|Righthander Javier Vazquez allowed 19 runs in his final three regular-season starts for the White Sox—each time failing to make it out of the fifth inning—at a time when Chicago was fighting for a playoff spot. They eventually made it to the promised land of the AL Division Series, which they lost in four games to the Rays, but by then manager Ozzie Guillen had soured on Vazquez, accusing him of not being a big-game pitcher. Guillen’s stance was reinforced by Vazquez’s poor playoff start—six runs on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings—and after the season the 31-year-old could be assured that his days with the White Sox were over.
It took two months, but Chicago finally dealt Vazquez and 24-year-old lefty reliever Boone Logan (career .272/.336/.415 versus lefthanded batters) to the Braves for a package of four prospects: catcher Tyler Flowers, shortstop Brent Lillibridge, third baseman Jon Gilmore and lefthander Santos Rodriguez.
|The Young Players|
|Flowers, who will be 23 next season, returned to playing catcher in 2008, his amateur position, but one he played only sparingly in his first two seasons because of a knee injury. The Braves noted his defensive improvement, but his feel for game-calling, not to mention his catching technique, such as blocking and throwing accuracy, remain substandard. However, it’s Flowers’ bigtime righthanded power and advanced plate approach that the White Sox are targeting in making him the centerpiece of this trade. He batted .288/.427/.494 in 413 at-bats for high Class A Myrtle Beach in 2008, with 17 home runs, 88 RBIs and a nearly one-to-one (102-to-98) strikeout-to-walk ratio. A strong contender for Carolina League MVP honors, Flowers ranked second in the CL in on-base percentage, fourth in RBIs and fifth in slugging—but he lost out on the MVP to Kinston’s Beau Mills. Flowers, a 2005 draft-and-follow from Chipola (Fla.) JC, kept raking in the Arizona Fall League, batting .387/.460/.973 with 12 homers in just 20 games.
Lillibridge, 25, looked like a future middle-infield regular after a solid 2007 campaign, but his production slipped across the board with Triple-A Richmond this season. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound shortstop batted a miserable .220/.294/.344 in 355 at-bats, while showing little of the surprising pop or the stolen-base profligacy as he had the year before. Lillibridge fizzled in his first big league callup, too, and observers thought he simply put too much pressure on himself. Worse, he let his offensive struggles carry over to the field. But at his best, he shows above-average range and arm strength at shortstop, while also being competent at second base, shortstop and in center field. Originally a fourth-round pick out of Washington by the Pirates in 2005, Lillibridge was shipped to Atlanta in the Adam LaRoche deal.
A supplemental first-round pick from an Iowa high school in 2007, Gilmore earned a May assignment to low Class A Rome, but the 20-year-old batted just .173/.193/.173 in 22 games and was shuttled back to short-season ball in June. To his credit, he picked up the pace with Rookie-level Danville and went on to lead the Appalachian League with 87 hits and 23 doubles. Gilmore finished at .337/.365/.473, showing plus power to his pull side and to both gaps while showing average potential as a third baseman. His rebound earned him another trial with Rome at the end of the year. The Braves were hopeful that Gilmore’s strong work ethic would help smooth the rough edges of his game, a list now headed by spotty pitch recognition and discipline as well as a long arm path on throws.
The wild card in the trade, Rodriguez has strong raw stuff but not nearly as much polish. He led the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in both opponent average (.155) and strikeouts per nine innings (13.97) this season, but he also walked four batters per nine. But for a 6-foot-5 Dominican lefty with sinking, 91-93 mph heat and a promising slider, that’s perfectly acceptable. Not overly athletic, Rodriguez struggles to throw strikes in part because he doesn’t consistently repeat his delivery. While he has the kind of arm that’s worth taking a flier on, Rodriguez will enter 2009 as a 21-year-old with no full-season experience.
|The Braves viewed Flowers and Lillibridge as expendable because they already have Brian McCann and Yunel Escobar installed as big league regulars, and Gilmore and Rodriguez are so far away that it’s impossible to tell if they will reach their ceilings. The quartet boosts an otherwise sagging talent level in the White Sox’ farm system.
In Vazquez, Atlanta acquired a durable and occasionally dominant starter whose best days have been spent in the National League. His credentials include averaging 216 innings per year (with a low of 198) in the nine seasons since 2000, all while compiling a 4.10 ERA and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Vazquez will be 32 next season, and the Braves are on the hook for two more years at $11.5 million a pop.