Atlanta Braves: Offseason Outlook

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The Braves just went through one of the most painful playoff series losses I’ve seen in quite some time as an Atlanta fan, losing three games by a combined three runs, with all three losses coming with some umpire/player/managerial controversy.

But what’s done is done, and as frustrating as it was to lose such a winnable series, Atlanta still had an impressive season. The Braves led their division for about 2/3 of the season, despite it being fairly clear to everyone that they weren’t the best team. They also had truly horrid luck with injuries, having to replace two major everyday starters, 40% of their pitching rotation, and two of their top four bullpen options, with their closer also going down at the end. Added on to that were some attitude problems and woeful underperforming issues that led the Braves to replace three more starters, at shortstop, first base, and center field. The result was the Braves only had three Opening Day starters in their playoff lineup: Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, and Matt Diaz — and Diaz was among the woefully underperformed group but was deemed less mediocre than Melky Cabrera. They also got very little from Jair Jurrjens, who had posted the third-best ERA among NL starters in 2009 but was never 100% this year, and it showed in his performance and lack of inclusion on the postseason roster.

Yet in spite of all this, Atlanta clawed its way into the playoffs. The Braves have a lot of positives to take away from 2010, despite the disappointing end. The task now becomes how to build for 2011 and beyond. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the options and choices facing Atlanta this offseason.

 

First things first: who replaces No. 6?

 

Manager

Replacing Bobby Cox, one of the greatest managers of all time, will be no easy task. And yet, it seems unlikely there will be any real drama about whom the next Braves manager will be — for most of the past year, it’s been one of the worst-kept secrets in baseball that Fredi Gonzalez will return to Atlanta to succeed his mentor. Gonzalez was the Braves’ third base coach before leaving to manage the Florida Marlins, where he became the franchise’s all-time winningiest manager in just three years, which is more an lol at the Marlins than anything. He started strong in Florida, winning Manager of the Year in 2008 from a couple outlets, but faltered more recently and finished three games below .500 for his career with the Marlins when he was fired in June. Even if he hadn’t been fired, speculation was rampant he would have opted out of Florida to return to Atlanta. Rumor is he has already turned down the Cubs because he has a wink-wink deal in place with Atlanta.

If it is indeed going to be Gonzalez, I think it’s a solid move. He’s been a manager before, which gives him an advantage over the other seemingly top candidate, Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton (whom I also like nevertheless). Gonzalez is still a “players’ manager,” which is probably the most frequently used phrase to describe Cox; however, he definitely has more of an edge than Bobby, which could be a good thing. His willingness to get in the face of Marlins superstar Hanley Ramirez when Hanley wasn’t hustling showed Fredi’s balls, and probably helped cost him his job. Bobby could often be too loyal to players. Gonzalez could be the perfect balance of holding players more accountable while not shifting the locker room dynamic too dramatically toward a pure disciplinarian tone. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gonzalez were announced within the next week, though the Braves might choose to wait longer out of respect for Cox; if Fredi is already turning down other job offers, he won’t mind waiting a couple weeks. But I would be surprised if he hasn’t been announced within a couple days of the World Series ending.

Catcher

This is a rare area where the Braves are clearly set going into next season. Starter Brian McCann has been to five straight All-Star games, one for each of his five full seasons as a pro. He’s become a solid defensive catcher, and his main value to Atlanta is as a middle of the order bat. It is worth noting, however, that his average has gone down in three straight years, and it would be ideal if he were the second- or third-best RBI man instead of the top producer. But I’m not at all concerned about McCann; he’s developed a keener eye, posting his best OBP since 2006, and will be even better with any lineup protection.

The Braves are also very well set at backup catcher after giving David Ross a two-year, $3.25 million extension in July. Normally, I would say that’s slightly pricey for a backup catcher, but not really for what Ross has brought to the table in his two years in Atlanta. Ross struggled as a full-time starter in Cincinnati, but I’ve become a fan of his in Atlanta. Not only is he one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, but he has some big-time pop and consistently contributes offensively when he plays. Before he signed the extension, I fully expected him to try the free agent market to see if he could find a platoon situation instead of staying as a straight backup, but I think it’s a coup that he stayed. The Braves can help extend McCann’s catching career by giving him enough days off, without even losing too much.

