"It's easier to put up with some of that stuff when the guy is hitting .300," one Braves player said on Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Escobar had made a lazy throw that pulled Troy Glaus off first base and in jeopardy of suffering a serious injury during the sixth inning of a 4-0 win over the Mets.
The lackadaisical throw seemed to serve as the last straw for an organization that has patiently waited for Escobar to mature. Early Wednesday afternoon, the Braves announced that they had swapped shortstops in a five-player deal with Toronto that brings Alex Gonzalez to Atlanta.
With Gonzalez, the Braves believe they get a defensively sound shortstop, who is enjoying one of the finest offensive seasons of his career. The 33-year-old veteran hit .259 with 17 homers (most among all Major League shortstops) in 85 games with the Blue Jays this year.
"We were looking at ways to improve our ballclub," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "Alex is a solid veteran and good defensive player who is having a very good offensive season. We believe he can help improve our offensive production."
This trade also enabled the Braves to part ways with Jo-Jo Reyes, the once-promising 25-year-old left-hander who has spent most of the past two years with Triple-A Gwinnett. To complete the five-player trade, the Jays also exchanged Minor League shortstop Tyler Pastornicky and Tim Collins, a promising 20-year-old left-hander who has produced impressive numbers with Double-A New Hampshire this season.
When Escobar hit .299 with 14 homers and 76 RBIs last year, it appeared he may be realizing his potential to be labeled one of the game's top shortstops. But while hitting .239 with no homers and 19 RBIs this season, he gave the Braves more reason to be maddened by his flamboyant approach, which occasionally led to mental mistakes and regularly maddened both teammates and opponents.
"He's a talented guy," Wren said. "But for our ballclub right now, we felt we needed to make some changes and it just wasn't happening here."
As the Braves began looking for potential suitors, they quickly learned the Blue Jays had definite interest in Escobar. But before dealing the Cuban shortstop, Wren had to find a club that was able to provide a Major League-ready shortstop who would offset the fact that Escobar could still be deemed a bargain when he becomes arbitration-eligible at the end of this season.
With Gonzalez's contract including a $2.5 million club option for the 2011 season, the Braves felt more comfortable about parting ways with Escobar, who, despite his struggles this year, could gain $3 million via arbitration next season.
As the Braves look toward 2011, they envision Gonzalez serving as their shortstop. By the time the '12 season arrives, Edward Salcedo might be ready to begin playing in Atlanta. The 18-year-old Salcedo, who signed a $1.6 million signing bonus in February, is currently with the Class A Rome club.
"We're a few years away from worrying about that," Wren said.
Now the Braves no longer have to worry about the distractions Escobar presented. While the extremely talented shortstop is obviously capable of making highlight plays on a nightly basis, his decisions to attempt to show too much flash on the field often angered a number of the Atlanta coaches.
Braves manager Bobby Cox benched Escobar after he forgot how many outs there were and didn't tag up at third base during an April 24 loss to the Mets. But attempts to discipline the Cuban shortstop often proved to be futile.
Thus after Escobar made the lazy throw and also allowed a pop fly to fall into shallow left-center field for a leadoff double during Friday's sixth inning, Cox kept him in the lineup. But the Braves also began working harder on this deal to acquire Gonzalez, whom they believe will provide the consistent defense they need behind ground-ball artists like Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe.
"I think they're very similar," Wren said when asked to compare the defensive skills of the two shortstops. "Alex isn't as flashy, but he's extremely talented."
Gonzalez has hit .248 with a .696 OPS in 1,314 career Major League games. While these certainly don't indicate that he could be a difference-maker in Atlanta, he appears to be in the midst of one of his occasional power surges.
After hitting 14 homers in his first full season with the Marlins in 1999, Gonzalez totaled just 18 over the next three seasons. Then he combined for 41 in 2003 and '04. This year marks just the second time since then that he has hit more than nine homers in a season.
"I was talking to [Cox], and he said he's always viewed him as a dangerous hitter," Wren said.
When Escobar hit .294 with 24 homers and a .790 OPS during the 2008 and '09 seasons, there was little reason to think he would ever be traded for somebody like Gonzalez. But as the Braves look to take advantage of the possibility to compete for a World Series title this year, they felt the need to make an immediate change.
Wren said he could make another deal before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. But he will first evaluate how Jason Heyward and Nate McLouth perform as they continue to battle back from injury over the next couple of weeks.
Since being signed as a non-drafted free agent, Collins has become an intriguing prospect. The 20-year-old left-hander has recorded 73 strikeouts in the 43 innings he's pitched for New Hampshire this season. Blue Jays fans seemed to be upset that he was included in the trade.
Pastornicky, who was a fifth-round selection in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, hit .258 with six homers and 24 stolen bases in 77 games with Class A Dunedin this season. Wren believes the 20-year-old shortstop's speed could prove to be a valuable asset as he continues to develop.
Collins and Pastornicky will both be placed on Double-A Mississippi's roster.