Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hinske, Linebrink and Sherrill...Oh My!

I can't imagine what Frank Wren's cell phone bill looks like. In the past week, the Atlanta Braves GM has added to the team's bench while addressing the few remaining bullpen needs. Let's take a look at these moves...

Last week Eric Hinske agreed to the Braves contract offer, bringing the playoff good luck charm back for the 2011 season. Hinske will earn $1.35 million next year with a $1.5 million club option for 2012 ($100k buyout). That's a pretty good deal if you ask me. Hinske turned down what was believed to be a comparable offer to join his home state Milwaukee Brewers. Assuming he performs similar to this past season, the 1B/OF will provide notable left-handed power off the Braves bench. Unfortunately, Hinske's signing sealed the departure of Matt Diaz. In addition to being a fan favorite, Diaz remains a career LHP killer. With Omar Infante and Melky Cabrera no longer on the team, the Braves didn't have the positional flexibility to keep both Hinske and Diaz. On the fortunate side, Diaz has already signed a 2yr/$4.25m contract with the Pirates. Great for him to pick up some stability. I wish him well!

With Hinske back, Wren turned his sights to the Braves bullpen. Prior to jumping down to Disney World for the MLB Winter Meetings, he swapped minor league pitcher Kyle Cofield for right reliever Scott Linebrink from the White Sox. Cofield hadn't made it past Double A after being drafted by Atlanta in 2005, so it's not much of a give up for Atlanta. The 34-year-old Linebrink has struggled a bit over the past couple years in Chicago, but has traditionally been a solid bullpen presence during his 11 career major league seasons. Should Roger McDowell be able to help him return to pre-2009 form, he will serve as a solid middle-to-late inning RHP option, replacing the Takashi Saito/Kyle Farsworth role last year. Perhaps most importantly, the Braves will also receive about $3.5m to help cover Linebrink's $5.5m 2011 salary.

Just yesterday, the Braves came to an agreement with free agent lefty specialist Geroge Sherrill. Another veteran reliever, Sherrill had a disastrous 2010 season with the Dodgers, putting up a 6.69 ERA, 1.93 WHIP and 1.04 K/BB in 65 appearances (36.1 IP). After seeing those numbers, it might sound like a frightening move (and it very well may turn out to be), but he signed for just $1.2m (plus incentives) and had solid to great numbers in his previous 6 seasons, including an All-Star appearance in 2008 with Baltimore. Sherrill will add to LHP options Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty. That's never a bad thing when the LHB-dominant Phillies are in your division.

While I generally like these bullpen moves, especially considering what little the team had to give up/pay, it does lead to one obvious question. Who is the long man/spot starter? None of the current Kimbrel, Venters, Moylan, EOF, Proctor, Linebrink or Sherrill have traditionally served in that role. While the spot isn't as important as, say, the closer, what happens if Derek Lowe develops a blister in the 2nd inning of a start or Jair Jurrjens tweaks a hamstring during pre-game warm-ups? I think someone needs to fill that role, similar to Kris Medlen in 2009 and early 2010. As I mentioned in a past post, I like Mike Minor or Brandon Beachy for the spot, whichever isn't tagged as the 5th starter. The most likely scenario is Atlanta releasing Scott Proctor before Opening Day and slotting Minor/Beachy in there. Proctor's $750k contract is cheap enough to do so, but his quick signing early in the off-season (and his September call-up despite horrible minor league numbers) seems to suggest that the Braves really like him, for some reason. Who knows.

These moves fill 24 of the team's 25 spots. Realistically, the Braves still need someone who can serve in a back-up SS role (because, right now, that's nobody) and they can stand to improve OF depth, especially at CF. Joe Mather has played a decent amount of CF in his 2 major league seasons, but isn't a great option there in case Nate McLouth falters. Reports are that Wren's having discussion with the Brewers about the young Lorenzo Cain, but Atlanta balked when Milwaukee asked for Mike Minor. Jacoby Ellsbury may become available as the Red Sox signed Carl Crawford to a massive long-term contract. The team also has speedster Matt Young waiting in the wings, hoping for a major league shot.

This last bench move or two may likely depend on Kenshin Kawakami. It's widely known that the Braves are working to move the Japanese starter, but talks continue around how much of Kawakami's $6.7m 2011 salary Atlanta will have to cover. That figure could be as high as $5m, but every additional dollar decreases the Braves' ability to sign a quality back-up.  The most interested teams in Kawakami are reported to be the Pirates and Orioles (take him, please take him).

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