Best Trades in Atlanta Braves History? Omar Infante. How good was Infante in a Braves uniform? The answer…very.
Over the last three decades of (mostly) excellence, the Braves have made ton of memorable trades, from franchise-altering trades like Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz, to under-the-radar waiver deals like the one that brought over Alejandro Pena, to blockbuster heists like the Tim Hudson trade, to the furious teardown of 2014-2015. But my favorite isn’t any of those. It’s the time the Braves traded one red paperclip for a house: the blessed day on December 4, 2007, when Frank Wren, two months into the job, traded Jose Ascanio to the Detroit Tigers for Omar Infante and Will Ohman.
Best Trades in Atlanta Braves History: Omar Infante
It probably wasn’t Frank Wren’s best trade — that’s probably his other notable 2007 trade, Edgar Renteria for Jair Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez, followed by the Javier Vazquez deal that Ryan wrote up, and maybe also the Michael Bourn trade.
But it’s the trade where we gave up the very least amount of value and received the greatest return. It’s a textbook example of value trading: we traded something that is nearly always in surplus (minor league relief prospects) for two things that we badly needed (bench depth with positional flexibility, and a lefty reliever), and then both of the players we got were immediately excellent.
Best Trades in Atlanta Braves History, Omar Infante: Fleecing the 2007 Cubs
In 2007, the Chicago Cubs GM was Jim Hendry, who was not always the most astute judge of his own team’s talent. His team had finished first in a weak division; the 85-win Cubs had fewer wins than three teams in the West and two teams in the East, and they got swept in the NLDS by the Diamondbacks.
Led by stars like Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, and Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs had weak offense at shortstop from Ryan Theriot, and a pretty punchless outfield. In November, shortly after the season ended, they traded their worst-hitting regular OF, Jacque Jones, to the Tigers, and got Omar Infante in return.
They weren’t necessarily worried about a hole in the lineup as their star outfielder of the future seemed like it would be Felix Pie. Unfortunately, like so many former Cubs top prospects from Roosevelt Brown to Corey Patterson, Pie never put it together in the majors.
Infante was also a former Baseball America top-100 prospect, but he had struggled to establish himself as a regular, and his career had stalled in Detroit. However, Chicago didn’t seem to give much thought to keeping Infante to back up Theriot, sending him to Atlanta in early December, less than a month after acquiring him.
Infante was coming off a terrible year in 2007 — though he played every infield and outfield position but first base, he could only manage a .662 OPS, and he struggled for playing time as he only amassed 178 plate appearances.
The Cubs were also willing to deal lefty Will Ohman, who, like Edwin Jackson and our own Ububba, was born on an American military base in Germany. Ohman was a former 8th-round pick out of Pepperdine in 1998, and by the time he reached Double-A, he was exclusively being used in relief. He got good strikeout numbers but his walk rate was always on the high side – for his career, his BB/9 was right at 3.9 in the minors, 4.1 in the majors.
Tommy John surgery robbed Ohman of two seasons in 2003 and 2004, and while he had a great 2005, his numbers trended downward the next two seasons, as his ERA slid from 2.91 to 4.13 to 4.95. While he faced nearly equal numbers of plate appearances from each side of the plate, his numbers against righties were always noticeably worse, and in 2007, righties managed an .861 OPS against him.
The Braves were offering Jose Ascanio, a hard-throwing prospect with a middling profile, as the Pirates Prospects blog recounts in a retrospective: going into the 2005 season, BA ranked him as just the 11th-best prospect in the Braves system, and then he suffered a fracture in his back. When he came back, he struggled, and he fell to 21st place among Braves prospects.
This was a trade of misfit toys.
Who They Got: Jose Ascanio
Ascanio — surprise! — never really did anything in the majors. He had a middling cup of coffee with the Braves in 2007 before the trade, allowing 9 earned runs in 16 innings for a 5.06 ERA, and 13 strikeouts against six walks.
He struggled in the Cubs system in 2008. In 54 2/3 innings at Triple-A, he gave up 31 earned runs, for a 5.10 ERA, and he gave up five runs in five and two-thirds innings in the majors. He reestablished some value for himself in 2009, though, pitching more effectively in Triple-A and then managing a 3.52 ERA in 15 1/3 innings in the majors.
