Baldelli trade decision a tough one to make

The rumor has the Braves talking with the Devil Rays about outfielder Rocco Baldelli. Just how difficult is the decision to trade prospects for a player that might be a part of the core of your team for years to come. The Braves Show's Bill Shanks has more.

This is an Internet baseball website, and as such we are all able to talk about what we would do as a baseball General Manager. It's part of the fun, part of why we are here. We express our opinions on who we would get to round out a rotation, or for the extra arm in the bullpen, or for the player we'd put in the lead off spot.

But this offseason I think we've all seen how difficult some of those decisions a real GM has to make can actually be. It's easier when our neck is not on the line, and we can just run our mouth on the Internet, but in the real world these are tough calls.

Okay, not all of them are tough. Not one of us would have struggled with trading Horacio Ramirez for Rafael Soriano this past week. Even I, as a huge Ramirez fan, understand how great a trade that could be for the Atlanta Braves. The team needed a reliever to set up Bob Wickman, and with six arms (and three lefties) in the rotation Ramirez was the odd man out. Easy call.

But the Rocco Baldelli trade rumor really demonstrates the complexity of some baseball decisions. It also shows why GMs have to rely heavily on their baseball staff to give them advice. Any GM that just makes these type calls without counsel is foolish. These are difficult decisions that can affect an organization for many, many years. So you have to make sure you can turn to your staff and say, "okay what would you do?"

Braves' GM John Schuerholz does just that. One of his strengths as the GM is to ask that question to his senior staff. He's got major league scouts that are out in the field watching other teams, both winning teams and losing teams, and watching players. They see the talent Schuerholz is usually trying to trade for, so they more than anyone can tell Schuerholz if a potential trade is a good idea.

So what should the Braves do? Should they trade prospects for Rocco Baldelli? Let's look at the decision Schuerholz has to make and wonder what we would do if we had to make the call.

The benefits of Rocco Baldelli are obvious. He is a terrific athlete, a great talent, with youth on his side and perhaps the most reasonable salary for any young starting outfielder in the game. Baldelli has great makeup, the exact type of player the Atlanta Braves historically like to add to the roster. If you were to search for the perfect target for this organization, considering all the circumstances, you will not find a better candidate than Rocco Baldelli.

The Braves need a left fielder for 2007. While Baldelli is a center fielder, he could easily slide over the play left. The Braves need a leadoff man, and Baldelli succeeds in that role and actually likes hitting first. The Braves will probably need someone to ‘replace' Andruw Jones in another year, and Baldelli is a younger (just turned 25 in September) outfielder that could be in the lineup for many years to come.

But Baldelli's contract is what makes him even more attractive to the Braves. Take a look at his contract for the next five years (which was signed in November of 2005):
2007: $.750 (plus some performance bonuses that are built into the contract since he failed to reach 600 plate appearances in 2006, which would have kicked his salary to $2.25 million).
2008: $2.25 million (plus some performance bonuses that are built into the contract since he failed to reach 600 plate appearances in 2006, which would have kicked his salary to $4 million)
2009: $6 million (club option with a $4 million buyout)
2010: $8 million (club option)
2011: $9 million (club option - 2010 and 2011 options must be exercised together)

So that's a player that has just turned 25 years old that can be under contract for five more years for a total of $26 million dollars plus some incentive bonuses. There is not another player in the game with a more reasonable contract than this. And for a team that has a strapped payroll, and an uncertain ownership situation, this is just the type of contract they need.

How just how good is Baldelli? When he was drafted out of Rhode Island back in 2000, everyone knew he was a terrific athlete. Some might believe he was rushed a bit through the minor leagues, but he played well in his 2003 rookie season (.289, 11 home runs, 78 RBI). Then after his second full season he tore the ACL in his knee in October of 2004. When he was close to coming back, his blew out his elbow and had to have Tommy John surgery.

Baldelli returned in mid-June of last season and put together a solid year. He hit .302 with 16 home runs and 57 RBI in 364 at bats. He finally showed more power and the type of projection most have made for him. Many believe Baldelli has the potential to be a 30/30 player and that he has barely scratched the surface of his potential.

We need to come to the realization that Andruw Jones is a lame duck with the Atlanta Braves. Whether he's traded this winter or next July, or if he just leaves as a free agent next offseason, the chances Jones remains with the Braves for the long term are slim. Scott Boras declared this week in Orlando that he would not negotiate with Schuerholz about a long-term deal for Jones until after next season. And with all the big money being handed out this winter, it's obvious Jones is going to cash in this time next year.

