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The Javier Vazquez Trade: Great for the Braves, Questionable for the White Sox

The Chicago White Sox have traded Javier Vazquez and Boone Logan to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Brent Lillibridge, Tyler Flowers, Jon Gilmore, and Santos Rodriguez.

I respect Kenny Williams. I think he’s an above-average GM, even though he’s not particularly saber-friendly. However, he has made two very questionable moves in the last two weeks – first, he dealt Nick Swisher to the Yankees for essentially nothing, and now he’s traded Javier Vazquez to the Braves for a utility man and three prospects.

When Williams traded for Nick Swisher before last season, he essentially cleaned out an already bare farm system. At the time, I thought Williams gave up an appropriate amount for Swisher, but I questioned the timing of the move; I didn’t think the White Sox would be particularly competitive in 2008, and I wondered why they were playing for short-term success.

I was wrong. Although Swisher didn’t play well, the White Sox won the Central Division and made the playoffs. It appeared that Williams’s gamble to go for it in the short-term paid off; although his team was bounced from the playoffs in the first round, any season in which you make the playoffs is a good season. And, considering their success in 2008 and the composition of the roster (namely, several of their most productive players are rather old), it makes sense for the White Sox to go for broke once again in 2009, in what looks to be a very weak division.

So what does Williams do? He trades two of his main players in exchange for backup infielders and prospects. This begs the question: what is Kenny Williams doing?

It looks like Williams is trying to play the dangerous game of “rebuilding on the fly.” He wants to keep his major league team competitive in 2009 while re-stocking his farm system at the same time. In theory, this is a good idea: you build for the future without sacrificing much in the short-term. But in practice, it’s extremely difficult to pull off. By attempting to build for the present and the future, many teams often times do neither. The Central Division is there for the taking in 2009, but Williams made his team worse at the major league level with these two trades. Furthermore, while the White Sox’s farm system was nearly completely barren before the trade, the system is still well-below-average after the trade.

Williams needs to make a decision: is he going to seriously try to win the division in 2009, or is he building for 2010 and beyond? If it’s the former, he needs to add to his team, especially his starting pitching, as the current roster probably isn’t good enough to win even a weak division. If it’s the latter, Williams needs to acknowledge that to himself and make a concerted effort to trade some more of his veterans who have value – namely, Jermaine Dye and perhaps Mark Buehrle or Jim Thome – in order to further stock his farm system. Teams that attempt to rebuild on the fly often times end up with a mediocre team in the present and a mediocre farm system.

As for the Braves, this is an absolutely fantastic trade. Some may look at the Braves 2008 record of 72-90, coupled with the two super-powers ahead of them, and conclude that the Braves chances of competing in 09 are remote. However, it appears as if Frank Wren understands that his team is not nearly as bad as their record indicates. Their third-order record in 2008 was 79-83, and that was in a season wrecked by injuries and a terrible bullpen.

In reality, the Braves are probably somewhere around a .500 team. Adding Vazquez and his 128 tRA+ is a huge upgrade over some of the scrubs that the Braves were throwing out there every fifth day. Furthermore, the Braves gave up very little of any consequence for them. The biggest piece in the deal was catcher Tyler Flowers, who would be blocked by Brian McCann even if he was to develop perfectly. Losing Lillibridge won’t hurt them at all, and while the two teenagers in the deal (Jon Gilmore, and Santos Rodriguez) have high ceilings, they are very far from the majors and this quite risky. Essentially, the Braves cashed in their best trade bait in exchange for an undervalued starting pitcher.

However, if the Braves are serious about competing in 2009, they will need to add another piece or two. Rumor has it that the Braves are preparing a five-year offer to AJ Burnett – the exact details haven’t been released yet, but if true, this would make the Braves true contenders in the NL East. The Braves have several minor leaguers who are nearly ready to produce at the major league level – namely, center fielder Jordan Schafer and pitcher Tommy Hanson – and if the Braves can sign Burnett they are going to be in the race, alongside the Phillies, Mets, and maybe even the Marlins. The White Sox, meanwhile, are no longer the favorites to win the AL Central unless they add to their major league team.