The Cubs were happy to cash him in, shipping him to the Pirates on July 30 for starter Tom Gorzelanny and middle reliever John Grabow. Gorzelanny was a workmanlike lefty innings-eater, so he wasn’t a bad return for Ascanio.
It’s a good thing the Cubs acted when they did, too; Ascanio went down later that year with an injured shoulder that eventually required surgery. He missed the 2010 season and made it back to the majors for just 6 1/3 innings in 2011 before the Pirates designated him for assignment. Since then, he has pitched in Mexico and Venezuela.
He’ll celebrate his 35th birthday on Saturday, May 2nd, nearly a decade after his last appearance in the Majors.
Who We Got: Will Ohman
We got two guys who had worn out their welcome with their home organizations, and welcomed them with open arms as they both did their best work in years.
Ohman was an anchor on a bad baseball team who retired having never made a playoff appearance. The 2008 Braves entered the year with high expectations and quickly stumbled out of the gate, eventually trading Mark Teixeira at the deadline because they had fallen so hopelessly out of contention.
It was all because of the starting rotation. Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Jorge Campillo, and pray for rain. Campillo was a lifesaver, a scrap heap revelation who tricked his way to a 3.91 ERA in 25 starts, second-most on the team. John Smoltz only managed five starts before season-ending shoulder surgery.
Unfortunately, the 79 starts that weren’t made by those four went to Mike Hampton, Jo-Jo Reyes, a past-his-prime Tom Glavine, before-his-prime Charlie Morton, Jeff Bennett, Jamie Parr, and Chuck James, who collectively managed a 5.40 ERA that honestly felt even worse than that at the time. The merciful competence of Will Ohman was a blessed relief.
Just as in Chicago, Ohman was not used exclusively against lefties. But he was deadly on lefties and limited the damage done by righties (just a .700 OPS against), becoming a reliable 8th-inning option. He made a remarkable 83 appearances, nearly half of which were more than an inning, strong work for a bullpen lefty.
That was his walk year, so he opted for free agency and signed a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he went with our best wishes.
Who We Got: Omar Infante
Omar Infante had much more staying power. The 348 PA he received in 2008 were the most he had gotten in three years as he posted a career high wOBA of .329 (not counting his first cup of coffee in 2002). He then exceeded that mark in each of his next two campaigns with the Braves.
The Braves were so impressed with Infante’s work in 2008 that they handed him a two-year extension the next January. He had come up as a shortstop, and much of his value was tied to his ability to back up shortstop off the bench. The Cubs were relying on Ryan Theriot and Ronny Cedeno as their co-shortstops, and they certainly could have used a player capable of the kind of production Infante gave us.
In the majors and minors, Infante was a guy who played a bunch of infield and outfield positions and hit for an empty average — not much on-base, not much power, but a lot of flexibility, and typically a lot of singles.
That’s what he gave us in 2008, and just a bit more than we could have hoped: a .293/.338/.416 triple slash, the kind of luxury bench ace in the hole that we found in Matt Diaz and Julio Franco, a player who meant that we had an answer for just about any offensive dilemma. (Too bad he couldn’t pitch.) He didn’t get quite as many at-bats in 2009, but he hit even better: .305/.361/.389 in 229 PA.
His annus mirabilis came in 2010, which was Bobby Cox’s swan song. En route to the first-ever Wild Card berth in franchise history, the team went 91-71 — 19 more wins than they’d had in 2008 — and while the starting roster had a few deadweights in Smelky Cabrera and Nate Louth (Mac Thomason used to say he didn’t deserve the “Mc”), the bench was chockablock with talent, with Eric Hinske and Brooks Conrad and Derrek Lee and David Ross and Gregor Blanco all posting an OPS+ above 110 in part-time work.
And Omar Infante? He started 63 games at second, 18 at short, 12 at third, and 13 in the outfield, amassed 506 PA (fifth-most on the team), hit .320, and was named as a reserve to the National League All-Star team. He was magnificent, and he deserves as much credit as anyone for pushing the team over the top to claim the Wild Card by a single game over the Padres, and return to the postseason for the first time in five years.
And all for the cost of a minor league reliever with a back injury who was never one of our top ten prospects.
Nice trade, Wren.
Thanks for reading on Best Trades in Braves History, Omar Infante. If you enjoyed this piece, check out our first entry into this series on the acquisition of Otis Nixon.