Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Braves Acquire Their Power-Hitter

WOW. The Braves acquired Dan Uggla from the Marlins early this evening in exchange for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn. Let me rephrase that: Atlanta got a 30 HR/100 RBI guy for a utility infielder and a left-handed reliever. Granted Infante was an All-Star this past year who finished the season with a .321 AVG and Dunn looks to be a promising bullpen asset, but the Braves addressed their pressing right-handed power bat need, though not through the OF position that most fans were expecting. Atlanta had the National League’s starting 2B in this year's All-Star game, yet they traded for a new 2B and actually got better. Pretty impressive.

First, the good. Dan Uggla immediately becomes the middle-of-the-order power threat that Atlanta lacked in 2010. As a RHB, he will help to balance out the lefty Heyward, McCann and Freeman. Uggla is the only 2B to hit 30+ HR in 4 consecutive seasons. In just 5 major league seasons, he’s already 13th on the all-time list for home runs by a 2B. He’s a 2x All-Star and won the Silver Slugger award in 2010. On top of all those positives, we ‘eliminate’ someone who has traditionally killed the Braves. In 45 career games as a Marlin at Turner Field, Uggla hit .354/.399/.652 with 12 HR and 36 RBI. Over 162 games, that projects to 43 HR and 130 RBI. Bill James projects his 2011 season to look like .263/.352/.483 with 31 HR and 94 RBI. Hopefully the friendly confines of Turner Field bumps those numbers up even higher.

On the other side of the trade, the Braves effectively sold high on a career .274/.319/.395 back-up while also giving up a 25 year old reliever who has thrown a total of 23 IP out of the bullpen. True, Omar Infante had a great season in 2010 and Dunn looks to have his best years in front of him after a 12.8 K/9 in a 19 IP campaign last year, but they weren’t key pieces of this team. Infante is only signed through 2011 and would probably earn a raise if he were to put up another season like he did this year. Dunn impressed those who saw him in his 25 appearances in 2010, but the Braves already have two strong left-handed relievers in Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. That was a surplus that Atlanta was able to deal from. Frank Wren managed to solve his biggest need without giving up a single serious prospect (Freeman, Kimbrel, Minor, Teheran, Delgado, Vizcaino, Beachy, etc.). Again, pretty impressive.

Now for the bad. While Uggla has tremendous pop, his defense leaves a lot to be desired. Displacing Prado at 2B will clearly be a downgrade defensively. According to Wren, Prado will move to LF (which he’s apparently familiar enough with through time in Winter Ball) while also possibly filling in at 3B in case Chipper can’t go following his ACL injury last year. Also, Dan Uggla’s not cheap. He earned $7.8m in 2010 and heads into his final year of arbitration in 2011 where he should expect a bump over his ’10 salary. But most importantly, Uggla is a free agent at the end of the 2011 season. He recently turned down a 4yr/$48m extension from the Marlins, so who knows what it might take to sign him..especially if he has another productive season this year. At 31 years old, I’m not sure a contract of at least that size would be the most intelligent gamble.

Other than adding a couple relievers and a bat off the bench, Frank Wren could stop right here and have a solid team heading into next season. The 2011 line-up could look like:

Prado – LF
Heyward – RF
Jones – 3B
McCann – C
Uggla – 2B
Freeman – 1B
Gonzalez – SS
McLouth – CF

But there remains room for improvement should Wren want to continue to make moves. The CF position can still be upgraded. It would be tough to envision a trade that didn’t involve moving McLouth’s $6.5m 2011 salary, but if something could be arranged, the addition of some serious top of the order speed like Jacoby Ellsbury or BJ Upton could really make this team impressive. With Infante and Dunn as the only pieces included for Uggla, Wren still has plenty of prospects to attract that type of player.

All things considered, the Braves gave up very little to get a player like Dan Uggla that addresses such a big need heading into next season. There’s some risk that the team could be in this exact same situation next year if Uggla proves to be too expensive as free agent, but it’s a risk worth taking. I’ve never been much of a fan of Uggla’s ever since his defensive butchery a few years ago in the All-Star game (his career as a Braves-killer hasn’t helped much either), but if he puts up 30+ HR next year, I’ll be the first to welcome him with open arms.

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