First Base

The Braves will hand the reigns over to highly touted prospect Freddie Freeman, who got a September call-up after blistering AAA pitching. Freeman didn’t look great in his brief audition, hitting .167 in 24 at-bats with 8 strikeouts and no walks. But his minor league track record was superb — good enough to get him to the majors slightly before he turned 21. Long-term, Atlanta expects him and Heyward to form the heart of its order for years to come. Freeman is already a plus defender, so the question is whether he can hit enough to stick. He hasn’t developed much, if any, power yet, but he can drive the ball and hit for average. I think/hope he’s ready and will keep the job all year.

It will interesting, however, to see what the Braves do for a contingency plan, given Freeman’s youth and inexperience. Most likely, the Braves would rely on super-utility man Omar Infante, who might go back to a backup role next season. First base isn’t his forte, but he can play it if needed. I would also like to see them re-sign journeyman Eric Hinske, who excels as a pinch hitter and can play first base and some corner outfield if needed. Hinske is a poor defender, though, and tends to get exposed at the plate if asked to play every day. But looking through the FA options at first base, there aren’t many players who fit the kind of cheap utility/pinch hitter role the Braves would be looking for. Maybe Xavier Nady or Mark Kotsay, bleh. Other internal options at first could be Brooks Conrad, if he’s back with the team, and I suppose even Scott Thurston. My guess is Atlanta tries to add a better second utility option this offseason.

Second Base

The Braves should be set here, with Martin Prado coming back healthy. Prado was enjoying a really strong season; if not for a couple injuries, he would have had a very good shot at 200 hits (finishing with 184 in 140 games). Depending on what else the Braves do, Omar Infante will probably be the primary backup here; he has a $2.5 million team option for 2011, which is a no-brainer to pick up after the career year he had this season. Despite faltering some down the stretch, Infante finished third in the NL in batting when pressed into far greater service than expected.

Shortstop

This could be an interesting decision, but I feel there’s a pretty strong leaning on what to do here. The Braves traded often-promising shortstop Yunel Escobar for veteran Alex Gonzalez this past season, very much with the intention of having Gonzalez take Atlanta through the 2011 season; he has a very reasonable $2.5 million team option that I strongly expect to be picked up. However, just for the sake of thoroughness, I’ll point out that his bat was poor after the trade, hitting .240 in 72 games with Atlanta. That could be forgiven — Gonzalez’s draw has always been his glove, not his bat — but his defense also slipped some. Once a near-Gold Glove caliber SS, Gonzo had 19 errors in 2010, his most in nine years. But I expect he’ll rebound to being a slightly-plus defender, if not an elite one, and I’ll guess the Braves are expecting the same thing and will exercise his option and keep him as the starter.

However, for the sake of argument, Atlanta could let Gonzalez go and try to give the starting job to Infante. Realistically, though, shortstop would eat him alive defensively; second base is really the only position where Omar is an average defender. The reason for the possible temptation, though, is that if everyone else stays healthy and produces, Infante will go back to only spot work, and even though he’s unlikely to repeat his numbers from this season, he did look too good to be a backup next year. But the Braves have enough risky propositions (more on that in a moment) that there should be a good deal of playing time available for everyone.

The third option is Atlanta could still let Gonzalez go but try to find another veteran defensive presence at shortstop. If you click on the FA list linked earlier, you’ll see there are some options that are probably somewhat comparable to Gonzalez, but none that are clear upgrades and cost efficient. Might as well stick with the guy you know at that point; plus, while Gonzo will go through some brutal slumps, he also offers the promise of going on a couple hot streaks where he can help carry a team (like he did with Toronto earlier this year).

Third Base

The Braves know how they would love this to turn out. Chipper Jones will hopefully return from a season-ending injury and bounce back from two straight mediocre seasons. Chipper has two years left on his very large contract, and his intent is to play them out and retire, if he’s able to still perform at a high enough level. But therein, of course, lies the rub: how high of a level can he perform at? It was just 2008 when he hit .364 to win the batting title, but it’s started to feel longer ago. And even if he does play well, he’ll be 39 by the end of next April, so it seems likely he’ll have to sit at some point with just normal wear and tear for a guy his age.

That’s why Infante is most valuable as a contingency for Chipper, more so than for Freeman, Prado, or Gonzalez. The Braves did quite well for a while after Chipper got hurt this year by sliding Prado to third and starting Infante at second, and if Jones he gets hurt or just can’t perform anymore, that’s what we would see again next year. That’s why I also think it would be a mistake to make Infante a full-time starter: One, he could easily get exposed with a full season of at-bats; and two, taking him off the bench means eliminating much-needed depth.

