It's not a particular time. It's about the club recognizing the benefit of having that player and how they'll be dramatically impacted by the loss of that player. When that realization takes place, when there is recognition of the player's place in the market, then you have an agreement."

Boras' clients have been noted for staying on the market longer than most. Teixeira did not agree to terms with the Yankees last winter until December 23, while left fielder Manny Ramirez did not re-sign with the Dodgers until after spring training had started. When in doubt, Boras always prefers to watch the market fully develop rather than strike a quick deal. "You can take time, because things always get more defined in time," Boras said.

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Giants, after losing out to the Yankees on free-agent first baseman Nick Johnson, continue to look for hitting on the open market and are targeting catcher Rod Barajas, third baseman Adrian Beltre, and outfielder Marlon Byrd. The Cardinals' Plan B for left field if they are unable to resign Holliday is to bring back Mark DeRosa as a free agent, though there is some sentiment in the organization to giving the job to prospect Allen Craig. Free-agent outfielder Xavier Nady is drawing considerable interest as a free agent despite playing just seven games last season for the Yankees before undergoing Tommy John surgery. He is a possibility for the Braves, Yankees, and Cardinals, among others.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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