Jays roll dice to acquire Escobar for Gonzalez
Toronto also gets lefty Reyes in swap of starting shortstops
TORONTO -- Every trade comes with some level of risk. In acquiring Yunel Escobar on Wednesday, the Blue Jays are gambling on a shortstop that has been struggling through a subpar showing on the field and had become a distraction within the Braves' clubhouse.
Toronto obtained Escobar in a five-player swap with Atlanta that sent shortstop Alex Gonzalez -- a player that Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos describes as one of the most professional he has ever come across -- to the National League East-leading Braves.
It is a roll of the dice that Anthopoulos believes can pay off in the long run for the Blue Jays. Prior to this turbulent season, Escobar was heralded as one of the top young shortstops in the game. Under different circumstances, Anthopoulos believes the Braves would have declared Escobar off limits and hung up the phone.
"If Yunel Escobar was doing what he did in the past," Anthopoulos said, "he's not available to us and this trade does not present itself. This was an opportunity for us to take a chance on a very talented player."
Escobar will become eligible for arbitration for the first time this coming winter, meaning he is contractually controllable through the 2013 season. Beyond adding a player Anthopoulos feels can become a part of the club's core group, the Jays also acquired left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes, who will shift into the rotation at Double-A New Hampshire.
The Blue Jays designated pitcher Ronald Uviedo for assignment in order to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Escobar.
Reeling in Escobar came with a price, though. Anthopoulos parted ways with the 33-year-old Gonzalez -- in the midst of a career resurgence at the plate -- as well as Minor League pitcher Tim Collins and Minor League infielder Tyler Pastornicky. The Jays did not enjoy dealing away either prospect.
"We were reluctantly willing to give up both players," Anthopoulos said. "But it was not an easy decision to make."
Being in a position to land Escobar made things easier.
Escobar is a stellar defender at his position and has a proven track record as a solid contributor on offense. This year, though, the 27-year-old shortstop has hit just .238 with no home runs and 19 RBIs over 75 games for Atlanta. That is a drastic drop-off from the past three seasons, over which Escobar hit .301 with a .375 on-base percentage.
A year ago, Escobar hit .299 with a career-best 14 home runs and 76 RBIs, earning the team's Most Valuable Player honor from the Atlanta chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. This season, a lot has changed. Escobar's performance on the field has suffered and he has been criticized for lackadaisical play and poor attitude.
Anthopoulos said his army of scouts delved deeply into Escobar's background.
"When we looked at it," Anthopoulos explained, "we said, 'Well, we're either going to go off of three years of track record that Yunel Escobar has showed as a young man, or the three months that he's performed so far.'"
The Jays chose to focus on Escobar's track record. As for criticisms about his attitude or reputation, Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays are hoping that a simple change of scenery is all that is required to energize Escobar at the plate.
"It's a fresh start for him -- a new organization," Anthopoulos said. "We did a lot of homework and we feel like this is going to be an environment for him to really thrive."
That said, Anthopoulos said it was not easy to deliver news of the trade to Gonzalez.
Over 85 games for Toronto this season, all Gonzalez has done is lead all Major League shortstops in home runs (17), doubles (25), extra-base hits (43), total bases (163) and slugging percentage (.497), while turning in highlight-reel plays on defense. Gonzalez became a favorite of Toronto fans and a good addition to the clubhouse.
"The production and the results speak for themselves," Anthopoulos said. "As I told Alex, the two most professional position players that I've probably been around in my time in the game have been Scott Rolen and Alex Gonzalez.
"Just the way he carries himself and the way he conducts himself, he's a tremendous teammate and a quiet leader -- not an easy guy to part with."
In Collins, the Braves are receiving a 5-foot-7 left-handed phenom. Overlooked in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, the 20-year-old Collins signed with Toronto as a non-drafted free agent. This year, the diminutive lefty has amassed 73 strikeouts against 16 walks over 43 innings, posting a 2.51 ERA with nine saves.
Pastornicky, 20, had hit .258 with six home runs and 35 RBIs over 77 games in his second tour with Class A Advanced Dunedin, but he became expendable as the Jays have continued to add depth up the middle. Pastornicky could have a future at shortstop or second base.
"Both guys are very talented," Anthopoulos said. "I give the Braves a lot of credit. I think they did a great job from a scouting standpoint. The makeup of both players is outstanding. I spoke to both of them today. They're both tremendous kids, very hard workers, outstanding baseball players and very tough, intense competitors."
As for Reyes, Anthopoulos believes the 25-year-old left-hander has potential to help the Blue Jays down the road as either a starter or reliever. For now, Reyes will remain in a starting capacity for the organization. This season, the lefty was 1-5 with a 5.70 ERA over 12 games with Triple-A Gwinnett.
"He hasn't had a great performance this year," Anthopoulos said. "We have some scouts that feel pretty strongly about him and think he has a chance to bounce back and be the player he was in the past."
That was the same line of thinking with Escobar.
If Escobar can put his recent issues behind him, he has the potential of becoming a valuable part of the Blue Jays' future. Combine Escobar with fellow Cuban shortstop prospect Adeiny Hechavarria, and suddenly Toronto appears poised to be very strong at a position that has been weak in recent years.
"It's never a bad thing to have two great players," Anthopoulos said. "We're just as high on Adeiny Hechavarria. We absolutely believe he's going to be an All-Star caliber shortstop. When we get a chance to add another guy like that in Yunel Escobar, we're never going to shy away from the talent."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.