Coming into the 2010 season, the Atlanta Braves felt like they were set at the shortstop position for the foreseeable future. Yunel Escobar had just completed his second full season in the Major Leagues, and the 27 year old had finished 20th in MVP voting in 2009, a season where he hit .299 with a .812 OPS, 26 doubles, 14 home runs, and 74 RBI, while playing outstanding defense. But, Escobar stumbled out of the gate in 2010, hitting just .212 with a pathetic .556 OPS through the end of May. He also missed two weeks in early May with a strained groin and nagging injuries, which seemed to have plagued him in other seasons as well, piled on top of each other.
Despite statistically rebounding with a decent June, hitting .289 with a .741 OPS in 109 plate appearances, Escobar had fallen out of favor with the Braves, mostly due to his excitable personality. In previous years, the Cuban native had other players to mentor him, Javier Vasquez in 2009 and childhood friend Brayan Pena in the seasons before that, but in 2010 Escobar didn't have that support system, and it showed. His highs were too high, punctuated by excessive celebration, and his lows were too low, and too often, as he seemed to spend most of his time in the dugout pouting. Around the clubhouse, Escobar's name became synonymous with a lack of effort and after repeated attempts at getting him to play the right way, Bobby Cox finally decided he'd had enough. Over the All-Star break the legendary manager informed Braves general manager Frank Wren that he simply couldn't field a team that had Escobar on it.
On July 14th, Escobar and pitcher Jo-Jo Reyes, who had also failed to live up to the team's expectations for him, were traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for shortstop Alex Gonzalez and prospects Tyler Pastornicky and Tim Collins, who was traded to the Kansas City Royals later in the month. In 301 plate apperances for Atlanta this season, Escobar hit .238 with a .618 OPS, 12 doubles, no home runs, and 19 RBI. The 33 year old Gonzalez, playing in his 12th season in the Majors, was having one of the best campains of his career, hitting .259 with a .793 OPS, 25 doubles, 17 home runs, and 50 RBI in 348 plate apperances for the Jays. Whatever slipstream effect Rogers Centre was having on Jose Bautista's offense it was also having on Gonzalez's. Unfortunately, Gonzalez couldn't match his first half production as a member of the Braves, hitting .240 with a .676 OPS, 17 doubles, 6 home runs, and 38 RBI in 292 plate appearances for Atlanta.
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While Gonzalez's production might not have been what the Braves hoped for, it was still an improvement over what they'd gotten in the first half from Escobar, though the two weren't that far apart. Gonzalez's average was just 2 points higher, and his on base percentage, a woeful .291, was 49 points lower than Escobar's. The big difference was that Gonzalez was able to drive the ball with authority, something Escobar just couldn't do as a Brave in 2010, slugging .386 compared to Escobar's weak .284 as a Brave. On the bright side, the Braves actually gained on the defensive side of things, as Gonzalez proved himself to be a more capable defender. Gonzalez's 2010 UZR was 5.1, which is in keeping with his 5.5 career average, while Escobar's was at 4.3, a big jump from his career 3.1. Both players are well above average defenders, and Escobar clearly has a superior arm, but Gonzalez is just better at the position.
Some will look at Escobar's numbers with the Blue Jays, a .275 average, .696 OPS, 7 doubles, 4 home runs, and 16 RBI, as proof that the Braves should have held on to their young shorstop. But, that line of thinking assumes that baseball is played in a vacuum, and that a player will perform equally no matter where he plays. Simply speaking, Escobar wasn't able to play the game the Braves' way, and that didn't sit well with management and teammates alike. The chances of Escobar making a similar second half turnaround, modest as it was, with Atlanta, was very low, and rather than keep a player who didn't fit in, the Braves made the difficult choice to replace him with a player in Gonzalez who, while probably much less talented, was more the kind of professional that the organization covets.
There was also a financial benefit to the trade. The Braves had to pay half of Gonzalez's 2.75 million dollar salary in 2010, instead of paying Escobar the minimun, but in 2011 they'll save by avoiding arbritraton with Escobar. Despite a down year, he will likley be awarded between 4 and 5 million through arbitration, while the Braves will only have to pay 2.5 million to Gonzalez after picking up his option. Again, some would argue that if Escobar could regain his 2009 form than even 5 million would be a bargain, but, again, that rebound just didn't seem likely to happen in Atlanta. And, by acquiring 21 year old shortsop Tyler Pastornicky in the same trade, the Braves may have an in house option for Gonzalez's replacement in 2012.
Alex Gonzalez will be the Braves' shortstop in 2011, and it doesn't take an expert to guess how he'll perform. Over 12 seasons, an average year for him is a .248 average, 695 OPS, 35 doubles, 16 home runs, and 71 RBI, along with well above average defense. For 2.5 million dollars the Braves are getting fantastic value for what they're paying and while he likely won't be a standout offensively, he will be a calm, consistent force in the Braves lineup, allowing the team to focus its efforts to improve on other areas.