When Yunel Escobar is at the top of his game — and we saw the top of his game last season — he may be the Braves’ best all-around player. What general manager Frank Wren just did was take a risk that Escobar won’t see that upside again somewhere else.
Wren opened the second-half of the season with a stunning five-player trade with Toronto. The principals of the deal are both shortstops: The slumping Escobar goes to the Blue Jays. Alex Gonzalez comes back to the Braves.
It will be a while before the dust settles on this one.
Wren called Gonzalez “an outstanding shortstop” and a “very dangerous hitter.”
He added, “Speaking with [manager] Bobby [Cox], he’s a guy who Bobby says when he
comes to the plate you get the feeling that something will always happen.”
The Braves used to get that feeling about Escobar. Remember last season? He hit .299 with 14 homers and 76 RBIs. He hit .373 with runners in scoring position — which ranked third in the majors — and .335 with runners on base.
How quickly they forget.
When asked on a conference call if he was concerned that Escobar will reach his potential elsewhere, Wren said: “He very well may. He’s a talented guy. But for our ballclub right now we feel like we needed to make some adjustments.”
Let me translate: The Braves aren’t overly confident that Escobar will return to form after the All-Star break. They’re less concerned about him burning them further down the road than they are him hurting them in the pennant race this year. So they opted for a veteran, Gonzalez, who brings with him power and stability.
Wren again: “For the short term, this really improves our ball club.”
The Braves are giving up some age. Gonzalez is 33. Escobar is 27. Gonzalez also will be a free agent after next season and chances are he’s short-term in Atlanta.
He certainly is a proven player. He was an All-Star with Florida and played on the Marlins’ World Series team in 2003. He missed all of the 2008 season with Cincinnati with a compression fracture in his left knee. He hit only .210 with the Reds last season but was dealt in August to Boston, where he hit .284. This season with Toronto, his average is a modest .259, though he has hit 17 homers and 25 doubles, which could provide needed punch for the Braves’ lineup. But he has been inconsistent offensively in his career.
Escobar hit .326, .288 and .299 in his first three seasons. But he has dropped to only .241 this year and has yet to hit a home run. Cox even dropped him to eighth in the batting order. He also remains prone to letting his emotions get the best of him, whether it’s a poor at-bat, a misplayed grounder or a disagreement with an official scorer’s decision.
The Braves have long known emotions, not talent, were Escobar’s issues. Until now, they were willing to deal with it. “I want the kid where I have to take something out of him,” coach Terry Pendleton said in spring training. “I don’t want the ones who drag around. I don’t want to have to spend time trying to figure out how to make them go.”
Wren openly supported Escobar this past weekend when I spoke to him. “He’s a high-spirited guy,” he said. “Just watching him, he’s one of the best shortstops in the game. We know what we have in him. Players go through struggles. In the second half last year, he almost carried us.”
The suggestion: The Braves would stick by him. Either something changed or Wren wasn’t being completely honest.
So he might be the safe choice right now. In that sense, if the Braves believe they have a chance to make a special run this season, this could be seen as the right move. But down the line, this one could come back to haunt them.