A year ago, the Braves made the first big trade of the 2010 offseason by dealing for Dan Uggla at the mid-November general managers meetings, where usually there is more groundwork done for trades later in the winter than actual trades completed.
Then there was a rumor two weeks ago that spread quickly, a rumor that the Braves might be willing to trade pitcher Jair Jurrjens and left fielder Martin Prado in order to free up cash to pursue a shortstop and power-hitting outfielder.
Couple those two situations — the Uggla trade of Nov. 16, 2010 and the Jurrjens/Prado rumors of the past couple of weeks – and it was understandable that Braves fans were braced for a trade or two to go down at the GM meetings this past week in Milwaukee.
Then no trade happened.
No trade even came close to happening, despite leaked reports that the Braves were talking to the Rockies about a possible Prado deal, to the Tigers about a possible Prado trade, to the Red about a potential Jurrjens swap….
“I think it’s interesting that our name came up, a lot of talk about us and our players,” said Braves GM Frank Wren, who was never quoted about any of those players, as he stuck to the policy he’s employed in recent years of not addressing rumors, discussing specific players or updating the status of potential deals except in unusual circumstances.
“But the reality is that we did have a lot of discussions, primarily feeling clubs out — we had calls and this gave us a chance to delve a little deeper into what their thoughts are and how we might match up. But I didn’t feel like there was a lot of momentum to get things done at these meetings.”
Wren felt as if teams were still in the early stages of figuring out what trades or signings might best suit their teams, and said the pending collective bargaining agreement might have had something to do with that.
Until late last week there had been speculation that the new CBA could have changes that affect draft-pick compensation for free agents, possibly eliminating first-round pick compensation for all but the elite players who sign with other teams.
Some teams also will wait to see which ranked free agents will be offered arbitration before the deadline Wednesday (Nov. 23). Some players might not be offered arb, in which case a signing team wouldn’t have to give up a draft pick.
Anyway, getting back to the Braves and the possibility of a deal or deals involving Prado and Jurrjens. It’s clear they don’t feel any great need to trade either of them, not like the urgency that Wren felt to dump part of Derek Lowe’s salary in order to clear up whatever payroll he could and open a rotation spot for a younger pitcher.
Some suggested the Braves were actively shopping Prado and Jurrjens. But the Braves say they’ve taken calls from teams interested in their players, rather than making calls to see if anyone wanted to deal. There’s a difference.
“I think that [Prado and Jurrjens trade possibility] was wrongly characterized from the very beginning,” Wren said. “What we said and what we stand by is that we’re looking to get better, and however we can get better we will. We’re open minded. We’ll listen if somebody calls.
“People like our players.Yes, teams have called but it’s a situation where we do like our team, we do like where we are, and you have to be careful that when you take away from it to improve it, that it really turns out that way.”
Wren traded Lowe to Cleveland on Oct. 31, the Braves agreeing to pay $10 million of the $15 million he’s owed in 2012 in the last year of a four-year, $60 million contract.
It’s the most the Braves have ever eaten in order to get rid of a player, and in 2011 the only team that paid as much as $10 million to one player not on its roster was the Angels, who paid $11.4 million to Gary Matthews Jr.
The Braves are expected to have a payroll in the low-$90 million range in 2012, up perhaps a few million bucks from 2011. My calculations show they’ve got less than $10 mill to spend as of today, probably closer to $5 mill, taking into account raises for arb-eligibles Jurrjens, Prado, Michael Bourn and Eric O’Flaherty, as well as Brian McCann’s raise from $6.5 mill to $11.5 mill.
By the way, some of the projections I’ve seen reported for the Braves’ 2012 payroll have McCann’s salary at $8.5 million. That was the base salary for the final guaranteed season of his six-year contract, but McCann maxed out on all the escalators tied to Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers and All-Star appearances, pushing the salary to $11.5 million. (There’s a $12 million club option for 2013 with a $500,000 buyout.)
The Braves haven’t approached McCann about a potential contract extension yet, nor have they begun extension talks with Bourn, who’s eligible for free agency after the 2012 season. The Braves don’t typically begin such discussions until the beginning of the new year.
“There’s an order that most clubs go through, and right now its trying to acquire players who will add to your team,” Wren said. “Once you get past that phase, you start looking at [the contracts of] players on your current team.
The Braves haven’t said what they’ll do with arb-eligible reliever Peter Moylan, who is recovering from shoulder surgery and could be out until midseason. He might command about $2 million if offered arbitration.