So the Braves are in a position where they need to look at the long-term future of this organization. If Jones is, in fact, not going to be around for that long-term, they do need some player to not only play center field, but also be a productive offensive force in the lineup.

Pairing the 25-year-old Baldelli with 23-year-old Jeff Francoeur will give the Braves two players to be the core of the outfield for the next half decade - at the least. They are both fantastic athletes, with good speed, solid defensive skills, and tremendous potential for offensive production.

‘Replacing' Andruw Jones is going to be tough. The Braves are never going to find a better center fielder than Jones, and it could be equally tough to find someone that can average 35 home runs and 104 runs batted in (as Jones has averaged over the last nine seasons). But Baldelli has at least the potential to come close, and with his contract already in place for the next five seasons, it makes him as good a candidate as anyone to be a suitable ‘replacement' for a player that might be in the Hall of Fame one day.

But how much do the Braves give up for Baldelli? What's a fair price? Well, the Devil Rays are very protective of their young talent - as they should be. But historically they are somewhat unreasonable in their trade demands. For a team that already has a ton of outfielders, and a desperate need for pitching, you would think they would not be too picky.

When the Rocco Baldelli rumors got hot this past Wednesday morning at the Winter Meetings, the initial talk was of the Devil Rays' desire for Braves' southpaw Chuck James. Big shock, right? James did throw a masterpiece in his first big league start back in late June against the Devil Rays. Who wouldn't want James? His track record in the minor leagues is almost historic, and his first stint in the big leagues showed he's got tremendous potential.

But there was no doubt that the Braves were not going to trade James. They're just not. They have one 40-year old starter in John Smoltz, a 34-year old coming off Tommy John surgery in Mike Hampton, and a 31-year old Tim Hudson that has been sinfully mediocre in his first two seasons as a Brave. Chuck James represents the future of this rotation, and he's going to be counted on more than most kids his age because of the other questions with the ones ahead of him.

The Braves let Tampa Bay know that Chuck James is not available, which was made more clear after another starter (Horacio Ramirez) was traded later on Wednesday. However, the Braves have a rich and abundant farm system, and when you are talking with a team that needs talent, a match is always possible.

The two top pieces in the farm system right now are catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and infielder Yunel Escobar. The debate about "Salty Dog" is ongoing, both in the Braves' front office and in the fan base. It is clearly not an easy call.

A year ago, Salty was the top catching prospect in the game - bar none. But a tough 2006 season has his stock down - just a bit. He hit .230 with 9 home runs and 39 RBI in 313 at bats. The previous season, in a pitcher's league and a pitcher's park, Saltalamacchia hit .314 with 19 home runs and 81 RBI in 450 at bats. But a wrist injury did affect his 2006 season.

Before he went on the DL with his injury, Salty hit .197 with 4 home runs and 25 RBI in 239 at bats. But after he returned, Saltalamacchia was his old self again. He hit .338 with 5 home runs and 25 RBI in only 74 at bats when he came back. This kid is a hitter. You just don't forget to know how to hit like this kid can. So there's no doubt that the wrist injury was a big reason his overall numbers were down in 2006.

Then Salty went to the Arizona Fall League and just raked. He hit .565 with 3 home runs and 12 RBI in only six games before he injured his groin. But he hit enough to remind everyone just how good he is - and what he's likely to become.

How good could this kid be? Well, the potential is there for Saltalamacchia to hit 30-40 home runs per season. If he stays at catcher, how many switch-hitting catchers are there with that type of offensive potential? None. That's why the Braves are so adamant about keeping him behind the plate - at least for now. They know that as a catcher, he's one of a kind. As a first baseman, even with his potential, he's not as rare.

But the fact is he is blocked in Atlanta by Brian McCann, who is going to be the Braves' catcher for a long time. As good as Saltalamacchia is and might be, McCann is already there. That creates a situation that will eventually have to be addressed. Salty will either knock McCann out of his job (unlikely), move to another position, or be traded.

So with the need the Braves have for a leadoff man, a left fielder, and someone to ‘replace' Andruw Jones in the future, is that the perfect scenario to use Saltalamacchia in a deal?

Yunel Escobar is another dilemma. He had a decent first full season in pro ball in AA Mississippi this last year, hitting .264 with 2 home runs and 45 RBI. Then he won the batting title in the Arizona Fall League with a .407 batting average, along with 2 home runs and 22 RBI in only 86 at bats.

The Cuban defector is a hitter. Some have compared him to a Edgar Renteria-type of player. He is a natural shortstop, but he can also play second base. With Marcus Giles probably out as the starter at second, Escobar is considered a candidate to compete with Martin Prado for the job next spring.

