ORLANDO – With baseball’s hot stove barely lit, the Braves have already done their offseason heavy lifting. The got their new power hitter, acquiring second baseman Dan Uggla from the Marlins in a Tuesday trade for infielder Omar Infante and left-hander Mike Dunn.
Uggla has averaged nearly 31 home runs and 93 RBIs in five seasons, including career-highs of 33 homers and 105 RBIs in 2010 to win the Silver Slugger award as best-hitting second baseman in the National League.
“This is the big offensive piece we were looking for,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “We were looking for a right-handed-hitting big bat. There’s not many of those guys out there. This guy gives us exactly what we were looking for in the middle of our lineup.”
Uggla, 30, is a two-time All-Star who recently turned down the Marlins’ four-year, $48 million offer. He could make more than $10 million in his final year of arbitration and become eligible for free agency after the 2011 season, although the Braves might try to sign him to an extension first.
Wren said the Braves plan to play Uggla at second and move All-Star second baseman Martin Prado to left field. Prado will also back up third baseman Chipper Jones, who is recovering from August knee surgery.
Wren said Prado would be the starter at third if Jones, 38, isn’t fully recovered, or is unable to make it back. Jones, who has two years and $28 million left on his contract, is progressing on schedule in his recovery.
“Our expectation is Chipper will play third,” said Wren, who spoke with Jones on Tuesday about the trade. “When Chipper can’t play third, Martin will be over there, and he’ll be in left some. He plays left in winter ball. That’s been his primary position in winter ball.”
Uggla, 30, also set career-highs in 2010 for batting average (.287), on-base percentage (.369) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.877). He would’ve led the Braves in homers, RBIs, slugging and OPS.
The Braves and Marlins pulled off the first big trade of baseball’s offseason, negotiating the deal in a few days and finalizing it Tuesday on the first day of general managers meetings at Orlando. The consensus among industry types and media at the meetings was the Braves got the best of the deal.
New Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez had Uggla in the middle of his lineup in Florida, where Gonzalez managed for 3-1/2 seasons before being fired in June. When Wren called Tuesday to ask him if he’d trade Infante and Dunn for Uggla, Gonzalez asked who else the Braves would have to include.
“No one else,” Wren said, and Gonzalez quickly replied that he’d do it.
“I’m really exited,” Gonzalez said. “I already made out about five lineups today. This is a big bat in our lineup, and he’s a tremendous clubhouse guy. As blue-collar as they come. Our fans are going to absolutely fall in love with him. He’s a great teammate, and he plays the game one way — he tries to beat you.”
Uggla was born in Kentucky and raised in Columbia, Tenn., near Nashville. He was traveling in Mexico on Tuesday when Gonzalez called.
“I spoke to him about an hour ago, and he’s all excited,” Gonzalez said.
Wren said Jones and catcher Brian McCann were thrilled when he called to tell them the Braves got Uggla.
The Braves added a hitter who’s belted more than 30 homers in each of the past four seasons and never driven in fewer than 88 runs. In 45 career games at Turner Field, Uggla has a .354 average with 12 homers, 36 RBIs and a 1.051 OPS.
“We think it sets up the middle of our lineup very well,” said Wren, pleased to have added some balance to the Braves’ lineup, which now has three right-handers: Uggla, Prado and shortstop Alex Gonzalez.
Asked where he envisioned Uggla in the order, Wren said, “probably right after McCann and before [rookie first baseman Freddie] Freeman. But I’ll let Fredi make that decision.”
Gonzalez said Uggla would be “in the middle of the order, fourth or fifth,” but beyond that he wasn’t sure. Much will depend on whether Jones is back and ready to assume his No. 3 spot in the order.
Uggla made $7.8 million in 2010 and is entering his final year of arbitration. Wren said the Braves would wait to begin discussions on a contract extension.
“We went into this knowing somewhat what his [salary] expectations are, based on the media reports,” Wren said. “We go into this with an open mind and see how it goes. It’s not a subject for today. Once he gets over here and we get a chance to know him and he gets to know us, then we’ll proceed with [extension discussions].”
The Braves’ offseason top priority was adding right-handed power, and Wren didn’t know if they’d be able to without giving up any top young pitchers or elite pitching prospects. They did it without giving up any of their starters, including top minor leaguers, or relievers Craig Kimrel or Jonny Venters.
Losing Infante hurts the bench, and the Braves hope to re-sign free agent outfielder/pinch-hitter Eric Hinske and possibly outfielder Matt Diaz. Wren hopes to pick up some of Infante’s slack with the recent addition of corner infielder-outfielder Joe Mather, claimed off waivers from St. Louis, and said Diory Hernandez and Brooks Conrad are backup infield possibilities.
Dunn is a hard-throwing lefty who has potential to develop into a top reliever. As a rookie in 2010, he had a 1.89 ERA in 25 appearances for the Braves, with 27 strikeouts and 17 walks in 19 innings.
Infante made the All-Star team as a utility man in 2010, playing five different positions and hitting a career-best .321 with eight homers and 47 RBIs in 506 plate appearances, the most he played since 2002. He was a lineup regular in the second half, filling in for Jones after he blew out his knee.
“Omar, in our view, is a real valuable guy,” Wren said. “We said this last spring: he’s the best super-utility guy in the National League. And he showed us. He made the All-Star team, and then when he played every day he came in third in the race for the batting title. This guy is a good player, a guy we’re going to miss because he has so much versatility. And you always count on him to get big hits.
“And Mike Dunn is a young left-hander that really got a chance to show us what he could do. When it got tough late in the season, both in regular season and postseason, he performed well.
“These are two guys that we like a lot. But you’re not going to get a Dan Uggla without giving up something good.”
Meanwhile, the Marlins didn’t waste any time moving Uggla about a week after he turned down their offer. Uggla wanted a five-year deal and was also believed to have asked for a higher average annual salary than the $12 million offered by the Marlins.
“We offered him multiple years and multiple millions of dollars into free agency,” Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest said. “We think we more than fairly reflected his accomplishments and production. We think the compensation would have placed him with the elite players at his position in the game. Dan, I guess, thought otherwise. We weren’t able to come to an agreement, which really left us with two choices.
“Recognizing that he could walk after the 2011 season, we could either bring him back for the 2011 season and have him leave via free agency, or we could trade him and try to get value now. So we took the latter.”