ORLANDO – The Braves moved quickly this offseason to address glaring needs, and general manager Frank Wren was pleased with the results as baseball’s winter meetings concluded Thursday.
“The sooner you can make the moves you need to make, the better it is for everyone,” he said. “That’s because the sooner you can narrow your focus to smaller pieces or whatever, the better it is for your team.”
Here’s how the Braves put the plan in motion.
– First, they addressed a power deficiency by trading for second baseman Dan Uggla on Nov. 16, baseball’s first significant trade of the winter. The Braves hope to sign him to a long-term contract extension relatively soon.
To get Uggla, they traded All-Star utility man Omar Infante and young left-hander Mike Dunn, denting the bench and bullpen.
Uggla averaged nearly 31 homers and 93 RBIs in five seasons for Florida, and the Braves said All-Star second baseman Martin Prado would move to left field. Prado will switch to third base if Chipper Jones, recovering from knee surgery, has any setbacks.
Braves outfielders hit the fewest homers (40) in the National League. The team ranked 20th in the majors in homers (139) and 18th in slugging percentage (.401). They believe Prado in left and a healthy Jason Heyward in right will help change that, but also need center fielder Nate McLouth to rebound from a dismal 2009 season.
The Braves don’t have a certain replacement if McLouth falls on his face again, but they have options in-house and are working to acquire another. Wren wouldn’t say whom they might add, but the Braves are in trade discussions with at least one other team.
– The Braves re-signed outfielder-first baseman Eric Hinske on Dec. 2, making sure they didn’t lose another key member of their bench. He’s their best left-handed pinch-hitter.
That move was important to teammates, who said Hinske’s leadership and hard-nosed approach were instrumental in their strong clubhouse chemistry in 2010.
– The Braves traded for veteran reliever Scott Linebrink from the White Sox on Dec. 3. The right-hander isn’t the dominant setup man he was a few years ago, but remains a solid reliever with an superb reputation as a teammate.
Wren spoke to people about Linebrink and decided he was well-suited to help fill a void left by Billy Wagner’s retirement. Not Wagner’s closer role, but another part “Wags” played last season: Influential veteran.
Pitching coach Roger McDowell said Wagner’s confidence-building mentoring was important for young relievers Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Dunn. So, Wren made it a priority to find one who could continue in that vein.
For finishing games, the Braves believe Kimbrel and Venters have the talent and enough seasoning to handle closing and setup roles vacated by Wagner and Takashi Saito, lost to free agency.
– The Braves signed a better-than-usual crop of minor league free agents including infielder Ed Lucas, 27, who hit .286 with a .362 on-base percentage in seven seasons in the Royals organization. He hit a career-high 13 homers in 99 games in 2010 at Triple-A, and the Braves believe he’ll compete for a utility infield/backup shortstop role.
Another minor-league free agent, Jose Constanza, hit .319 with eight triples, a .373 OBP and 34 stolen bases in 2010 for the Indians’ Triple-A affiliate. If the Braves don’t trade for another center fielder, Constanza, 28, could compete with Jordan Schafer and others for a backup job.
– On Wednesday, the Braves agreed to terms with lefty reliever George Sherrill on a one-year, $1.2 million deal. That deal was to be finalized after Sherrill had a physical Thursday.
Sherrill gives the Braves a third left-hander to go with Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. He’s another veteran with a reputation for strong character, something the Braves seem to be emphasizing more than ever.
“We like our bullpen,” Wren said. “We’ve got some veterans, we’ve got some guys that have pitched in the back end of the game. We’ve got a good mix. I think we’re in good shape.”