One year ago today, the Atlanta Braves made one of their most substantial trades of the last decade. Despite being talented both in the field and with the bat, Yunel Escobar simply wasn't cutting it with his teammates, coaches and manager.
Escobar was a unique baseball player. Despite having a breakout season in 2009 when some even called him the most valuable player of a 86-win team, there always seemed to be an issue with the Cuban shortstop. Whether it was his flamboyant approach to the game, inability to avoid nagging injuries or simply struggling to coexist with the language and culture barriers, it seemed like there was always a new story or report portraying Yunel in a negative fashion.
The moment that seemingly ended Escobar's career in Atlanta was pretty vivid, or at least it was in my eyes. The Braves were in New York just a few days before the All-Star Break. A soft grounder was hit to the shortstop and he lackadaisically fielded the ball and loaded up to throw. Instead of properly setting his feet, he side-armed the ball towards first baseman Troy Glaus. On what should have been a routine and risk-free play, Escobar's poor throw forced Glaus to lean both his body and glove into the path of the oncoming baserunner.
Anyone who has ever seen or watched baseball knows that play is arguably the most dangerous play in the game. The first baseman is helpless as the oncoming runner approaches at full speed and countless arms and wrists have been fractured at the point of contact. Fortunately for Glaus, he was able to snag the ball and roll out of the way to avoid contact, but he had fire in his eyes the moment he glanced Escobar's way.
Bobby Cox made a trip to the mound following the play. Glaus, Martin Prado and Chipper Jones all came to the mound during the visit; Escobar did not. A conversation between the manager and Glaus ensued as the reliever trotted in from the bullpen. While we'll probably never know if they were discussing baseball, gas prices or where the club should eat that night, my money is on Glaus asking Bobby if he had permission to pummel the shortstop. While nothing (publicly) came about between Cox, Glaus and Escobar, you can only imagine it was the final straw in the clubhouse after months of frustration.
With fans spirits high after Brian McCann's heroics the previous night at the All-Star Game, Braves fans awoke to some shocking news: Yunel Escobar had been traded. The same Yunel Escobar who was pegged by so many around baseball as the next great shortstop in the game. The same Yunel Escobar who was on pace to win multiple gold gloves. The same Yunel Escobar that had been considered for a multi-year contract extension the previous offseason. He was gone. And whether it was his on-field antics or something deeper, we'll never know the truth. But he was gone.
Enter Alex Gonzalez. For everything Escobar was, Gonzalez was the polar opposite. He wasn't young nor an up-and-coming prospect, and he wasn't exactly flashy. He was having a nice season -- a career-best season for that matter -- in Toronto, but no one truly believed his success was sustainable for more than a month or two. What Alex Gonzalez was, though, was consistent and a professional. And at the time, that's all Atlanta was looking for.
The trade was not made with expectations to receive a better player; it was made to rid the club of a cancer in the clubhouse and a player whose style on the field did not exactly mesh with his teammates and those in the front office. Escobar struggled at the plate last season, but he's having a fine 2011 campaign. Alex Gonzalez, on the other hand, has struggled to make consistent contact and has been sub-par at the plate since coming over from Toronto.
At the end of the day, though, numbers simply cannot side this trade in one team's favor. Escobar has produced far more than Gonzalez, and while the Braves are currently contemplating the future of the shortstop position in Atlanta, the Blue Jays just gave Escobar a contract extension. This was to be expected. Anyone who figured Gonzalez would continue his unreal start of 2010 and bring it with him to Atlanta was mistaken from the day the trade went down. This trade was made to improve a clubhouse, and Gonzalez has received nothing but praise from his new teammates. That is invaluable to a franchise and their continued success.
This trade was a lot of things; sudden, shocking, franchise altering and risky all come to mind. Seldom does a player of Yunel Escobar's talent get dealt for an aging veteran. Who knows, maybe all Escobar needed was a stern talking to and he would have gone onto a long, prolific career with the Braves? We'll never know. Though what we do know is we are now without a player who continually drew the ire of his peers on a relatively frequent basis and replaced him with a steady, well-liked veteran.
Is the franchise better off now? Maybe, maybe not. It would have been nice to continue the experiment with the Cuban shortstop in Atlanta, but it simply wasn't happening. With all of the hype and awe-inspiring plays he made over the years, it was tough to let him go. He will be missed. But because of a cavalier attitude and inability to coexist with his teammates and coaches, Yunel Escobar will always be known as the phenom in Atlanta that never was.