♣ So, getting back to the Braves’ needs: Wren said after the season ended that finding a shortstop and an outfielder were the priorities, and those plus some bench strength still are what the Braves are looking for.
They were never going to trade Prado straight up for Colorado outfielder Seth Smith or Tigers left fielder Delmon Young, two names connected with the Braves at the GM meetings.
However, I still think they’ll consider a deal with the Rockies if they could get Smith along with a solid center-field prospect. So far Colorado has so far refused to include 23-year-old Tim Wheeler, who hit .287 with 33 homers and a .900 OPS last season in 138 games for Double-A Tulsa.
While they won’t say it publicly, the Braves know it won’t be easy to re-sign center fielder Bourn, a Scott Boras client, to an long-term extension before he’s eligible for free agency next winter. Boras is already talking about Bourn in terms of him being a rare center fielder in this day and age with the speed teams are again craving, plus Gold Glove defense.
Boras will be looking for well into eight figures annually in a long-term deal for Bourn.
The Braves don’t have a center fielder far enough along to step in a year from now, so if they could get one like Wheeler or Charlie Blackmon from the Rockies — Blackmon is a former Georgia Tech standout and a converted pitcher who hit .337 with 10 homers and 49 RBIs in 58 games in Triple-A before a promotion to the majors, then a broken foot – plus get a player such as first-time-arb guy Smith, a corner outfielder who could help them next season and beyond, that’s a deal I don’t think they could or would pass up for Prado.
Even though Smith is another left-handed hitter and the Braves would prefer a right-hander, I think if they got Smith they could use Matt Diaz against a lot of lefties and have Smith do his thing against righties.
Smith struggles against lefties – just .202 with four homers and a .588 OPS in 213 career at-bats – but kills righties at a career clip of .290 with 47 homers and an .882 OPS in 1,072 at-bats.
Diaz has a .328 career average with 29 homers and an .873 OPS in 868 at-bats against lefties.
As much as Prado has been an integral part of the clubhouse, a tireless worker and great teammate who was an All-Star second baseman in 2010, the fact is the Braves have Uggla at second base, Prado’s best position.
Consider this overall comparison of the past three seasons for Seth Smith and Prado: Those were the first three full major league seasons for Smith, who hit .275 with 136 extra-base hits (47 homers), 127 walks, 166 RBIs and a .346 OBP and .487 slugging percentage (.833 OPS) in 1,169 at-bats.
Prado in that same span hit .291 with 148 extra-base hits (39 homers), 110 walks, 172 RBIs and a .336 OBP and .435 slugging (.771 OPS) in 1,600 at-bats.
Smith had 431 fewer at-bats than Prado in three years but had more homers, walks and RBIs than Prado and only 12 fewer extra-base hits.
While Smith’s career statistics are significantly better at hitter-friendly Coors Field (like all Rockies hitters), his .750 career OPS on the road is better than Prado’s .745 career road OPS.
Smith has 20 homers and a .418 slugging percentage in 677 road at-bats, while Prado has 23 homers and a .412 slugging percentage in 994 road at-bats.
Granted that’s not much of a difference, but keep in mind many Colorado hitters have traditionally struggled mightily in road games because of the differences from the hitting environment they get acclimated to at home.
Smith is a .296 career hitter with a .925 OPS in 235 games at Coors Field.
In his third season in 2011, the 28-year-old Smith narrowed the home/road disparity quite a bit, batting .285 with nine homers and an .848 OPS in 71 games at Coors Field and .283 with six homers and an .817 OPS in 75 road games.
He’s hit 15 or more homers in three consecutive seasons, doing so in fewer than 400 plate appearances in 2009 and again in 2010. He had a career-high 533 plate appearances in 2011 and hit .284 with a .347 OBP, 32 doubles, nine triples and 15 homers.
♣ What about shortstop? The Braves made a run at infielder Jamey Carroll, but the Braves didn’t want to commit to a multi-year contract for a player who’ll be 38 in February. He signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract with Minnesota, which is expected to start him at shortstop.
The Braves could try to trade for a veteran player with an expiring contract or sign an aging veteran who’ll take a one-year deal, but they don’t want to commit to a multi-year contract because they’ve got shortstop prospect Tyler Pastornicky, 21, who could be ready to take over the position at some point in 2012, and behind him Andrelton Simmons, 22, a sensational defensive shortstop who won the Carolina League batting title at high-A Lynchburg.
