Sunday, November 7, 2010

2011 Braves Slowly Taking Shape

The Braves made a handful of moves over the past 10 days that have begun to shape what the team may look like in the 2011 season. I’ll take a look at these transactions and offer my thoughts on how they might impact the rest of the decisions Frank Wren will have to make this offseason.

First, least surprisingly, Atlanta picked up the options on both Alex Gonzalez and Omar Infante. The players will cost the Braves $2.5 million each in 2011. Gonzalez will again start at SS, following his mid-season acquisition from Toronto for Yunel Escobar. He doesn’t seem to fit into the team’s long-range plans, but it would be difficult for Wren to find another shortstop like Gonzo at his price, especially considering the team’s other pressing needs. As a productive ultra-utility player, Infante’s option was a no-brainer. The 2010 All-Star hit .321 this past season and can play 2B, 3B, SS, LF and RF. With Chipper and Gonzo aging and Chipper and Prado returning from injury, Infante figures to get a decent amount of playing time next year.

On the same day that Gonzalez and Infante’s options were picked up, the Braves agreed to terms with right-handed reliever Scott Proctor. He’ll earn $750k, plus incentives. To start, the one personal ‘interaction’ I had with Proctor was impressive. He certainly seems like a great guy. But from a baseball standpoint, this move was quite surprising. He was signed before the 2010 season after missing the entire 2009 season due to injury. The Braves picked him up as a bit ‘low-risk, high-reward’ move. He pitched in 37 games between Myrtle Beach and Gwinnett and did not do much to impress. While his 7.3 K/9 was decent enough, a 6.91 ERA, 1.68 WHIP and 2.00 K/BB aren’t exactly something you expect from a major league-quality reliever. Despite those numbers, he was brought up to Atlanta where he posted a 6.35 ERA with a 1.41 WHIP and a 1.50 K/BB in 6 games. While $750k isn’t a significant part of the overall payroll, there seemed to be better options than Proctor.

Christhian Martinez appeared in 18 games (26 IP) and put up a 4.85 ERA with a 1.31 WHIP and 3.67 K/BB. Not great numbers, but certainly better than Proctor’s. Martinez served as the long reliever while he was with Atlanta. Proctor doesn’t exactly profile as that type of arm. Also, Stephen Marek lit up the minors in 60 games between Mississippi and Gwinnett with a 1.14 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. Marek’s yet to appear in a major league game in his career, but what else do you need to do to prove that you deserve a shot? In addition to basic performance, both Martinez and Marek could have been signed at or near the league minimum, freeing up nearly $500k for the Braves’ other needs. That doesn’t seem like a lot of money, but who knows if that’s the difference needed to sign someone like Magglio Ordonez instead of Pat Burrell?

Atlanta also picked up a couple positions players in an effort to sure up bench options and add minor league depth. In late October, the Braves signed OF Beau Torbert to a minor league contract.  Torbert spent 4 seasons in the Astros minor league system before joining the Independent League in 2008. Torbert blew up in 2010 with a .394 AVG to go along with 24 HR and 100 RBI while playing with the Sioux Falls Fighting Pheasants. While Independent League ball is a lot different than MLB, Torbert will add depth to the minors (where Atlanta has little OF talent) while the Braves hope he found something in Sioux Falls that might turn his career around. He’ll likely start with AA Mississippi while hoping for a shot at AAA Gwinnett.

Just this past week, the Braves claimed Joe Mather from the Cardinals. Mather’s an interesting player who Atlanta seems to have its eye on for some time now, as reports came out suggesting that he was involved in trade talks for Blaine Boyer or Rafael Soriano. Mather played parts of the 2008 and 2010 seasons in the majors while adding nearly 3000 minor league ABs over 10 seasons. He’s right-handed and has experience at both corner infield spots and all 3 outfield positions. Mather hasn’t produced too much in his limited time with the Cardinals, but has developed some power over the last few years in the minors, and at 28 years old, he should be entering the theoretical ‘prime’ of his career. As a RHB who can back-up at 1B, he brings parts of both Matt Diaz and Eric Hinske. If I had to guess, he’s probably more of a ‘replacement’ for Hinske than Diaz, though. With Freddie Freeman as a young rookie LHB, a right-handed back-up will be very important. Plus, Hinske’s due to get a noticeable raise over his $1m 2010 salary.

After these moves, assuming trades don’t open up additional spots, there looks to be one bullpen role open, presumably going to a veteran/set-up right-hander. If the Braves envision Mather to have a hold on one of the bench spots, that would suggest Diaz or Hinske to be the odd man out. And, of course, the need for a right-handed OF bat remains at the top of Frank Wren’s priority list. With free agency officially opening up just this morning, it should be an exciting next few months!

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