Friday, August 30, 2013

Alternate Universe: Braves Do Not Trade Yunel Escobar in 2010

(Hi.  I'm going to try this because I like the idea of how making one move ends up being quite significant.  I realize that it's impossible to take the numbers a player put up in one place and translate them to the next.  The league and park factors are ignored when you do that.  This isn't an exact study, but a simple exercise.  Hope you enjoy it and maybe I'll try this again soon.)

Figured I'd start a new series and this one was inspired by a lot of the comments directed to Yasiel Puig.  The 22 year-old, with a year of professional experience since his defection and even less time in the majors, has bothered both the Dodgers and opponents with his style of play.  Some believe he acts in a highly unprofessional manner with his playing style.  Mental lapses in judgement have occurred frequently on the field ranging from failing to hit the cut-off man to running into outs.  Let's be clear that most young studs who have a collection of skills that push them through the minors with explosive speed still have flaws in their games that haven't been hammered out.  After all, that's what the minors attempt to do and Puig didn't stay down there for very long (and with good reason).

The backlash toward him made me think of a former Brave in Yunel Escobar.  Back at the chopnation forums in their heyday, we used to refer to Escobar as Mr. Dynamic, a play on his description from one of the beat writers, probably David O'Brien.  Like Puig, Escobar was born in Cuba.  He defected through harsh conditions on a raft with over 30 others in 2004, reaching Florida and seeking asylum.  That allowed him to be included in the 2005 draft and the Braves took him in the 2nd round.

He rocketed through the minors and less than two years from the day he signed, Escobar made his debut on June 2nd of 2007.  While filling in for injuries, Escobar was used often by Bobby Cox at second, short, and third to keep his bat in the lineup.  He slashed his way to .326/.385/.451 and a sixth place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting.

It was a great turn around for Escobar, who clashed with his AA manager, former Brave Jeff Blauser, over his attitude.  He would consistently whistle at the opposing players (and his own teammates) while taking his customary spot at short.  While he wasn't quite as bad about it once he reached the majors, it was still present and was a product of his time in Cuba.  Tom Glavine was distracted by it so much one time that he called Chipper Jones over to ask who was whistling at him.  He showboated and didn't care who he aggravated, his own team included.  The Braves tried to drum that out of him by the time he reached the bigs.  Nevertheless, he had his moments.  But for the first two-and-a-half years of his career in the majors, Escobar got a bit of a free pass.  Sure, he got a talking to from time-to-time, both by his coaches and teammates.  There were the occasional benchings, some we know about.  But the Braves also enjoyed his energy and enthusiasm.  As Cox said, "You can see how much he loves to play."

2010: The Honeymoon Ends and Our Fictional Journey Begins ...In his first 371 games in the majors, Escobar slashed .301/.375/.426 while posting nearly 10 fWAR for the Braves.  However, with three-and-a-half months in the books during 2010, Escobar slumped badly with a .618 OPS.  His isolated power, which was extremely solid for a middle infielder, looked like it belonged to a pitcher.

The Braves were willing to deal with Escobar and all of the baggage when he produced.  Now that he wasn't, the Braves were done with him and traded him to the Blue Jays for a trio of players, including Escobar's replacement Alex Gonzalez.  A good defender who came with a miserable on-base percentage, Gonzalez was welcomed with open arms in Atlanta as he received a standing ovation when he arrived in the clubhouse.

However, what if Escobar hadn't struggled so much in 2010?  What if he simply was okay like he was after the trade.  He hit .275 with a .696 OPS with the Blue Jays the rest of the way.  Had he produced at that clip in the first half with the Braves, would they have traded him?  Probably not.

2011: The First Year of Arbitration and a Chance to Bounce Back...With the Blue Jays, Escobar hit .290/.369/.413 during 2011.  However, in Atlanta, Gonzalez struggled badly that year, OPSing .642 with more than 100 strikeouts than walks...which is absurd when you think about it.  The Braves would notably collapse in 2011, but one can argue that Gonzalez did everything he could to avoid that fall from grace, slashing .291/.330/.558 over his final 27 games.  Meanwhile, injuries limited Escobar and he missed the final 14 games.  On one hand, the Braves probably win more games early with Escobar and probably win the Wild Card by a couple of games.  On the other hand, losing Escobar would have made a slumping club even worse.

2012: Our Journey Ends as Escobar Slips Again...In 2012, the Braves went with Tyler Pastornicky, also acquired with Gonzalez in the Escobar deal.  In Toronto, Escobar was ready to start his second full season in Toronto and was paid $5M for it.  Here's where it gets difficult.  Would the Braves have been willing to deal Escobar in our fictional world coming off a pretty decent 2011 season?  Pastornicky is still in Toronto in this world and probably with a chance to replace Gonzalez.  Remember that the Braves wouldn't have anybody close to taking over at shortstop as Andrelton Simmons just finished the season in high-A ball.  However, Atlanta's payroll was pretty high in 2012 already.  It seems unlikely that they would have been able to fit $5M more.  You can cut $1M from that by not bringing back the awful Jack Wilson.  Chad Durbin and Livan Hernandez were signed late for a combined $1.65M.  The more likely situation is that with the presence of Escobar, the Braves don't trade for Michael Bourn during 2011.  They had a hole in center, but Escobar was a serviceable lead-off hitter.

Escobar struggles through 2012, OPSing .644, his worst single-season OPS for a full season.  The Blue Jays had signed Escobar to a contract extension after 2011.  The Braves probably don't do that because they rarely lock up arbitration-eligible guys long-term.  Simmons might even replace Escobar like he replaced Pastornicky during the season with Escobar's terrible 2012 campaign. Either way, with one more year of arbitration, Escobar gets non-tendered with or without the gay slur on his eye black that gets him suspended in September of 2012.  He doesn't get used in the mega Blue Jays/Marlins deal last offseason.  He also doesn't get traded to the Rays by the Marlins.  Now, the Rays seem like a good landing place on a make-good contract for Escobar, but maybe he signs with the Mets instead.  Or the Twins.

Either way, even if the Braves don't trade Escobar in 2010, his time in Atlanta would be short-lived. Simmons was progressing through the minors with a developing bat and a major-league ready defense.  Whether he arrives in June of 2012 or April this season, he was coming and Escobar - with all of the baggage - would have had to hit a lot better than he actually did in 2012 to stave off Simmons' arrival for another season.

Once he arrived in the majors, Escobar was an exciting enigma.  He was a solid defender with a good bat, but often found controversy wherever he went.  The Braves could deal with that when his production was high.  The occasional defensive mental error or baserunning mistake was part of the package for one of the better shortstops in the league.  When he stopped producing, though, the Braves were finished with him.  Not that Puig will follow a similar path in Los Angeles.  He is thoroughly more talented.  However, if your antics cause both your opponents and your own team grief, you can't suck.  Just ask Mr. Dynamic.

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