Braves Shore Up Bullpen By Dealing Estrada

By Alan Matthews
December 8, 2005

The Braves’ annual bullpen makeover continued when they dealt catcher Johnny Estrada to the Diamondbacks for righthanded relievers Lance Cormier and Oscar Villarreal.

Estrada became expendable after Brian McCann was called up from the minors in 2005 and outplayed him, and fast-rising prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia could be even better. Estrada will be expected to take over as the everyday catcher in Arizona.

The move also saves money for the Braves because Estrada is arbitration-eligible and could make around $2 million in 2006, while McCann will make less than $400,000.

Cormier and Villarreal will provide depth for the Braves bullpen, and Villarreal could battle for the vacant closer job if he can stay healthy. Last winter’s closer acquisition, Dan Kolb, has been traded back to the Brewers, and Kyle Farnsworth, who finished the season with the job, signed with Yankees as a free agent.

The Diamondbacks were shopping for a frontline catcher after using Chris Snyder, Koyie Hill and Kelly Stinnett behind the plate this season. They combined to bat .216 with 12 home runs.

Estrada, 29, is a career .273 hitter after spending at least part of five seasons in the big leagues, including all of the last two years in Atlanta. He batted .261 with a .670 on-base plus slugging percentage in 357 at-bats in 2005. He spent much of the second half of the season recovering from a collision at home plate in June with Angels first baseman Darin Erstad. McCann stepped in and handled the pitching staff well and has more offensive upside than Estrada, who had a concussion and back problems after the collision.

Villarreal, 24, battled arm trouble for much of 2005, appearing in just 11 games with the Diamondbacks and 12 at Triple-A Tucson. He allowed eight earned runs off 11 hits with six walks and five strikeouts in 14 innings with the Diamondbacks and was 0-3, 5.19 with eight strikeouts and four walks in 17 innings in Triple-A. He went down with strained tendons in his right forearm in April and didn’t return until July 28.

He has struggled with injuries since being overused as a rookie in 2003, appearing in 86 games–a National League rookie record–and compiling a 2.57 ERA in 98 innings. Villarreal has pitched just 33 major league innings since. When healthy, he throws a fastball in the low 90s along with a sharp slider and effective changeup.

Cormier, 23, has less imposing stuff but has been more durable since being called up by Arizona in 2004. A fourth-round pick out of Alabama in 2002, he logged 79 innings in 67 relief outings in 2005, posting a 7-3, 5.11 record with 63 strikeouts and 43 walks.