Editor's Note: This continues the guest writing series on the Braves off-season progress from resident Braves historian, Taylor... Check out Part 1 here http://bradsportsfix.blogspot.com/2010/10/braves-offseason-series-part-1.html
Do you remember when Chipper Jones was the starting left fielder for the Atlanta Braves? It's been awhile, hasn't it? You have to go all the way back to 2003. Coincidentally enough, 2003 was the last time the Atlanta Braves fielded an OF of everyday, consistent, formidable Major Leaguers. Since Chipper, Andruw, and Gary Sheffield patrolled the outfield we, as Braves fans, have had to painfully sit through various platoons, hackers, and reclamation projects. For the most part, it's all been a total fail. This year was no different. In fact, the 2010 Atlanta Braves OF was probably the worst display of OF play (collectively) for a playoff team in the HISTORY of the game. They weren't just bad, they were atrocious (as evidenced by the fact that the worst player in baseball (Ed: Numerically and aesthetically) played over ONE THOUSAND innings in the Atlanta Braves OF). So, here we are, looking to fix this same problem that has plagued the franchise for over 7 years. Will it be done? In short, no. Nate McLouth will still play plenty of OF (at least for the first few months of the season). The upside is, however, we can sure as hell do a lot better than we did this year.
I mentioned in the previous installment that the Braves are essentially looking for ONE everyday, starting player. This is the major focus of the offseason for Frank Wren. We just need to find that missing piece. Defensively speaking, we have some flexibility. Left field is the easiest position to play in the game, so if the guy can play average outfield at any outfield position, he can play for the 2011 Atlanta Braves. We also have the option (as unlikely as it seems) to move Martin Prado into LF if a viable 2B option opens up. In regards to offense, the missing piece is clearly a right handed power bat. The SF Giants showed just how easy it can be in the playoffs to shut down a lefty-filled lineup like the Phillies by just bringing in your lefty specialist from the bullpen late in the game and have him go to work for an inning. The 2011 Braves absolutely need the balance a right handed hitting power bat would provide. With Heyward, Freeman, McCann, and McLouth all hitting from the left side, it's imperative that this missing piece be a right handed hitting option. There are three left handed exceptions to this (Carl Crawford and Colby Rasmus being two of them) and one is unattainable due to his price tag this offseason (Crawford) and the other is likely unattainable because his team just isn't going to actually ever trade him (Rasmus). I'll bring up the third one in a bit.
The Braves are expected to maintain payroll this season. This means that with the money coming off the books from Wagner, Glaus, Saito, Hinske (Ed: Maybe), Melky, and possibly all or part of Kawakami's $6.3m (more on that when I deal with pitching), the Braves should have about $15-20m to work with. Now, keep in mind the Braves are going to need to add some pieces to the bullpen and the bench as well, so realistically we are looking at $5-7m for this "missing piece". What does that mean? Go ahead and end the Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth pipedream unless Chipper and his $13m salary retire tomorrow. So, now that that's out of the way, let's get a bit more realistic. Unfortunately for the Braves, the drop off in available talent via free agency after Crawford and Werth is enormous. We are dealing with names like Pat Burrell, Vlad, Magglio, Marcus Thames, and even the 1998 Gold Club Customer of the Year Andruw Jones. All of these options are very…mediocre. The best hitter of the bunch, Vlad, isn't really able to play enough OF on a day to day basis to play in the National League. The best defensive player of the bunch (keep in mind from a defensive standpoint, ranking these 5 is like ranking your top 5 Big East BCS Championship contenders) is someone who's highest BA in the last 4 years is .230 (Andruw has lost some weight, though!). As you can see, the FA market is, in a word, thin.
From there we explore the options of upgrading by trade. Historically, the Braves seem to make their major acquisitions via trade, and I believe the same thing will happen this offseason. With a plethora of young, top of the rotation starting pitching in the organization, I see the Braves moving a few guys to acquire this "missing piece". It's tough to tell at this moment who will be available this Winter via trade. With that said, there are a few names floating around now that may end up possibilities.
One name is Matt Kemp. He had a breakout out year in 2009, but struggled in every facet of the game this past season including defense (which he has been very strong at in the past). He isn't a favorite of the Dodger front office, and they may just try to move him. (Ed: My favorite of all the possibilities, Werth/Crawford included) Another Dodger who might just wind up available is the 3rd left handed hitting outfielder exception I alluded to earlier, Andre Ethier. Now, it seems very unlikely that the Dodgers would shop him, but it is more realistic than Colby Rasmus being dealt in my opinion because Ethier has 1) a higher salary and 2) less years under team control. Ethier is a beast at the plate, and plays good corner outfield defense. A package for him or Kemp would probably start with a major league ready starter (Hanson, Jurrjens, Minor, Beachy) and from there you'd probably have to throw in a top 20 prospect and possibly Omar Infante. The price tag is heavy from the trade standpoint, but also they both will earn a bit too much for the Braves payroll so we'd need the Dodgers to pick up a bit of their salary as well. I'd rate those two Dodger trade possibilities as extremely unlikely.
Next up we have Josh Willingham. The Nationals may look to move him this offseason. It appears he would make for a pretty good fit for the Braves. He hits for good power (20-25 HRs/year), and has a very impressive career OBP of .367. He's an average defensive LFer. I'd think a package for him would start with one of our top SP prospects not named Teheran or Delgado (Specifically: Vizcaino, Beachy, or Minor) and likely end right about there. I'd rate this trade possibility as certainly possible. It's definitely not a betting favorite to happen, but I wouldn't be shocked to see it done.
Shifting gears a bit, we move to another unlikely but in the realm of possibility trade option in Dan Uggla. Uggla is a power hitting 2B for the Florida Marlins who is due for a bit of an arbitration raise and will be a free agent after the 2012 season. This, along with the Marlins desire for a young, shutdown closer may just mean Uggla is on the trading block. This would obviously move Martin Prado out into LF. There is only one name that would make any sense in this deal for the Marlins and that name is Craig Kimbrel, the flame throwing youngster who is set to inherit the closer's job from Billy Wagner in 2011. A few roadblocks stand in the way of this happening even if Uggla is on the market. One is the fact trades within the division just rarely happen. You hate to get beat over and over by someone you just traded. Second, it's very possible the Marlins front office has no desire to work amicably with the Atlanta Braves. Remember, this is the ONLY ORGANIZATION that didn't give Bobby Cox a proper send off via gift or jumbotron montage because they were furious with his comments after Fredi Gonzalez was fired. Grudges in baseball tend to span decades; just something to think about. I'd rate this trade possibility is very unlikely.
As you can see, the task is far from easy. More trade options will inevitably open up as the offseason prolongs so, while this is definitely a down year for FA's and trades, it's still possible Frank Wren can find a diamond in the rough. I was planning on addressing the bench, and Omar Infante, in this post, but it's getting a little long so I'll cut it off here. Next time we examine the bench, in which I will inevitably create an uproar when I so vehemently proclaim that it will be a huge mistake if Brooks Conrad isn't in a Braves uniform come Opening Day 2011.