Thursday, December 4, 2008

It's a Brave New World for Vazquez

The Atlanta Braves and Chicago White Sox earlier today formally announced the completion of the winter’s second blockbuster trade. Atlanta has received veteran right-hander Javier Vazquez and lefty reliever Boone Logan in exchange for a package of four prospects, the stud among them being 22-year-old catcher Tyler Flowers.

With the winter meetings still days away and over $40 million of spare change burning a hole in his pocket, it’s obvious that Braves GM Frank Wren is just getting started. That said, it’s unfair at this juncture to evaluate this trade from Atlanta’s perspective. What we do know, however, is that despite gaudy minor league statistics and extraordinary talent, Vazquez has never enjoyed the sustained major league success so many had predicted for him when he broke into the big leagues a decade ago. He’s posted a very pedestrian 127-129 record, surrendered an average of almost 30 home runs in each of his nine full major league seasons and has regularly had his heart and ability to perform under pressure questioned on a routine basis. Still, the 32-year-old offers a precious commodity that scores of GMs, managers and pitching coaches would kill for: reliability. Since 2000, Vazquez has never made less than 32 starts or thrown under 198 innings. This is of vital importance for a team like the Braves, who in 2008 had to rely on the likes of Chuck James (9.10 ERA last season), Charlie Morton (6.15) and Jo-Jo Reyes (5.81), while the supposed Big Three of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Tim Hudson missed a combined 57 starts. And, finally, it has to be encouraging for the Braves that Vazquez will be returning to the National League, where in five full seasons he’s posted a very respectable 3.80 ERA. This is in contrast to the 4.54 ERA he’s delivered in four years in the American League.

So, now that we’ve established that Javier Vazquez would serve as a very effective middle-of-the rotation innings-eating starter in the N.L., it becomes imperative for the Braves to land a bonafide ace in order for this trade to be deemed a success. Jake Peavy, who Wren has been trying to wrestle away from the Padres since the end of the end of the regular season, is the ideal candidate. He’s young (27), a stud, and, by virtue of his long-term contract (guaranteed $62 million through 2012) represents cost certainty. After Peavy, there’s a substantial drop-off. Free agent Derek Lowe is reliable and clutch, but he’ll be 36 in June and has never been a true ace with the ability to miss bats at will. Fellow free agent A.J. Burnett has shut-down stuff, but he’s been a giant enigma his entire career and only risen to the occasion in his walk years.

From the White Sox perspective, the success of this transaction will primarily hinge on whether Flowers fulfills his vast potential. The 6’4” 250 pound power plant had an excellent 2008, including 12 home runs and an otherworldly 1.433 OPS in 75 at bats in the Arizona Fall League. He projects to hit at least 25 home runs a season at the big league level as well as post a solid OBP due to excellent pitch recognition. His defense, however, is another story. He has a below average arm in addition to poor receiving skills. If he can somehow improve his subpar defensive to the point where he’s at least adequate behind the dish, he’d be a noticeable upgrade over current backstop A.J. Pierzynski, whose current contract expires after 2010. Flowers was deemed redundant by the Braves, who already have three-time All Star Brian McCann locked up through 2012.

None of the three other prospects acquired by the Braves jump out at you as deal makers. Shortstop Brent Lillibridge, 25, is a decent fielder with slightly above average pop who will likely max out as a middle-of-the-field utilityman. Jon Gilmore is a 20-year-old third baseman who has put up good numbers in two years of short season ball. Some scouts project him as a Joe Crede-type performer, but he’s at least four years away and will have to improve his pitch recognition as he moves up the ladder. Santos Rodriguez, also 20, is a lanky lefty from the Dominican who throws in the mid-90’s and struck out nearly 14 batters per nine innings in 14 relief appearances the Gulf Coast League. Spotty control and poor command of his breaking pitch indicate that he’s also years away from making any kind of impact at the major league level.

Don’t be surprised if this deal is also prelude to something significantly bigger for Chicago GM Kenny Williams, who seemingly always has something up his sleeve. In trading away Nick Swisher and Vazquez, Williams has freed up nearly $17 million of salary from the White Sox 2009 payroll (Vazquez will earn $11.5 million in 2009) and shed $28.25 million in post-2009 obligations. If this is indeed the case, Hotlanta won’t be the only place the stove is simmering this offseason.

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