David Ross will obviously be back after signing an extension through the 2012 season. I expect Omar Infante to be back in 2011. While I wouldn’t expect him to hit .321 and be named to the All-Star team again next year, his defensive utility (played 3B, SS, 2B, RF and LF in ’10) makes his $2.5m club option more than affordable. I think we’ll probably see Brooks Conrad again as well. After Martin Prado went down in late September, Conrad showed us all he’s not a regular starter. But his defense, while certainly nowhere near great, is better than the endless errors he committed over his last 8 or 10 games. He’s a switch hitter and showed some decent pop (.487 SLG) in a mainly pinch-hitting role. At less than $500k, I think he brings enough to the team to be brought back.
Matt Diaz is the first interesting case. He regressed quite a bit from his 2009 campaign, but still did enough as a RHB specialist with a .273/.318/.512 line in 121 AB against LHP. He only played LF in ’10 and while his defense wasn’t great, it wasn’t awful and you usually knew what you could expect from him. He seems to enjoy being a part of the Braves and I would assume he’d like to be back. Given his ’10 performance and the team’s other needs, his $2.55m price tag from this year might be a bit pricey, but I think he’d be a good option at about $2m. 2011 is his final arbitration year, but I hope it doesn’t get that far. Tough to predict, but because of limited cheap right-handed outfield bat options out there, I’m going to guess he’s back with Atlanta next year at a salary a bit less than his 2010 figure.
Last but not least is Eric Hinske. I was a big Hinske fan this year as he and Omar Infante were probably the most important parts of our bench (does Omar still count if he started nearly half the season?). In a year with just 281 AB, he had 11 home runs and 51 RBI (good for 5th on the team). He had a number of clutch run scoring hits and put up a .298/.389/.596 line in 47 pinch-hit AB. Simply put, he was well worth his $1m salary this season. I’m assuming he’d prefer to be back in an Atlanta uniform and I’m sure the Braves would love to have his talents in 2011, but there are two notable reasons why he might not be with the team next year. First, after a season where he performed as well as he did, he can, and likely will, command a decent raise. Despite the handful of free agent 1B/OF options, I think he will see offers in the $3m/year range and perhaps multiple year possibilities if the market for him heats up and the situation’s right. That extra money could help fill other Atlanta needs. Second, Hinske is a lefty and the Braves should have rookie talent, and lefty, Freddie Freeman in the starting spot at 1B next year. It’s obviously tough to have a lefty backing up a rookie lefty in the pinch-hitting heavy National League. Unfortunately, the RHB 1B free agent market at the Braves’ price range offers slim pickens. Garret Atkins hasn’t hit at all well in a couple years while Jorge Cantu and Russell Branyan would likely be too expensive. Based on the known possibilities, I think Xavier Nady or Mike Sweeney could be targets should the Braves and Eric Hinske decide to part ways. It would be tough to lose out on what Hinske brings to the table, but I think there are too many reasons to believe he won’t return. I think Atlanta has a new back-up 1B in 2011.
UPDATE: Following MLBTradeRumors' article from last night, I wonder if Ty Wigginton could be a target to replace Eric Hinske (if Hinske doesn't return). Wigginton was an All-Star this season, but faded quickly after a hot April and May to finish with a .248/.312/.415 line. He did add 22 HR and 76 RBI, which sadly would have put him 1st and 2nd in those categories, respectively, if he were a Brave in 2010. Wigginton is a RHB and played 1B, 2B and 3B (and DH) this season. He also has some limited OF experience over the past 4-5 seasons. Most importantly, MLBTR thinks he's "probably in line for a one-year contract worth no more than $2-$2.5m." I could envision Wigginton possibly getting some starting offers (or at least a chance to compete for one), but at that likely price range, the Braves should at least gauge his interest.