Do you remember the old question, used frequently in politics, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Well that same question can be tweaked a little to examine the Atlanta Braves.
“Is the Braves’ bullpen better off now than it was two weeks ago?”
The answer is easy. Absolutely. Friday’s trade acquiring Danys Baez from the Dodgers, along with infielder Willy Aybar, makes this team considerably better. Baez joins Bob Wickman at the top of the bullpen, which is a much better duo than Jorge Sosa and Ken Ray, the top two relievers just ten days ago.
There are so many dynamics to Friday’s trade, both for the short-term and long-term. There’s not a person that follows the Braves that was, or should be, happy to see Wilson Betemit go. He went from being a huge prospect a few years ago to a player that contributed a great deal in his season and a half here.
But in examining this deal, the first thing you must do is examine Betemit’s future. There are three questions to ask when looking at Betemit’s long-term situation here. First, would he have ever been the Braves’ starting third baseman? Second, would he have ever been the Braves’ starting shortstop? And finally, did the Braves believe Betemit could become an everyday second baseman?
When Chipper Jones got hurt Friday night, John Schuerholz looked like he had seen a ghost. He knew the Betemit deal would be announced after the game, and he also knew Betemit’s replacement, Mr. Aybar, would assume a large role on this team real quick. But Jones’ injuries aside, Chipper’s still going to be the Braves’ starting third baseman through the 2008 season, and maybe even through 2009.
There was no point in keeping Betemit around for three more years as Chipper’s eventual replacement. We have Eric Campbell in Rome right now, and he projects to possibly be ready right around the time Jones’ contract expires. Some would say Jones needs to move to first to help cut down on his injuries, and that’s a legit question. But the Braves have shown no interest in making that move.
As for shortstop, the Braves made their decision last winter on who they will have there the next few years when they acquired Edgar Renteria from Boston. He too could be here through 2009, so shortstop was not an option.
Second base was perhaps the most intriguing possibility for Betemit. He played in nine games there this season in Giles’ absence, and despite little experience there he looked good. But as a player some believe was already too big for shortstop, it’s legitimate to have concerns about whether Betemit could play at second everyday. He told me earlier this week that if he worked there consistently, like in winter ball and in spring training, he could handle the position. But it’s obvious Betemit’s best positions were third and short.
So if Betemit had little chance of playing everyday at third, short, or second, a trade was inevitable. And with the Braves having a huge need in the bullpen, it was very logical to see if a match was possible. I don’t think anyone in the BravesNation wanted to trade Betemit for Yankees’ reliever Scott Proctor, a reliever with a half of season of experience in that role. Perhaps Betemit for Padres’ setup man Scott Linebrink would have been better, but with Jones having injury concerns the Braves needed a replacement for Betemit right now.
That’s why the Dodgers’ deal is a good one. Willy Aybar looks like a Betemit clone. He started out as a shortstop, then went to third, and finally to second. Aybar doesn’t play short anymore, but he’s become dependable at third and second. Offensively, Aybar has solid potential. He’s hit 53 home runs since 2002, while Betemit’s hit 42. And Aybar’s batting average has been on the rise throughout his career.
Even if Baez leaves as a free agent this winter, Aybar will fill Betemit’s role for the next five years. And remember, Betemit’s role was as a reserve - not a starter. Sure, there’s a chance if Aybar does well he could become a starter, as was the case with Betemit. But the key to this deal is having Aybar fill Betemit’s shoes as an infield reserve, both this season and in the future.
Plus, we’ve got to remember we’ve got four middle infielders in Triple-A and Double-A that are projected as major league infielders, albeit as starters or reserves, than can also be in the mix. You deal from strength, and even though we all loved Betemit, the infield is a strength in this organization. Tony Pena, Jr. can play second, short, and third. Martin Prado can play second and third. Luis Hernandez can play second and short. And Yunel Escobar can play second, short, and third.
And let’s not forget about Kelly Johnson, out this season after having Tommy John surgery. Johnson came up as a shortstop, was then moved to third, and then saw a little action at second base. He’ll be back next season, and don’t be shocked if he’s thrown into the second base competition if Giles is traded. Having those five players made it easier to use Betemit to strengthen a weakness on this team.
And the bullpen is, or hopefully was, a weakness. Wickman was a good first step, but more was needed. While Baez flopped in Los Angeles, the Braves did see him as being effective once again, like he was in Tampa Bay and in Cleveland. The big thing though is that he has some experience as a reliever, and combined with Wickman he forms a potentially dangerous duo.
Perhaps Baez will be more effective with less pressure on him. There wasn’t much pressure in Tampa Bay, and he did very well there. In Los Angeles, he was expected to pick up the slack for the injured Eric Gagne, and he did not do well at all. But with his experience, and knowing he’s going to setup Wickman, I think Baez has a chance to do a very good job.
Does this trade solve all the Braves’ problems? Of course not. But we had to fix this one before we move on to the next one. The bullpen is the main reason this team is seven games under .500. Don’t forget how much we’ve griped repeatedly for Schuerholz to improve the bullpen, and now he’s done that. Okay, so Wickman and Baez may not be Smoltz and Wohlers, but they are a heck of a lot better than what we had before.
It’s obvious, however, that we should not be finished. This team needs help in the rotation, particularly with Tim Hudson struggling and question marks about Kyle Davies and John Thomson. Schuerholz needs to use the depth in the farm system to see if there’s an affordable starting pitcher available. Forget Dontrelle or Zito, but maybe a middle-of-the-rotation starter that can give this team some quality innings would do wonders before Monday at 4:00 pm.
And it’s amazing how the last five games have changed the spirits of the fan base. Okay, Saturday’s game stunk. But let’s not throw in the towel yet folks. Don’t forget how well this team did from June 30th through last Monday. We’ve seen this team die in June and then resurrect in July, so don’t feel the season isover. I’m not ignoring what’s gone on since Tuesday, but yet I’m not giving up either.
Neither is John Schuerholz or Bobby Cox. These two folks are going to fight to the death to win. Yeah, this might not be our year, and with all the injuries, it’s not a shock. But this organization is too proud to give up on July 29th.
The two trades in the last ten days prove that. Schuerholz is trying to do everything possible to give us a chance to win. I don’t think he’s through making this team better, and until the standings on October 1st tell us otherwise, we’ve got to keep the faith that these moves will help this team get back to where it belongs in the fall.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at email@example.com.