It's been a little over two weeks since the Atlanta Braves ended their season with a disappointing defeat in the NLDS. Since then we've been able to replace the freshly retired Bobby Cox and released the worst everyday position player in the major leagues (literally, sort by WAR for 2010 and scroll to the bottom of the list). So, with Fredi in and Melky gone, what's next? Since Brad is going to be salivating on the NBA for the next few days (read: weeks…err months) (Ed: I resemble this remark!), he is so graciously letting me attempt to solve that problem for all the loyal blog readers. In this multi-part series that will run throughout this week I will address what the Braves pressing offseason needs are and how I think they should move forward given their current payroll restrictions.
In the first few parts of this series I will closely examine the position players for the 2011 season. First and foremost, I will look at what the Braves WILL have going into 2011:
There are THREE absolute certainties (barring a serious offseason/spring training injury) going into the 2011 season. They are: Brian McCann will be the opening day starting catcher; Jason Heyward will be the opening day starting RFer; and finally, David Ross will be on the bench opening day as the backup catcher. Other than that, there are no guarantees.
From there we have our near certain, but not quite 100%, positional alignments for opening day 2011: Martin Prado will be in the opening day lineup playing somewhere; Freddie Freeman will be the opening day starting first baseman; Alex Gonzalez will be the opening day starting shortstop. Despite some offseason rumors already being spread (emphasis on rumor) that Martin could be packaged in a deal that would land Colby Rasmus (more on this later), I don't see him going anywhere. Whether or not he's the opening day second baseman, third baseman, or left fielder (yes, LFer) remains to be seen. I do, however, almost guarantee he will be in the opening day lineup hitting somewhere between leadoff and second in the order. Frank Wren has already publicly stated that Freddie Freeman will be the starting first baseman for the Atlanta Braves in 2011, so there is no reason to think that won't happen. He was recently (as in yesterday) shut down from the Arizona Fall League because of a minor thumb injury, but this is of little to no concern on his 2011 season. As much as Alex Gonzalez seemed to hack at pitches out of the zone ala Frenchy at his worst, he will most definitely be returning as the starting SS for the Atlanta Braves in 2011. When the deal to exile Yunel Escobar to Canada was done, it was done with the intention of picking up Alex Gonzalez's very reasonable option for the 2011 season. I don't see any reason why the Braves would deviate from that plan at this point. There are really no other options available (unless you think Jeter would come to the Dirty South for $5m/year) this offseason at this price, and there is absolutely no shortstop in the organization close to major league ready.
From this, we then move to two guys who I'd bet would be in a Braves uniform in 2011, but wouldn't lay you any odds. I'm talking specifically about Chipper Jones and Nate McLouth. For Chipper, it's all about if he can rehab his knee and get back into good enough playing shape that he thinks he can produce for the Braves. There really is no reason to think Chipper won't be able to do this. He appears to already be ahead of schedule in his rehab, and is determined to not end his career with an injury. One thing to keep in mind regarding the Chipper situation: if he thinks he can play, but not up to the level he is accustomed to, he'd likely just retire. For Nate, it's all about the fact that he has such a bad contract there is really nothing the Braves can do but retain him and hope he can revert back to his 2008 numbers (or anywhere remotely close, for that matter). If the Nationals starting pitcher vs. the Braves on Opening Day 2011 is a RHP, I'd expect Nate McLouth to be hitting 7th in the order playing either LF or CF (more to come on this as well).
Wrapping that up, we field an opening day team that looks a bit like this:
C - McCann
1B - Freeman
2B - Prado (more than likely)
SS - Gonzalez
3B - C. Jones
CF - McLouth (possibly LF)
RF - Heyward
As you can see, assuming Chipper rehabs, that leaves one position wide open. For what it's worth, I will just assume Chipper will be the starting third baseman come opening day for the rest of my offseason analysis since, let's face it, that's what Frank Wren will be doing as well. Okay, so we have one position open, but we actually have some flexibility with that position. We can look to fill either LF, CF, or 2B and adjust accordingly. Martin Prado has played a substantial amount of LF in Winter Ball in the past few years (Ed: This is extremely underrated as a subplot), so there is no reason to think he cannot provide average defense in the easiest position to play defensively.
In the next post, I will attempt to address options that the Braves will look at for that open starting position. I will also address what to do with the bench, and specifically the All-Star super-sub, Omar Infante.