Atlanta's potential trade partners
Updated: July 4, 2009, 11:20 AM ET
The Atlanta Braves rank 22nd in the majors in runs scored and 20th in OPS, and today they are a game under .500 -- and two games out of first place in the NL East. The division is there for the taking for Atlanta, as it is for the Phillies, Mets and Marlins, depending on which of them can shore up their own biggest hole in the second half of the year. And there's no question that the Braves could benefit from getting a banger for their lineup, which is already improving, with the recent emergence of Martin Prado and the steady improvement of Garret Anderson, who batted .200 in April and then .286 in May and .306 in July. But Anderson is prone to injury, and Chipper Jones, at age 37, is always fighting nagging injuries. In short, what the Braves really need is someone who would give them the production they had hoped to get from Jeff Francoeur, whose days with the Atlanta organization may be drawing to a close at season's end, or sooner. Francoeur is hitting .248 with five homers, and his OPS is the third worst among all regular outfielders, at .620; he ranks ahead of leadoff-type Willy Taveras, who has 12 extra-base hits for the season, and Brian Giles, whose career is nearing an end.I wrote here earlier in the week that the Braves are willing to move Yunel Escobar for a bat, and David O'Brien reported Friday that he has no doubt that Atlanta is trying to make a move; he raises the possibility that Atlanta could consider swapping Javier Vazquez, who is having a terrific season and is under contract for $11.5 million in 2009 and $11.5 million in 2010. Escobar is a very attractive piece on the trade market, and Vazquez would become the best pitcher available, if the Braves were seriously thinking about dealing him (although that would be very difficult to do, because Atlanta's greatest advantage in the NL East race is the depth and quality of its rotation, and Vazquez's pitching -- forget his 5-7 won-loss record -- has been excellent. Atlanta ranks third in starters' ERA, and the Braves might continue to move up as Tommy Hanson's talent continues to manifest itself. The Braves have limited payroll flexibility, so keep in mind that any trade they make will probably have to be a dollar-for-dollar thing, at the very least; if they take on a player more expensive than one of the guys they trade, they'll probably need some cash kicked in to make it work. With that in mind, here are some of the trade partners that the Braves might match up with as they consider dealing Escobar and/or Vazquez, according to rival executives who offered some informed speculation.
Six potential suitorsThe Red Sox are one of the few teams with tremendous payroll flexibility, so they can make any suitable deal work. They have liked Escobar for awhile, and he would be a nice fit for them because of his talent -- he's a .300 hitter with some pop, and as Red Sox consultant Bill James would tell them, he can play some defense -- and because of their own internal needs. They don't know what third baseman Mike Lowell will be able to give them the rest of the season, if anything. If the Red Sox traded for Escobar, they could slide the recovering Jed Lowrie over to third base, a position he has played in the past. The Red Sox would have help for 2009, and would go into the future with their shortstop issue settled, presumably; Escobar is 26 years old and would be under their control through the 2013 season. Now, on the face of it, Boston doesn't necessarily have a hitter who it would be willing to surrender and who fits the Braves. They aren't trading Kevin Youkilis or Dustin Pedroia, of course, and J.D. Drew would be too expensive; Jason Bay is eligible for free agency when the year's over, and it wouldn't make sense for Atlanta to trade a young shortstop for a guy who is going to walk away in a few months. Jacoby Ellsbury could conceivably be a fit -- but not a good one, because if the Red Sox traded him, they'd have to go find a center fielder. No, in order to make a deal for Escobar, the Red Sox would probably have to engage a third team, and here's the thing -- they are perfectly suited to do this, because they have the commodity that everybody else want: pitching. In theory (and what immediately follows is pure speculation), they could engage the Brewers about Corey Hart, or the Indians about someone like Shin-Soo Choo or Matt LaPorta. The Red Sox could flip a pitcher to another team, and that team could flip a hitter to the Braves. Boston also could eat a lot of money on Julio Lugo's contract and hand him over to Atlanta, as a short-term stopgap at shortstop. (The Red Sox are not interested in Francoeur, by the way). "The Red Sox and Braves match up in a lot of ways," said one executive. "Those two teams could create the foundation for an Escobar deal." The Braves and the Royals match like puzzle pieces in a possible Escobar deal. The Royals want and need a shortstop. The Braves could use someone like Mark Teahen, who could give Atlanta great flexibility. Teahen, a solid veteran hitter, could play third in place of Jones, or start in left field or right field, or first base, or even second base. If the Braves required the Royals to take on some money, then Francoeur could be added to the trade; Dayton Moore, the Kansas City GM, has known Francoeur for years and coveted him, and he could use the last months of this season to evaluate him. The Braves could use another middle reliever; the Royals have Juan Cruz and Ron Mahay, pieces that Atlanta knows well. Moore knows the Braves' farm system. A lot of elements in place here. If the Braves were to market Vazquez, they could just deal with the Brewers directly. Milwaukee has no need for Escobar, because the Brewers have Alcides Escobar on the rise. Milwaukee would not consider trading Ryan Braun in any deal, and more than likely Prince Fielder would be out of the question (he's a Boras client and the Braves have already been down the path of a Boras-client-type of rental with Mark Teixeira, a situation that didn't pan out). Hart would be the natural fit, although it's unclear whether he would necessarily be a significant upgrade over Francoeur, given the streaky nature of his offense. "There are times when he just looks like he has no clue," said one longtime talent evaluator. "I've seen him this season when he's looked absolutely lost." Hart, 27, is hitting .246 and nine homers, and if Milwaukee talked about a possible Hart/Vazquez swap, the Brewers would obviously have to include another really nice piece in the deal. Escobar would be perfect for the Twins in many respects, and Minnesota has an array of outfielders to choose from, whether it be Michael Cuddyer or Denard Span; Delmon Young is hitting .264 with three homers, and it's hard to imagine that the Braves would seriously consider him in any trade. But the Twins' focus is on relief pitching, and an aggressive midseason deal really doesn't fit their style -- and if Escobar's conduct in Atlanta has turned off the Braves' coaching staff, then this is certainly not the type of thing that the Twins would go for. Span is an interesting name, though, because his service time (and salary) is close to that of Escobar, and he is widely seen as a player on the rise. GM Ned Colletti is looking for pitching, and Vazquez would be absolutely perfect for L.A.'s rotation. He would give them a veteran, frontline innings-eater along the lines of what they had in Derek Lowe last year, and Joe Torre knows him well and would certainly endorse an acquisition of him. The Dodgers also have some payroll flexibility, and they have an extra outfielder, as the world knows. Juan Pierre hit .318 during Manny Ramirez's absence, but presumably, the Braves would prefer someone with a little more thump. Escobar could be a long-term answer at shortstop now that the Bobby Crosby era is over, and the Athletics could not only deliver Matt Holliday and Orlando Cabrera to Atlanta to help in the short-term, but they might also be in position to pay a lot of their salaries, as well. But given an array of choices, the Braves would prefer to trade Escobar for pieces that would help them beyond 2009; Holliday and Cabrera would walk away as free agents after the season. The Braves will have a lot of options because Escobar and Vazquez would be highly valued pieces in a trade market that is far from flush, and GM Frank Wren will have to decide if any of them are worthwhile. The Braves won again on Friday, with the newly called-up Brooks Conrad playing the role of hero. To read the rest of Buster Olney's blog, you must be an ESPN Insider.
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