 

A bounce-back season from Chipper would help the Braves immensely, but they can't afford to count on it.

 

Right Field

This is the one outfield position where the Braves are set, with Jason Heyward coming off a beautiful rookie campaign. If everything goes according to plan, Atlanta can slot him into the Opening Day lineup in right for the next 15 years.

How far the Braves go in 2011 may be most determined by how they address the other two outfield spots.

Center Field

Former top prospect Jordan Schafer was supposed to get his act together and be back in the majors by summer; instead, he had a hideous years in the minors, suffering injuries and looking consistently overmatched. It’s time to accept that it’s highly unlikely he’ll be the long-term answer in center.

But there’s one person who could be, if he comes available and the Braves are willing to do what it takes to get him: Colby Rasmus from the St. Louis Cardinals. Rasmus feuded with manager Tony La Russa and reportedly asked for a trade, and La Russa reportedly wanted him gone, as well. Tony feuding with players is nothing new, but what is potentially damning is Albert Pujols seemingly siding against Rasmus, saying that if wants to go, get rid of him — very unlike Pujols, which many have taken as a bad sign. So far, it’s not clear things can’t still be mended; for one, there’s a very good chance La Russa himself won’t come back to St. Louis this offseason, which could instantly resolve everything. But Albert loves Tony, and the Cardinals will do anything to keep Albert happy. But I still think they’d be truly insane to trade Rasmus, a 24-year-old who’s already shown very good production and even greater potential, and I doubt they actually do it; if you really want to keep Pujols happy, keep the third-best hitter on your team.

However, let’s say things really are that bad between Rasmus and StL, and they make him available. He certainly won’t come cheap: nearly every team in baseball will at least look into going after him, as they should. He’s prone to some bad slumps, but he has good speed, great power, and good-to-great defense; and, of course, he’s young enough to keep improving. So can the Braves outbid 28 other teams? Very possibly; the Braves’ farm has become their strength once again, and no team in baseball can boast the young pitching Atlanta can. Not only do they have several legit SPs who have already hit the majors and are still under 25 (Hanson, Jurrjens, Medlen, Minor, Beachy) and two young and excellent relievers (Venters and Kimbrel), they also have three of the top pitching prospects in the minors: Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, and Randall Delgado, all with ace potential, and nice bullpen prospects like Stephen Marek. Even while making Heyward and Hanson untouchable, Atlanta could make a strong play for Rasmus. An example: one out of Jurrjens, Venters or Kimbrel,  plus Teheran and a minor league bat like Cody Johnson. That’s a hefty price tag for anyone, and it still might not be enough; but Rasmus is under arbitration control through 2015 and would team with Heyward for the best young OF duo in baseball, and the Braves would still be left with impressive pitching depth. I think I’d bite the bullet if a reasonable opportunity arose.

Barring the pie-in-the-sky Rasmus scenario, the Braves could be struggling to find a CF fit, again. They’ll try to trade Nate McLouth, but the chances of anyone taking on the remainder of his contract are slim to none; nor do they want to give him another chance to start in center, so he’ll likely wind up a handsomely paid fourth/fifth outfielder. Infante might be able to play center, but he wouldn’t bring great defense. Incumbent starter Rick Ankiel probably won’t have his hefty $6 million option picked up, but Atlanta could decline the option and bring him back on a cheaper deal. Most people are ignoring that possibility since he showed little with the team, other than one spectacular postseason at-bat, but I think the odds of an Ankiel return are a little better than people give it credit for. Look at the FA options at center field in that link; it’s not pretty. Coco Crisp could work decently if the A’s don’t pick up his option, but there’s no one else you’d remotely want (which, by the way, would drive up the Rasmus price all the more). Center field could be a tough hole to fill.

 

It isn't likely, but Colby Rasmus would look good in a Braves uniform.

 

Left Field

Left field might not be much easier. Both members of the incumbent LF platoon, Matt Diaz and Melky Cabrera, are likely to be non-tendered. I was a fan of Diaz, and part of me still thinks he could succeed as a reserve outfielder; realistically, though, he got pretty exposed this year. Cabrera seems out of options after failing to make good on his promise for more than five years now.

