The Braves are unlikely to do much free agent shopping, but improvements at left field and shortstop are possible.
- Chipper Jones, 3B: $13MM through 2012, unless 2013 option vests
- Dan Uggla, 2B: $52MM through 2015
- Tim Hudson, SP: $10MM through 2012
- Brian McCann, C: $12MM through 2012
- Matt Diaz, RF/LF: $2MM through 2012
- David Ross, C: $1.625MM through 2012
- Eric Hinske, LF/RF/1B: $1.5MM through 2012
- $10MM owed to Derek Lowe
Arbitration Eligible Players (estimated salaries)
- Michael Bourn, CF: $7.3MM
- Jair Jurrjens, SP: $5.1MM
- Martin Prado, LF: $4.4MM
- Eric O'Flaherty, RP: $2.6MM
- Peter Moylan, RP: $2MM (non-tender candidate)
- Scott Linebrink (unranked RP), Alex Gonzalez (Type B SS), George Sherrill (unranked RP), Nate McLouth (unranked CF/LF)
The 2011 Braves collapsed in epic fashion down the stretch, yet most of the pieces are in place for a competitive 2012 club. That's fortunate, because GM Frank Wren has limited financial flexibility.
Assuming Moylan is non-tendered, the Braves will have about $84MM in commitments before accounting for minimum salary players. That's $7MM less than the 2011 payroll of $91MM. The Braves were closer to $100MM in 2008-09, but with a 5% drop in attendance this year raising payroll could be difficult. Clearing $5MM of Lowe's salary yesterday was a win for the Braves, who did not envision him in next year's rotation. Wren told reporters in October that Prado is likely back in left field next year, but otherwise I can see him traded or non-tendered.
Trading Jurrjens could serve the dual purpose of shedding $5MM and bringing back a bat, but Wren said this month: "We have a lot of pitching but I think it’s not something that we’re looking to trade from." His statement could be interpreted in various ways, so we can't rule out a Jurrjens deal if the right offer comes along. The Braves have more depth than most teams with their "Big Four" of young starters: Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Mike Minor, and Arodys Vizcaino. With Lowe gone, Hudson will be the lone 2012 starter who exceeded 152 MLB innings in 2011. But if the Braves feel Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson, and perhaps Minor can handle full workloads, Jurrjens may be expendable.
I think teams will be wary of surrendering a lot for Jurrjens. SIERA suggests he's a 4.40 type pitcher, despite his career ERA of 3.40. His strikeout rate dropped to 5.3 per nine this year, and he's missed significant time the last couple years due to knee, oblique, and hamstring injuries. Any big league hitter the Braves get back would probably come with similar question marks or red flags.
I'm unconvinced the Braves won't look into left field upgrades, though a reasonable free agent target like Josh Willingham could prove a wash with Prado. Still, bringing in a left fielder would allow Prado to back up Jones at third base. The Braves will need an answer at shortstop, with prospect Tyler Pastornicky the favorite at the moment. The Braves showed with Freddie Freeman they're not afraid to pencil a rookie into a starting job, but Wren should probably bring back Alex Gonzalez or a comparable veteran as an insurance policy. Since Gonzalez is a Type B free agent, an arbitration offer makes sense.
The Braves' rotation averaged only 5.91 innings per start, 11th in the NL and worst among contenders. They were saved by the league's best bullpen, but Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel, O'Flaherty, and Cristhian Martinez probably can't provide 316 innings again. Free agents Linebrink and Sherrill didn't shoulder that kind of a workload, but the Braves should probably sign at least one veteran reliever to take some of the load. Overall it looks like another winter of limited free agent shopping, after the Braves spent only about $5MM on that market last offseason.
For the most part, the Braves' improvements will come from within, as better overall seasons from Uggla, Prado, Jason Heyward, and Bourn are entirely feasible. More innings from the rotation will be another key to success.