Two of the five most important players on a big-league team are the shortstop and the closer. The Texas Rangers, gracing the World Series for the first time in their existence, have young All-Stars at both spots. They came courtesy of the Atlanta Braves.
July 31, 2007: The Braves sent five prospects to Texas for first baseman Mark Teixeira and reliever Ron Mahay. They won that night — Teixeira hadn’t yet arrived — to draw within 3 1/2 games of the Mets in the National League East. They would get no closer, finishing in third place, five games behind the division-winning Phillies.
July 29, 2008: Knowing Teixeira, who would become a free agent at season’s end, wouldn’t re-up with them, the Braves traded him to the Angels for first baseman Casey Kotchman and minor-league pitcher Steve Marek. The Braves were in fourth place, 7 1/2 games out of first. Teixeira played 157 games as a Brave, hitting .295 with 134 RBIs and 37 homers. As a Brave, he spent one day — April 6, 2008 — in first place.
The first Teixeira trade has been characterized as the worst in Braves’ history, which it wasn’t — the Len Barker and J.D. Drew moves were worse — and has been credited with energizing the entire Rangers’ organization in a way one deal seldom does. And as Braves general manager Frank Wren settles back to watch the Fall Classic, does he think to himself: “Boy, we could’ve used Elvis Andrus [the All-Star shortstop] and Neftali Feliz [the All-Star closer]?”
Said Wren: “Whenever there are guys who were in your organization, you always wonder, ‘What if?’ But you have those same ‘what-if?’ thoughts before you make any trade.”
Wren did not consummate the first Teixeira trade. That was the last major transaction made by John Schuerholz, now the team president. But Wren was Schuerholz’s deputy in July 2007 — he would become GM in October of that year — and was, like most everyone around the Braves back then, in agreement that landing an All-Star first baseman who’d played at Georgia Tech was worth the cost.
Wren again: “We’ve just seen how precious getting into the postseason really is, and there’s always a thought that you’re willing to take a risk if there’s a chance of that happening.”
The first Teixeira trade did not bankrupt the Braves’ farm system. The organization has since turned out Tommy Hanson, who finished third in the 2009 rookie of the year voting, and Jason Heyward, who will probably win the 2010 award. And the two major prospects the Braves sent to Texas — Andrus and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia — played positions that seemed well stocked.
The Braves had Brian McCann catching ahead of Saltalamacchia, and they had a young shortstop named Yunel Escobar who’d just made his major-league debut. “Actually,” Wren said, “we had both [Edgar] Renteria and Escobar ahead of Andrus.”
Literally and figuratively, Saltalamacchia was the biggest name among Braves’ prospect, and more than three years later his career still hasn’t taken wing. He was the Opening Day catcher for Texas this April and drove in the winning run with a walk-off single; it was his final RBI as a Ranger. He got hurt, developed problems throwing the ball back to the pitcher, languished in the minors and was traded to Boston on (that day again) July 31.
As for the other parts of the package: Matt Harrison, a left-handed pitcher, was a member of the Rangers’ starting rotation the past three seasons but was demoted to the bullpen this summer and wasn’t on the Texas roster for either the Division Series or the ALCS; Beau Jones, another lefthander, hasn’t risen above Class AA.
So essentially the deal can be boiled down to Andrus and Feliz for 157 games’ worth of Teixeira. The Braves liked Andrus but thought Escobar would be the greater run-producer. Given that the Braves tired of Escobar’s moods and traded him to Toronto for the 33-year-old Alex Gonzalez in July … yes, it would have been nice to have had a younger option still in the chain.
And if Feliz had been a Brave, Wren mightn’t have spent $6.75 million on Billy Wagner, and perhaps that money could have been better spent buying another outfielder. But Wren notes: “At the time of the trade, Feliz was in Danville [meaning rookie ball].” Meaning: There was no guarantee he’d be this good.
The Braves saw an opening in July 2007 and made a move. It didn’t work, and they moved on. And for what it’s worth, the 2010 Braves did finish with a better record than did the Rangers.