What’s more is that the Braves really need another middle-of-the-order bat with one of their OF spots, and that won’t be easy to find. Well, maybe finding it isn’t so hard — just go get Carl Crawford (or Jayson Werth and teach him left field). But the Braves don’t even remotely have the resources to get into what’s sure to be a hefty, Yankee-driven bidding war for Crawford. Looking at other FAs and not counting players like Jason Kubel who are sure to have their options exercised, there is another guy could fit the bill: Pat Burrell, whom I’ve never liked. He’s 34, has always been a poor defender, and is the kind of guy who seems to only play his best for a contract year. But he did hit 20 home runs this year and was a strong contributor for the Giants. Atlanta GM Frank Wren has already overpaid some over-the-hill veterans (Lowe, Kawakami, Garrett Anderson, even Chipper’s extension), so going after Burrell would kind of seem to fit his M.O. It would make me very nervous, though.

Other options include Scott Podsednik, Johnny Damon, Bill Hall, Reed Johnson, and Austin Kearns. Of those, I guess you’d pick Podsy, but he doesn’t really fit what the Braves need. If all else fails, they could try an Infante/Hinske platoon, which would be shit defensively.

Definitely no easy solutions in either outfield hole, but the Braves have to come up with some good ways to plug them in order to take a step forward.

Pitching Rotation

Finally, back to another strength. Unfortunately, Kris Medlen, whom I’m a huge fan of, will miss most or all of the 2011 season after Tommy John surgery. But even without him, Atlanta looks to have one of the best rotations in baseball, with four slots locked in: Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, and Jair Jurrjens. The fifth spot will likely be up in the air in spring training, and presumably will feature a battle between rookies Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy, with the disappointing Kenshin Kawakami possibly battling as well, if he isn’t traded. My guess is Minor will win that job. He has the highest upside of that group, and I’m not completely convinced Beachy is a for-real rotation option long-term.

It’s also very possible the Braves could try to trade from this position of strength, like they did last offseason with Javier Vazquez, for some help on offense.

Relievers

Atlanta would certainly welcome back Billy Wagner, who had a great season. But despite a playoff injury giving him an inglorious end to a brilliant career, Wagner has never wavered in his commitment to retiring. Takashi Saito will likewise be gone, so Atlanta will have to replace its closer and top setup man from much of the season.

A couple months ago, Frank Wren speculated that with Wagner retiring, the Braves might go after a couple veteran bullpen arms again this offseason. But that comment was before Craig Kimbrel had taken the majors by storm, not letting up at all from his brilliant minor league numbers. Johnny Venters is another option at closer, after posting a great rookie season that could have garnered him some Rookie of the Year attention in a weaker year. Finally, there’s the side-armer Peter Moylan, whom I really like and who might be able to close if needed. Kimbrel will probably get the first shot, though I doubt it’s decided for certain before Spring Training. I do think Atlanta might/would be wise to sign a veteran arm who could set up or be another closing option if needed. There’s always a lot of RP options available on the market, and this offseason looks no different judging by some of the FA names. Scott Downs, Kyle Farnsworth (they could also pick up his overpriced option), Jon Rauch, Grant Balfour and others could fit the bill, depending on price (I imagine they’d prefer to avoid Type A free agents).

The rest of the bullpen should mostly be fine. Eric O’Flaherty will be healthy again, and Mike Dunn emerged as a second lefty option. Atlanta still has some minor league options, as well. I don’t see the front office signing more than one reliever, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see them stand pat if they spend fairly big money on offense instead.

 

Is Craig Kimbrel the next Braves closer?

 

Conclusion

This offseason will be a good test of Wren’s ingenuity. The obvious priority is improving the offense, but he’s in a situation where there won’t be any easy fixes. Given the weak free agent outfield class — not counting Crawford and Jayson Werth, who aren’t really options — it may be a matter of exploring trades, very likely for someone I haven’t even thought of. But the Braves also can’t afford to compromise their depth; while one would hope they won’t have such ghastly injury luck again, there are some notable questions marks that require strong backup plans. The ideal situation would be landing Rasmus and then maybe signing Burrell on a one-, no more than two-, year deal, adding a veteran bullpen arm, all without weakening too much of the team’s stable of pitching. Do that, and the Braves are major contenders. The more likely scenario is re-signing Ankiel or a Crisp/Podsednik type, keeping McLouth as a possible platoon mate in center, and overpaying Burrell or settling for Austin Kearns. Do that, and the Braves are probably a fringe contender again, dependent on health and unlikely to do much more than a Wild Card berth and a competitive first-round series.

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