After hiring Fredi Gonzalez as their new manager, Braves officials can focus attention on improving a punchless outfield that ranked among the National League’s worst in 2010.
The starting rotation and bullpen are solid and the infield, including shortstop Alex Gonzalez and rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman, seems set. The outfield? It needs help.
“We’re going to have to be creative,” said Wren, who probably doesn’t have funds to get into the expected bidding wars for free-agent outfielders Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth. “We’re going to have to take a look at every possibility.”
Wren said the Braves are operating under the assumption that third baseman Chipper Jones — owed $28 million over the next two seasons — will make it back from knee surgery and join an infield with Gonzalez, Freeman and second baseman Martin Prado.
“I think that’s our likely, hopeful Opening Day lineup,” Wren said. “Once you get in discussions and once you start taking other things into account, you start looking at other aspects of your club. But I think outfield is going to be a focus.”
Braves outfielders finished last in the NL in home runs (40), 14th in average (.250) and 15th in slugging percentage (.389). Other than standout rookie right fielder Jason Heyward (18 homers, 72 RBIs), no outfielder had eight homers or 45 RBIs.
Nate McLouth will be back because he’s owed a $6.5 million salary in 2011, plus a $1.25 million buyout of a $10.65 million option. He’s virtually untradable after hitting .190 with six homers and 24 RBIs in 85 games, so the Braves hope he plays like he did for a brief stretch in September after returning from the minors.
He can play center or left, so at least they have flexibility in the search for outfield help.
Wren cautioned it could be difficult to land a power bat. But the Braves need to add at least one productive outfielder after getting little offense in center and left most nights from the combination of Melky Cabrera, McLouth, Matt Diaz and Rick Ankiel.
Because they have pitching depth, there is speculation the Braves might offer starter Jair Jurrjens, who could be enough to get the Braves a productive outfielder in a trade.
While Wren is candid about trying to trade surplus starter Kenshin Kawakami, he’s not eager to dangle other starters as trade bait. The Braves return veterans Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson, with two seasons left on their contracts; rising talents Tommy Hanson and Jurrjens; and rookies Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor.
As things stand, Beachy and Minor would compete for the fifth spot.
The Braves finished third in the league with a 3.56 ERA. Their starters were fifth at 3.80, despite missing Jurrjens for much of the season with various injuries.
“We’re going to be very hesitant to trade pitching because I think that’s our strength,” Wren said. “As highly thought of as the Giants’ and Phillies’ rotations were, the last two weeks of the season we matched up with those rotations very well. And that’s without [Jurrjens] being available for us.”
For Braves fans who might wonder why the team wouldn’t trade from a position of strength — starting pitching — to improve a weakness if it can’t do so via free agency, consider that Wren might be posturing just a bit. If the Braves were interested in trading a starting pitcher for a productive outfielder, it would behoove them not to let other teams know right away.
The Braves’ bullpen should remain strong, despite the loss of retired closer Billy Wagner and free-agent setup man Takashi Saito. The Braves control the contracts of sidearmer Peter Moylan, left-hander Eric O’Flaherty, Cristhian Martinez, and a trio of flame-throwing rookies: Craig Kimbrel and lefties Jonny Venters and Mike Dunn.
Kimbrel has shown he’s ready for the closer role, and Venters was one of the top relievers in baseball. Kimbrel could be the primary closer or share the role with Venters.
Wren said the Braves might look to add a veteran after losing Wagner as a valuable mentor, but also mentioned Moylan as a possibility for leadership if the Braves stick with the bullpen they have. Kyle Farnsworth’s $5.25 million option won’t be picked up.
In the infield, the Braves aren’t taking the wait-and-see stance with Freeman that they had — at least publicly — after the 2009 season with Heyward, who had no previous major league experience and had spent only a week above Double-A.
“It’s a lot different than a year ago. We were not talking about, or putting pressure on Jason Heyward,” Wren said. “Even though a year ago, I was pretty confident that he was our Opening Day right fielder. I didn’t want to say it, didn’t want to put that on him.
“Freddie’s a whole different story. Freddie’s already gone to Triple-A and experienced it, and dominated, and was [International League] rookie of the year. He’s come to the big leagues and shown that he can play here. We saw defensively that he was outstanding. We saw him get big hits, saw him hit a home run off [Roy] Halladay.”
The club has a $2.5 million option on Gonzalez and no desire to replace him despite a September slump and modest statistics after coming in a July trade from Toronto.
“You look at Alex in August, he was outstanding,” Wren said. “Then he got into a funk trying to do too much because we were struggling to score runs and all of a sudden the whole top of our order stopped hitting.”
“I think Alex will be what he’s always been. He’ll be somewhere between .260-.270, hit 15-20 home runs, drive in 70, 75, 80, and play really good shortstop.”