The Braves just traded the man who might well have been their Opening Day starting pitcher for an outfielder who might not start on Opening Day. Think about that.
Think also about this: The Braves just traded a man who finished fourth in the National League Cy Young voting because he was making too much money. And here’s how much Javier Vazquez is scheduled to make in 2010 — $11.5 million. That’s not even half what CC Sabathia, his new Yankee teammate, will earn. And that tells us all we need know about the Braves.
They keep making noises about contending for division titles, but it’s just noise. They can’t afford to do real business any longer. From the day the 2009 season ended they were looking to dump a starting pitcher, ostensibly to add a power hitter, but Melky Cabrera isn’t a power hitter. He was the eighth-best position player on the Yankees. He might not beat out Nate McLouth in center field here. He might wind up in a platoon. And he’s what the Braves got for the man who was their best pitcher last season.
“A perfect fit,” Frank Wren called Cabrera, speaking on a teleconference Tuesday, but the only thing perfect about this trade was how completely it detonates the Braves’ claim to being serious players. You don’t trade an ace unless you get a big bopper in return. The Braves got a guy who hit 13 home runs with 68 RBIs last season.
Yes, there’s more to the trade than Cabrera. Mike Dunn should help in the bullpen and Arodys Vizcaino is a young power arm, but the cold truth is that the Braves just played what they deemed their trump card — a surplus of starting pitching — without improving their run production one whit. And don’t fool yourselves: That $11.5 million they saved on Vazquez won’t allow them to splurge on Jason Bay or Matt Holliday. Those guys are out of price range, out of sight.
“We’re very fortunate to be able to make a deal like this,” Wren said. Then this: “We’ve been focused on [finding a run producer] all offseason, and we were waiting on the right match. And we’re still waiting.”
But Vazquez is gone. Can’t trade him twice. And the Braves can’t trade Derek Lowe because they’re down to five starters. So the best that can be reasonably hoped is that they find a Marlon Byrd or a Xavier Nady or — knowing as we do that the Braves love recycling old favorites — a Mark DeRosa or a Jermaine Dye. Except none of those players will make them better in the way that losing Vazquez makes them worse.
As someone who has defended Wren in the past, I have to say I’m stumped. Obviously the Braves’ salary constraints are worse than we’d been led to believe if they had to make this sort of deal so soon — Santa Claus hasn’t yet come and Javier Vazquez has left the building — but even more puzzling is Wren’s contention that this enabled him “to improve our club.” Maybe it improves it in 2012, when Vizcaino is ready to join Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens. But the way the Braves operate those pitchers will have been sold off by then.
Nothing about this offseason suggests that the new Braves are any better than the ones who finished third in the NL East. Is Billy Wagner an upgrade over Rafael Soriano? No. (But he’s cheaper. And also older.) Is Takashi Saito better than Mike Gonzalez? No. (But he’s cheaper. And also older.) Is the new first baseman … oh, wait. They don’t yet have a new first baseman.
For all this motion — Wren is forever in a hurry — the Braves will enter January 2010 a lesser team than in September 2009. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. But that is, sad to say, the way it works here, where $11.5 million for a big-time pitcher is considered too much, where the drive to win is trumped by the need to scrimp.