TORONTO - The Toronto Blue Jays' acquisition of Yunel Escobar from the Atlanta Braves for fellow shortstop Alex Gonzalez in a five-player swap Wednesday appears to be a classic case of buying low and selling high.
Escobar is a wildly talented 27-year-old who appears to have fallen out of favour with the National League East leaders amid a down season. Gonzalez, on the other hand, is a 33-year-old veteran who is performing well above his career norms and was unlucky to not be named an all-star.
So Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos was able to parlay the immediate impact Gonzalez can make on a roster into a young player with huge potential upside that he'll have contractual control of through at least the 2013 season.
The three prospects in the deal — Toronto gets left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes, who was optioned to double-A New Hampshire; Atlanta gets phenom lefty reliever Tim Collins and speedy infielder Tyler Pastornicky — may still swing the trade's final tally toward either team.
But as it stands right now, it looks like Anthopoulos has pulled off another coup, similar to the one he accomplished in prying blossoming starter Brandon Morrow from Seattle last December.
"It's fair to say that if Yunel Escobar was performing like he did last year, it would have been a much more difficult deal to make," Anthopoulos said in an interview.
"I certainly believe Alex Gonzalez is going to continue to have a great year and help the Braves get to the playoffs, their aspirations are to win the World Series, but Yunel Escobar, long-term, is a guy we think is equally as talented ... and he certainly has greater upside."
The key for the Blue Jays will be in ensuring Escobar fits in smoothly, something that didn't happen in Atlanta. Anthopoulos and his staff closely examined the persistent whispers about the Cuban's behavioural issues, and came away satisfied there won't be any problems in Toronto.
Among the people he asked about the matter was outfielder Jose Bautista, who knows Escobar and gave the player a ringing endorsement. At Anthopoulos's request, Bautista will act as a bridge to help integrate Escobar, who speaks limited English, into the clubhouse.
Cultural issues may have also been part of the problem in Atlanta.
"Where there's smoke there's fire and we weren't going to roll our eyes at that," Anthopoulos said. "Everyone we've spoken to has said, first and foremost, this is a good kid and that was the number one factor for us. There have been run-ins, other issues, and I think it's a product maybe of the style of game he plays, maybe it didn't mesh well with the Atlanta Braves.
"Jose said he was a good kid, quiet, not a problem in the clubhouse at all. But he does play a flashy kind of game and I think being in the environment we have here for him, I think this is an opportunity for him to thrive."
Escobar also provides the Blue Jays a new layer of depth at a position that has been problematic for them for nearly a decade. The only other shortstop of substance in the system is Adeiny Hechavarria, another Cuban who was signed for US$10 million in April and was recently promoted to double-A.
Adding Escobar gives the Blue Jays time with Hechavarria and sets up an incumbent for him to displace and an asset to deal if he ever does. Gonzalez, who is making $2.75 million this season, had an option worth $2.5 million next season Anthopoulos intended to exercise, but the longer he was on the team the more his value would have declined.
Aside from his age Gonzalez— who is batting .259 with 17 homers and 50 RBIs while playing superb defence — hasn't managed to stay healthy a full season since 2004.
The six-foot-two, 200-pound Escobar, has slipped dramatically from his brilliant 2009, when he batted .299 with 26 doubles, 14 home runs, 76 RBIs and a .377 on-base percentage. This year he's slumped to a .238 average with 12 doubles and no homers in 75 games, something the Blue Jays are comfortable with.
"We think there could be some mechanical things that can be addressed in his swing, and I think he may need a fresh start and a new organization and a city like Toronto that embraces Latin players," said Anthopoulos.
"The biggest concern for us was the lack of power and we really had our scouts focus on batting practice and make sure the raw power was there and we were pretty diligent about examining his health. The raw power is still there, and we think it's just a matter of making some tweaks."
Escobar is making $435,000 this year and will be arbitration eligible for the first time in the off-season. But two numbers which might be more important to the Blue Jays are his career .291 average and .368 on-base percentage over 446 career games with Atlanta.
"Those are two areas where we're lacking," said Anthopolous, who sees Escobar as a top of the order hitter.
Reyes, meanwhile, is somewhat of a reclamation project.
The 6-2, 230-pound lefty has failed to stick in four stints with the Braves and in 12 games (10 starts) for triple-A Gwinnett, went 1-5 with a 5.70 ERA, 15 walks and 50 strikeouts in 47 1-3 innings. He has a fastball that touches 94, a decent curveball and a change-up in a repertoire the Blue Jays will try to refine at New Hampshire.
The loss of Collins will rattle the blogosphere, which loves the 20-year-old who was 1-0 with a 2.51 ERA and nine saves in 35 games for New Hampshire. Signed by former GM J.P. Ricciardi — who had heard about the summer local league pitcher from his friends in Worcester, Mass. — he has torn his way through the minors but at just five foot seven and 155 pounds, will always face doubts about his size.
Pastornicky, 20, was batting .258 with 16 doubles, 35 RBIs and 24 stolen bases in 77 games for single-A Dunedin. He was a fifth-round pick in 2008.