Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Yunel Escobar Shall Help The Blue Jays

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about how I thought the Blue Jays needed to go out and obtain a new leadoff hitter. I contended that Fred Lewis would help the team much more as the second batter in the order and I listed a couple of guys who I thought the Jays could potentially go after. At that point, the team was still above .500 and thoughts of the playoffs did not seem to be all that far-fetched. Now, a few losses later, we see that the Jays have gone and made a trade.

The Jays sent Alex Gonzalez, Tim Collins and Tyler Pastornicky to the Atlanta Braves for Yunel Escobar and Jo-Jo Reyes.

Beginning with the players the Braves receive, it seems as though they are making a push for this season. Gonzalez leads all Major League shortstops at this point in the season with 17 home runs despite a slash line of .259/.292/.497. While his batting average and on base percentages are well in line with his career averages, that slugging percentage is the highest of his career by far. Defensively, Gonzalez has been above average while posting a UZR/150 of 4.0 for the season which is rather low for him. Still, the aforementioned 17 home runs are more than any current Braves player. His $2.75-million salary for this season is not too expensive, and the Braves will have a $2.5-million option for 2011.

Collins, a 20-year old left-handed reliever has spent the year at Toronto’s Double-A affiliate in New Hampshire. In 35 games there he has a 1-0 record with a 2.51 ERA in 35 relief appearances. He has pitched 43 innings and struck out an amazing 73 batters.

Pastornicky, a 20-year old playing in Single-A Dunedin, is one of three shortstops involved in this trade. With Dunedin, Pastornicky has hit .258/.348/.376 in 77 games. Perhaps the most intriguing part about Pastornicky is his ability to steal, as he has stolen 24 bases this season while being caught 7 times. At to that his 57 steals from 2009 and 27 from 2008 and it’s clear that Pastornicky is a threat on the basepaths, something the Jays have lacked for years.

Moving onto what the Jays receive, I’ll start with Jo-Jo Reyes. The 25-year old left-hander has struggled during his time in the Majors. Through 41 games in his career (37 starts), he has a won-loss record of 5-15 with an ERA of 6.40. Reyes has struggled with control (4.5 BB/9), has shown a proneness to the long ball (1.5 HR/9), and has a slightly below average rate of strikeouts (5.9 K/9). While his minor league numbers are much better in all three categories, this has failed to translate to success at the big league level.

I have a theory that Reyes and his 90-91 MPH fastball would be better suited as a left-handed specialist as lefties are only hitting .215 against him throughout his career. Reyes has faced 698 right-handed batters throughout his career, and has walked 80, struck out 84 and allowed 27 home runs for a slash line of .320/.399/.549. However, against lefties, he has faced 186 and walked 18 while striking out 44 and allowing 6 home runs for a slash line of .215/.301/.374. To put those numbers against lefties into perspective, if Reyes had faced 698 left-handed batters based on averages he would have walked 68, struck out 165 and allowed 23 home runs. While we only see small differences between the walks and home runs, the strikeout rate has almost doubled.

Despite pitching at Triple-A in the Braves’ organization, Reyes has been assigned to Double-A New Hampshire. I just hope it’s to convert him to a full-time reliever.

Finally, the main prize of the trade in my opinion, 27-year old shortstop Yunel Escobar, is heading to the Blue Jays. In 2009, Escobar was on fire. He hit .299/.377/.436 with 14 home runs while playing above average defence. However, in 2010, those offensive numbers are not as pretty. Escobar has struggled with a line of .238/.334/.284. While he certainly seems to get on base more than Gonzalez, his batting average and slugging percentage are just terrible. He has no home runs this season and only 12 extra base hits total, all doubles.

Defensively, Escobar has been excellent with a UZR/150 of 9.5 so the Blue Jays may actually improve defensively with this trade. Escobar’s 2010 salary of $435,000 is only slightly over the Major League minimum and the Jays will control his rights through the 2013 season.

After looking at Escobar’s slash line, I ask myself one question: where has the power gone? All his other numbers seem to be normal, but there is an obvious absence of power. One has to think that if he had say maybe even 5 home runs, his batting average would be about 20 points higher. I’m no expert and have admittedly seen very little of Escobar’s play this year so I may be wrong on this idea, but after seeing what manager Cito Gaston and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy have done with the power-hitting Blue Jays, one has to think that they can bring Escobar’s game around again. Who would have seen guys like Jose Bautista and John Buck being All-Stars at the beginning of the season, let alone Bautista leading the Majors in home runs?

Trading Escobar for Gonzalez has given the Braves power from a middle infield position while sacrificing the ability to get on base. At the same time, it has given the Blue Jays payroll flexibility and a player who, despite his recent struggles, has a higher on base percentage (.334) than all but two regulars on the team (Bautista .361 and Fred Lewis .334).

With Escobar’s ability to get on base, I would like to see him in the leadoff spot for the Blue Jays. I still believe that Lewis will help the team much more as a #2 hitter, but I do realize that Escobar is certainly not as fast. Still, I’d much rather have a guy who can get on base as the lead-off hitter and a guy with a good average and some gap power as the second batter in the order. If Cito and Murphy can help Escobar to regain his power stroke, I’d have trouble deciding on who to have bat lead-off.

I see this as a win for both teams, but think the Jays will do better in the long-term. Escobar’s presence at the Major League level will allow the Jays to develop Adeiny Hechavarria efficiently and without rushing him. If the Jays can get the two players to be in the Majors at the same time, deciding which Cuban to make the starting shortstop would be a nice predicament to be in.