Tuesday, November 30, 2010

As The Winter Meetings Approach...

As the temperature begins to flirt with the freezing mark here in Upstate, NY, Frank Wren and the Atlanta Braves front office are preparing for the Winter Meetings next week in Orlando, Florida. After claiming 1B/OF Joe Mather and trading for Dan Uggla within the past month, Wren’s 25-man roster is progressing nicely.

Let’s take a look where the Braves are at as the calendar turns to December…

Starting Rotation:
Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Derek Lowe are set. Jair Jurrjens is also under team control for the 3rd/4th spot in the rotation, but he’s rumored to be available as a possible trade piece if his moving could help address other Braves needs (read outfield). While Atlanta has a number of feasible options for the 5th spot, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy are the most likely possibilities. The two of them could also be used as trade pieces, but I’ll guess that Minor starts the 2011 season in that last spot. The highly-touted prospect had some impressive outings in his short time with the Braves and a left-hander in the rotation could be nice.

Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Alex Gonzalez, Martin Prado and newly acquired Dan Uggla are all set to start. Third base will again be Chipper’s, assuming he’s able to return from his ACL injury and everything points to Freddie Freeman having earned the starting job at first. The only position that still seems to be a bit up in the air at this point is centerfield. Nate McLouth is penciled in there for the time being, but most Braves fans, myself included, figure that Wren’s on the phone looking for possible improvements. McLouth should improve some over his abysmal 2010 season, but the Braves stocked minor league system (at least pitching-wise) gives the team a real chance to upgrade at the position. The team addressed their serious power needs with Dan Uggla, but a speedy lead-off or a speed/power combo type could really make this team dangerous. Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury, New York’s Brett Gardner or Tampa Bay’s BJ Upton are players that seem to fit that description.

Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty are lefties who have solidified their spots. The Braves already signed Scott Proctor to a $750k contract this off-season, so it would seem he has a pretty good shot of making the team as a middle reliever. The team’s depth chart lists Craig Kimbrel as the closer going into the 2011 season, pleasing numerous Braves fans. We remain to see if the team will bring back twitter-newbie Peter Moylan. While his numbers against LHB have suffered, he’s still been effective versus RHB. A raise over his $1.15m salary in 2010 might prove to be a bit too expensive for the Braves compared to what Moylan offers. But for the purpose of this post, we’ll assume Atlanta brings him back.

That leaves two spots open. It seems someone would have to serve in the long reliever role. Christhian Martinez spent some effective time there in 2010 and Stephen Marek has certainly earned a major league spot, but I think the role should go to Mike Minor or Brandon Beachy, whichever of the two doesn’t earn the 5th starting position. It would allow either one to rack up some more major league innings while making an occasional spot start in case of injury or to provide some rest to the starters. The final spot still looks to go to a free agent right-handed veteran/set-up man. JJ Putz, Jon Rauch, Dan Wheeler and Kevin Gregg are some of the top options still on the market.

David Ross is the team’s back-up catcher, thankfully. The right-handed Joe Mather’s versatility (1B, all three OF and even some 3B) would suggest that he has a good chance of making the team with a decent enough Spring Training. Bringing back Brooks Conrad would again give the team a right-hand power bat off the bench while providing depth at 2B and 3B. That leaves two bench spots left. The Braves offered Eric Hinske a contract believed to be in the $1.5m range to return to Atlanta for the 2011 season. Hinske was a fan-favorite in 2010 and seemed to thoroughly enjoy his time with the club. Hinske will have to decide between Atlanta and an offer from the Milwaukee Brewers. Hinske is from Wisconsin, so it will be interesting to see how he decides. I hope he returns, as he proved to be one of the major’s best left-handed bench options last season.

Assuming Mather, Conrad and Hinske all return (and that’s a pretty big assumption), the team needs a back-up SS option. No one of the current players can serve in that role. The best internal option seems to be Diory Hernandez. From the free agent market, Christian Guzman could be an appealing possibility. Of course, this scenario means that Matt Diaz’s time in Atlanta would be over. In short, there are still a number of unknowns with this bench that may not be completely answered until the last few days of Spring Training.

In addition to the scenarios examined above, one option I mentioned a little while back is now gone. Javier Vazquez signed a one-year contract with the Marlins a few days ago. I opined that Vazquez could be an option for the Braves if the team were to trade away Jair Jurrjens. While Vazquez is now gone, there are still a number of free agents on the market if the Braves themselves in that position and decided to go external rather than internal.

Opening Day is only 4 months away!

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