Escobar is a fine talent, and many underestimate his potential. His versatility (he can also play third base) is appealing, and he's got the ability to hit .300 in the major leagues. But while second base is an option, his natural position is shortstop. Edgar Renteria is there for two more seasons, and super prospect Elvis Andrus could be ready in 2009 and has better overall potential. So while he is valuable to the Braves, he's not a huge necessity.

The real issue comes in with the potential desire by the Devil Rays to have a pitcher in any deal for Baldelli. With Chuck James off the table, Kyle Davies becomes the most logical candidate to be place in the trade.

Davies missed half of last season with a groin injury and struggled mightily when he returned late in the year. His value is down a bit, mainly since his numbers are fairly unimpressive. But the Braves still believe Davies can be a solid number three starter in the big leagues. With Ramirez now in Seattle, Davies is penciled in as the fifth starter, with really no one else behind him.

So the Braves need Davies next season, and with an older top of the rotation with Smoltz, Hampton, and Hudson, the Braves need Davies to combine with Chuck James to form the future of the starting staff. But there's little chance Tampa Bay will trade Baldelli without getting at least one starter in return.

The Braves would have to turn around and find a fifth starter for next season. They'd have to wade through the sea to find if Tony Armas or Mark Redman could fill that role. That might not be too bad, but the bigger implication of including Davies in a trade would be the long-term picture.

Do the Braves trade Davies now, before he's even had a full season in the big leagues? Sure, his troubles last season are a concern. But this kid can pitch. He's got dynamite stuff and the perfect makeup to be a top-notch starter for many years. If he is traded, you really need to hope that Matt Harrison and Jo Jo Reyes, the Braves' top two pitching prospects, can help out in a year. Remember, the Braves' top pitching talent is really at Myrtle Beach and below. Harrison and Reyes are the two closest, and scouts are split a bit on just how good those two might be.

The Braves have just seen Adam Wainwright help the Cardinals win the World Series. They've also seen Zach Miner help get the Tigers last summer. And two other former Braves' pitchers, Jason Schmidt and Jason Marquis, are getting big money contracts as free agents this winter. Would trading Davies just ensure that another Braves' farmhand would enjoy success in a uniform other than one with a tomahawk across his chest?

There is no doubt about the quality of these three players: Saltalamacchia, Escobar, and Davies. But the quantity is what is the concern. Should the Braves trade all three of these players for Rocco Baldelli? Perhaps if they swap out Davies for a different pitcher, or if they are able to trade only two of the three. But is Baldelli, even with his tremendous benefits, worth these three players?

These are the questions GMs have to ask themselves all the time. They are guessing, as you know, but they are educated guesses. If Saltalamacchia is traded, the team is not going to be hurting at catcher. McCann is going to be around for a long time, and Clint Sammons, Phil Britton, Tyler Flowers, and Matt Kennelly provide pretty good depth in the farm system. But watching Salty put up 30-40 home runs a season could be very difficult to watch if he's doing it in Tampa Bay instead of Atlanta.

The Braves will get by at second and short without Yunel Escobar. Martin Prado and Kelly Johnson will be okay at second base in 2007, and Elvis Andrus might make us forget all about Escobar in a few years. But will it be tough watching Escobar start at shortstop for the Devil Rays for the next decade?

And the Braves will find pitching, even if they trade Davies. They always do. But after seeing all these former Braves twirlers excel elsewhere, how tough will it be to watch Davies develop into a solid number three starter? And with Schuerholz saying that upgrading the pitching staff was the number one priority this winter, how tough will it be to trade away two starters in one offseason?

Do the Braves really want to give the Devil Rays a starting catcher, a starting shortstop, and a number three starter for one player? Yes, that one player has great potential, could help tremendously in 2007, and could be part of the core of the team (along with Francoeur and McCann) for the next decade. But these three players seem like a very high price.

We all have to remember that the farm system is in place for two reasons: to provide direct talent to the major league roster, and to provide talent that other teams will target in order to complete trades that can improve the big league roster. The Braves' farm system has always fulfilled both functions admirably (heck someone I know wrote a book about that), but trading a collection of young talent is always a difficult decision.

If it were only two of the three rumored players, maybe it would be easier to accept. If the Braves did not have to include Davies, but perhaps could insert a young pitching prospect instead, maybe it wouldn't sting so much. I want Rocco Baldelli. He's the perfect candidate to join this Atlanta roster, but the decision to trade these three players for him is not one I'd like to make. I'm glad John Schuerholz gets to make the call.

What would you do?

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 on the Atlanta Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at

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