February 2010

Why not take a flyer on Willy Taveras?

While bigger names remain on the free agent market, a recent development may have given the Atlanta Braves something to consider for their outfield mix as Spring Training approaches. Signing Willy Taveras could supply the Braves with some valuable speed for an extremely low price.

Taveras.jpgTaveras had a rather bizarre February 1, being dealt by the Cincinnati Reds to the Oakland Athletics only to find himself designated for assignment later that day. Unwilling to accept an assignment to the minor leagues, it left the A’s with no choice but to release him on Tuesday.

Oakland will pay the bulk of the $4 million Taveras is owed this season. Any team that signs Taveras, 28, would have to pay only the league minimum to secure his services.

Despite leading the National League with 68 stolen bases as a member of the Colorado Rockies in 2008, Taveras was non-tendered that winter in a cost-cutting move.

He would not stay unemployed for long as the Reds signed Taveras to a two-year $6.5 million deal last winter. A lackluster 2009 campaign, including a career-low .240 batting average to go along with an ugly .275 on base percentage, forced the Reds to take another look at their outfield options and ultimately ship Taveras to Oakland.

His once promising career could officially be termed as derailed, but a better phrasing may be to call it at a crossroads. Taveras has been on two World Series series teams. First, finishing second in the N.L. Rookie of the Year voting in 2005 as a member of the pennant winning Houston Astros, before hitting a career-high .320 as a member of the N.L. champion Colorado Rockies in 2007.

Pro’s and Con’s….

I’ll be the first to say that signing Taveras would come with its fair share of if’s, but adding a relatively young and low-priced player with postseason experience is an option worth exploring. It would also give the club another reason not to rush heralded prospect Jason Heyward this Spring if more minor league seasoning would be in his and the club’s best interest.

If Taveras were to rebound to his 2007 standards, he would provide a short-term solution who brings a completely different look to the cast of Braves outfielders. Taveras would obviously pose no threat to the impending arrival of Heyward, instead serving along with Melky Cabrera and Matt Diaz to flank center fielder Nate McLouth until which time Heyward gets the call. Though primarily a center fielder himself, Taveras would see more time in left while being available to spell McLouth if needed.

No one is accusing Taveras of being an impact player, but if he can reach some of his past productivity it would give the Braves a chance to mix and match their lineup in a number of favorable ways. And that would make an impact.

Possible line-up options could include allowing McLouth to move down a spot in the order to take advantage of his run-producing power. Yunel Escobar saw time in both the 5th and 6th spots in the lineup last season and could benefit from a permanent move to the middle of the batting order.

Among the offensive weaknesses of Taveras, and there are a few, is the unusual trait of being a right-handed hitter who performs better against right-handed pitching. His career marks see him at .262 against lefties and .280 against righties, while his ’09 stats had him at just .219 against southpaws and .247 against right-handers. The presence of Diaz (.347 career and .412 last season against lefties) would allow the Braves to avoid that unfavorable match-up.

Taveras offers very little in the form of extra-base hits. His slugging percentage dropped to a career-worst .285 last season as 83 of his 97 hits were singles. This is nothing new for Taveras, who lead the NL with 152 singles among his 172 hits during his rookie season of 2005. A portion of this can be overlooked because Taveras is a base stealing threat (194 in 236 career attempts).

As a rule, Taveras typically hits his way aboard. Walks have always been at a premium and that contributes to his .321 lifetime on base percentage. He drew just 18 free passes in 102 games last season and owns just 134 in his five full seasons of Major League action.

His fielding has also been suspect at times. In 2008, Taveras compiled a .976 fielding percentage – the worst among all center fielders in baseball. But, again, he would likely not see much time in center field with McLouth there.

On a side note…

Most, if not all, of the attention the Braves are getting in the rumor mill is revolving around the somewhat quizzical unemployment of Johnny Damon. We have been repeatedly reminded that the only way that Damon is going to be suiting up with a tomahawk across his chest in 2010 will be a thanks to a serious drop in asking price.

With agent Scott Boras trying to recoup the cash that was lost when he and Damon rebuffed the Yankees’ offer(s), there is likely to be another destination (I’d say in the American League) that will bend their financial plans just enough to accommodate the outfielder for at least one season. However, there is little doubt that Damon will be taking a hefty pay cut no matter where he lands.

Pay cut and Scott Boras are seldom used in the same sentence. Here’s to firsts!

Till next time,