Why Trade Martin Prado?

It seems that the Atlanta Braves are intent on dealing Martin Prado this offseason. So far, Prado has been mentioned in trade talks with Kansas City (along with Jair Jurrjens for Lorenzo Cain and Wil Myers), with Colorado (for Seth Smith and a prospect) and with Detroit (for Delmon Young). Braves GM Frank Wren hasn’t found the right match for the 28-year-old yet — the Young rumor was shot down quickly — but a number of teams are likely to be interested in Prado if Wren continues to shop him. In fact, ESPN’s Buster Olney quotes an AL team’s official who favorably compares Prado to free-agent outfielder Michael Cuddyer. Trading Prado surely should be easy, but it begs the question: Why is Wren so anxious to get rid of his super-utility player?

The answer perhaps is difficult to understand, considering that Prado is a versatile defender who also has been productive offensively. He has a career wOBA of .337 and has compiled 10 WAR in three-and-half seasons of full-time play. He’s serviceable at both second and third base and is an above-average left fielder when you look at data from this past season. Prado is under team control for at least two  years, and he’s projected to make a budget-friendly $4.5 million in 2012. Additionally, the Braves don’t have an immediate replacement for Prado in the outfield — or in his other role as a  third base fill-in when the aging, oft-injured Chipper Jones needs time off. The Braves were in the bottom half of the N.L. in runs scored in 2011 and their outfielders’ combined .300 wOBA was last in the league. Needless to say, it’s not like the Braves are overstocked with productive outfield bats.

But Prado does come with some negatives: Most important, he has struggled to stay healthy. He missed 16 games in 2010 with a broken finger, then came back and suffered a severe oblique injury that kept him out of the playoffs. In 2011, he missed 31 games after he needed a surgical procedure to help clear up a nasty staph infection in his right calf. Perhaps as a result of the lingering effects of the oblique and the calf injuries, Prado slumped to his worst season as a professional, hitting .260/.302/.385 with a .296 wOBA in 129 games this year. Outside of his injuries, Prado doesn’t have the power that teams typically look for in corner players. In fact, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Dave O’Brien suggests that Prado’s lack of power is why he’s being shopped. This seems to be a clear case of the Braves focusing on what a player cannot do, rather than what he can do. Prado might not be a classic slugger, but if he hits like he did in 2009 (.355 wOBA) and in 2010 (.352 wOBA) he’s clearly an asset with the bat — even if his hits often don’t leave the yard.

So what could a team reasonably expect to get out of him? In terms of health, oblique injuries are known to recur, but broken fingers and staph infections don’t tend to be chronic injuries. As such, there’s no extant reason to expect Prado to miss significant time in 2012. Bill James projects Prado’s to bounce back offensively in 2012 and sport a .289/.339/.423 triple-slash and a .333 wOBA. Is there any reason to think that James is being too optimistic about Prado’s 2012? Maybe. Prado’s walk rate has declined in each of the past four seasons — from 8.3% in 2008 to 5.8% in 2011. James forecasts a 6.9% walk rate next year, but Prado’s increasing aggressiveness at the plate would be a concern for any non-power hitter.

Still, despite swinging at many more pitches in 2011, his strikeout rate declined considerably — from 13.2% in 2010 to 8.8% in 2011. Compared with previous years, Prado in 2011 put many more balls in play. Unfortunately for Prado and the Braves, the results weren’t pretty: Prado posted a career low .266 BABIP, compared with .335 in 2010, .331 in 2009 and .357 in 2008. The primary culprit seems to be his line-drive percentage, which fell from 21.0% in 2010 to a career low of 14.6%. Given the low year-to-year correlation in line-drive percentage, there’s no reason to expect that Prado would have such a low BABIP next year.

So how does Prado compare to his rumored 2012 replacements? Bill James projects that Delmon Young will provide essentially identical offensive production as Prado — .332 wOBA for Young; .333 for Prado. Young, though, is one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball and he can’t play the infield. That might be one reason why the Young rumor died so quickly. Seth Smith has posted good offensive numbers in Colorado, but he has a severe platoon split. His career wOBA is .377 against right-handed pitching, but it’s only .262 against lefties. Smith would make a good platoon partner with lefty masher Matt Diaz (.374 career wOBA), but unless the Rockies send an impact prospect along with Smith, trading a versatile player such as Prado for a guy who needs a platoon partner is not an optimal strategy.

There’s little doubt that the Braves can find a taker for Prado. But given that the team seems to undervalue his skills, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Atlanta fail to get fair value for him. And that would be an ominous sign for a team looking to put its 2011 meltdown behind them.

I am political science professor at the University of North Carolina. I grew up watching the Braves on TBS and acquired Red Sox fandom during the 1986 World Series. My other hobbies include cooking, good red wine, curing meats, and obsessing over Alabama football---Roll Tide! Follow me on Twitter @ProfJRoberts.