Escobar or no Escobar, Braves are the team to beat
Now that Alex Gonzalez has been acquired in exchange for Yunel Escobar, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Phil Sheridan says the Phillies must react by making a move.. ESPN’s Buster Olney says the Braves made a great trade with the Blue Jays and labels them as the “team to beat in the National League East.”
While these beliefs certainly make sense, I’m not sure the Escobar trade significantly altered the NL’s landscape. Sure the Braves got rid of a negative clubhouse presence who hadn’t produced offensively and replaced him with a capable veteran shortstop who is enjoying one of his finest seasons at the plate.
But regardless of who was playing shortstop in Atlanta, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro was going to spend these next couple of weeks attempting to improve his rotation and bullpen with the hope that his club would become strong enough to kill the optimism that currently rests in Atlanta.
The Braves improved the strength of their organization yesterday by using two pieces they didn’t want (Jo-Jo Reyes and Escobar) to gain a Major League-ready shortstop and two respected prospects, who certainly have a chance to get to Atlanta.
But my belief that the Braves enter this season’s second half as the favorites to represent the NL in the World Series, has little to do with the fact that Escobar is no longer around. It has much more to do with what happened last week, when they took four of six on the road against the Phillies and Mets.
This small stretch legitimized everything that they had accomplished over the course of the previous two months. While going 39-18 since the start of play on May 10, they have recorded a better winning percentage (.684) than any other Major League club and proven to be four games better than the Dodgers who have compiled the NL’s second-best record (35-22) during this span.
While gaining eight games on the Mets and 10 1/2 games on the Phillies during this two-month span, the Braves showed their greatest strength — their depth. Jair Jurrjens and Matt Diaz were sidelined during most of this stretch and after sparking this torrid run Jason Heyward did very little while battling a sore left thumb in June.
Heyward will be evaluated once he arrives at Turner Field this afternoon and if the medical staff clears him he’ll be in tonight’s lineup against the Brewers. If this transpires, the Braves will essentially be whole for the first time since April 29, the day they suffered a ninth consecutive loss and also lost both Jurrjens and Escobar to injures that required stints on the disabled list.
As long as Gonzalez stays healthy, this Braves lineup certainly has a chance to be more productive than the one that was saddled by Escobar’s surprising struggles.
Given that he entered this season with a .301 BA and .426 slugging percentage, it’s hard to imagine that Escobar will continue to be the guy who has slugged .284 this year and totaled 12 extra-base hits, none of which have been home runs.
But as the Braves smelled the chance to win this year, they couldn’t risk remaining patient with Escobar at the expense of seeing his lackadaisical approach or mental mistakes prove detrimental to what they were trying to accomplish.
It’s obviously no secret that Escobar wasn’t a popular figure among his teammates. During Spring Training while talking about the team’s chemistry one player said, “We really only have one (jerk) in here.”
There was no reason to ask who he was referencing.
Andy Martino of the New York Daily News wondered if this trade was the product of another example of a culture clash between white and Latino players. It’s a justifiable question. But within this blog entry, Martino concludes by pointing out the essential fact, which was that Escobar’s problems stemmed from a personality flaw, not cultural differences.
Just like there are plenty of white players (John Rocker, Bob Wickman Robert Fick) who have drawn the ire of Braves management and seen their time in Atlanta cut short, there are a number of Latin players (Andruw Jones, Eddie Perez and Martin Prado to name just a few) who have drawn admiration and appreciation from the club’s decision makers.
In the classic movie Rudy, the man playing Notre Dame head football coach Dan Devine said to an uninspired player, “If you had half the heart of Ruettiger’s you would’ve made
Well if Escobar had the heart and drive of his boyhood friend Brayan Pena, he would have already legitimized his potential to be one of the game’s top two or three shortstops. He also would have escaped the All-Star break without learning that he’ll be spending most of the next couple of months in Canada.