If the Braves can’t get a veteran to be an affordable season (or half-season) bridge to Pastornicky, they could go to spring training with him penciled in for the Opening Day shortstop job and then scramble to find a replacement in the spring if it became apparent Pastrornicky might not be ready. That’s not the ideal scenario, but Pastornicky showed enough in Double-A and briefly in Triple-A (before hurting an ankle) to give the Braves enough confidence that he could keep his head above water if thrust into the starting role right away.
It’s unclear if the Braves would consider Alex Gonzalez on a one-year contract in the event that Gonzalez doesn’t get any multi-year offers. Gonzo, who’ll be 35 in February, was a defensive whiz last season but finished with an atrocious .270 OBP and .642 OPS.
♣ Prado, Jurrjens don’t have to be moved: Unlike for Lowe, the Braves will demand high value in return for either Prado or Jurrjens. They aren’t looking to dump salary and won’t take anything less than a strong return in any potential trade.
“We didn’t envision a role for Derek that was going to utlize his ability,” Wren said. “Finding a trade partner worked out for both clubs.”
But now that Lowe is gone, Wren said, “We’re not in a position where we’re trying to cut payroll or move a particular player. Some of those things have been written and are not accurate we’re looking to put the best team on the field.”
Word out of the GM meetings was that the Braves are demanding so much for Jurrjens that a deal might be unlikely unless they come down in their multi-player/prospect asking price or some teams get desperate for starting pitching later in the offseason.
From the Braves’ perspective, it’s understandable they’d want a return similar to what the Royals got for Zack Greinke. Jurrjens is young (26 in January), affordable (second-year arb, likely to make about $5 million), and had a sub-3.00 ERAs in two of the past three seasons.
However, other teams could be reluctant to meet the Braves’ asking price because of a few factors: Jurrjens has ended each of the past two seasons with knee injuries; he’s represented by Boras and could thus be difficult to retain beyond 2013; and he has less than overpowering stuff, leading some skeptics to suggest he’ll never be a true ace.
The Braves would trade Jurrjens for the right price, because they have enough pitching depth to still put together a potentially strong rotation without him in 2012. At the same time there is some reluctance to deal him when Tommy Hanson is coming off a shoulder injury and several other potential starters are so young (Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado).
They also have Kris Medlen and rookie Arodys Vizcaino, but the Braves would prefer to have the versatile Medlen and flamethrowing Vizcaino in the bullpen to begin the ’12 season. Medlen, who returned at the end of the 2011 season from Tommy John elbow surgery, has the versatililty to move to the rotation at any point, if necessary.
♣ Etc. Right fielder Jason Heyward hasn’t begun his workouts yet with the new hitting coaches, but that’s expected to happen soon.
The Braves decided against asking Heyward to play winter ball once they hired ex-White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker to replace fired hitting coach Larry Parrish, and also hired Scott Fletcher in a new assistant hitting coach position.
Walker and Fletcher both live in Georgia and will spend time in Atlanta this winter working out with Braves hitters, with Heyward a special emphasis after he struggled with a sore shoulder and swing flaws in his second season after a terrific rookie year.
Wren said the Braves wanted Walker to be involved in the decision about Heyward this winter and what would be the best way to go about getting him ready for the 2012 season.
♣ OK, I had some more stuff about some Braves prospects including Arizona Fall League guys, but this thing is too long already and I want to get it posted without further delay. We’ll come back with some of that in a blog next week.
Let’s close this with a classic from the mighty Husker Du, this off the Candle Apple Grey album. You can hear it by clicking here, and you definitely should. What an incredible band it was.
“SORRY SOMEHOW” by Husker Du
Time heals, time goes on and time really flies
Time hurts and time can cut you, cut you down to size
There’s no need to touch you now, no, I’m doing fine
Life too can cut you and I’ve cut you out of mine
You’re making me…
Sorry, sorry somehow
Sorry, sorry somehow
There’s no need to talk to you, well to know what’s on your mind
There’s no need to see you either, no, I’m just being kind
You want me to beg forgiveness, tender an apology
It’s not my fault and you’re not getting one from me
Now I guess it’s your decision now you decide
Take me to the cleaners baby, take me for a ride
Who ever cares for your affairs will sort it out for you
Send me a subpoena baby tell me what to do
I don’t have to think about you, think about the past
Those days stand out in my mind and those days were the last
I know the time is coming and I’m waiting for the day
I’d give you everything in the world just to get it out of the way
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog