Free agent Eric Hinske is staying with the Braves, but arbitration-eligible left fielder Matt Diaz is not.
Hinske signed a one-year, $1.45 million deal on Thursday that includes a $1.5 club option for 2012 and a $100,000 buyout. The veteran outfielder-first baseman turned down an offer from the Milwaukee Brewers in his home state of Wisconsin.
“I’m happy,” said Hinske, who hit .256 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs in 281 at-bats in 2010, including .298 with three homers as a pinch-hitter. “Milwaukee made a big push. I think it kind of boiled down to, they weren’t willing to give me a two-year deal. Neither was Atlanta, but if neither was going to, my heart was in Atlanta.
“I had so much fun there last year, and I think what they’re doing this offseason, bringing in [second baseman Dan] Uggla, and if Chipper [Jones] stays healthy I think we’ve got a real good shot next year.”
As expected, the Braves didn’t offer a contract to Diaz, who made $2.55 million in an injury-plagued 2010 season. He hit .250 with a career-low .302 on-base percentage and seven homers, and became expendable after the Braves traded for Uggla and announced Martin Prado would move from second to left field.
“It’s difficult sometimes, when salaries grow with arbitration, to have that type of salary in the role we foresee Matt having,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said.
Teams faced a midnight deadline Thursday to offer contracts to their remaining unsigned players, and the Braves tendered contracts for their other arbitration-eligibles: Uggla, Prado and pitchers Jair Jurrjens, Peter Moylan and Eric O’Flaherty. Arb-eligible players who were non-tendered Thursday became free agents.
Hinske’s decision was a relief for Braves players and officials, who made it a priority to bring back the veteran who helped lead Atlanta to 91 wins and a postseason berth — their first trip to the playoffs since 2005.
“We saw just how valuable he was for our club,” Wren said of Hinske, 33, who has carved a niche as a bench player and pinch-hitter, after beginning his career as a Toronto third baseman and 2002 American League Rookie of the Year.
Wren said new Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez urged him to do what he could to retain Hinske.
“Not only is he a guy that’s able to come up and get big hits for you late in the game,” Wren said, “but you can get him out there occasionally as an everyday player. And he provides valuable leadership in the clubhouse.”
Teammates lauded Hinske for his role in the Braves’ improved chemistry, calling him a leader since the beginning of spring training. He has played in the past four postseasons, including consecutive World Series appearances with three different teams during 2007-2009.
Hinske gets a raise to $1.35 million in 2011, after making $1 million in 2010 when he posted a .794 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) and was the Braves’ best left-handed bat off the bench. He had three homers in 47 pinch-hit at-bats, then added a pinch homer in the division series against San Francisco.
When other Braves left fielders struggled early, manager Bobby Cox put Hinske in the lineup, and he helped spark a season-turning resurgence after Atlanta’s nine-game losing skid in late April.
He hit .274 with 14 doubles, six homers and 34 RBIs in 175 at-bats before the All-Star break, compared to .226 with 10 extra-base hits and 17 RBIs in 106 at-bats after the break.
He was effective in the late innings of close games, batting .302 with three homers and a 1.009 OPS in 43 at-bats.
Hinske praised the Nov. 16 trade for Uggla, who averaged 31 homers and more than 90 RBIs in five seasons with Florida.
“Right-handed power hitters are few and far between,” Hinske said. “He’s a difference maker, for sure. He killed us with the Marlins. It’s good to get a guy like that on our side.
“Even if we didn’t’ get him, I still wanted to come back. Now it’s an even better shot for us.”
The Braves welcome back one popular outfielder and said goodbye to another. Wren said he spoke with Diaz on Wednesday to prepare him for the non-tender possibility. It was not an easy phone call.
“Matt’s a great guy,” Wren said. “I called him yesterday morning to let him know this was likely going to happen. He somewhat expected it, and appreciated the call. We’ve all become very fond of Matt over the past five years, for what he’s provided both on and off the field.
“Just in talking to him, he said don’t forget about me for the future.”
Diaz was limited to 244 plate appearances due to a first-half thumb infection that required surgery. He had indicated he would pass up arbitration and return for a salary similar to last year’s.
But with his salary and the lack of playing time expected to be available in left field, Diaz doesn’t fit in the Braves plans, at least for 2011. Diaz has played only the corner outfield positions, with the exception of two brief appearances at first base in 2007.
He had a .313 average and career-best .878 OPS in 2009, with career-highs of 425 plate appearances, 13 homers and 58 RBIs. In his down year in 2010, Diaz still hit .273 with a .512 slugging percentage against left-handers.
During 2007-2009, he hit a blistering .369 against lefties, with 17 homers and a .975 OPS in 396 at-bats. He hit .265 with a .700 OPS in 468 at-bats against righties in that period.
Wren is still looking to strengthen the bullpen and bench. Wren didn’t specify, but targets might include a veteran pitcher with some setup or closing experience, and a hitter who can play some center field and/or the middle infield.