Some general managers predict an eventful four days of wheeling and dealing at the Winter Meetings starting Monday in Dallas, and the Braves will be involved in plenty of rumors — whether they like it or not, and whether or not the reports have validity.
They are still looking for a shortstop and a power-hitting outfielder, and it’s no secret they are more inclined to trade for players than sign expensive free agents.
While Braves general manager Frank Wren rarely discusses with reporters any specific players he’s pursuing, officials with many teams aren’t nearly so tight-lipped. As a result, trade talk is leaked by some teams, fueling even more speculation.
Rumoring tends to become widespread this time of year, particularly around teams that choose to neither confirm nor quash most of the reports.
“I’ve actively shopped players this fall [according to some reports] that I haven’t even mentioned their names,” said Braves general manager Frank Wren.
Left fielder Martin Prado and pitcher Jair Jurrjens are Braves most often mentioned in trade rumors since October, with multiple teams either claiming to have had preliminary trade discussions for one of those two or at least heard through the grapevine that Prado and Jurrjens were available.
Both are coming off injury- or illness-plagued seasons and will command substantial raises through arbitration, Prado to a projected $4.5 million or more and Jurrjens about $5.5 million.
Because the Braves want to add offensive punch to the outfield and already have two of three spots occupied by center fielder Michael Bourn and presumably right fielder Jason Heyward (as long as he’s healthy), they’ve looked for an outfielder who could play left field either full time or in a platoon (Matt Diaz, who generally excels against left-handed pitching, remains under contract).
Colorado’s Seth Smith has come up consistently in Braves-Rockies rumors, and he fits the description of platoon left fielder; he’s thrived against right-handed pitching. The Braves have reportedly been persistent in demanding a center fielder or center-field prospect from the Rockies in addition to Smith. Atlanta knows it could lose Bourn after the 2012 season, when the Scott Boras client is eligible for free agency.
The Braves effectively bid farewell to slick-fielding but weak-hitting veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez when they declined to offer arbitration. They didn’t want to pay him more than $3 million in arbitration, and won’t commit for more than one year to a shortstop — not with prospect Tyler Pastornicky waiting in the wings and exceptional fielding prospect Andrelton Simmons not far behind him.
The Braves would like to sign or trade for a veteran to serve as either a bridge to Pastornicky, if he were take over the position either later in the season or in 2013, or as a backup to Pastornicky, someone who could be there in case he struggles.
“I think that would be the minimum we’d want to do, get a veteran to be able to help him handle situations if [Pastornicky as starting shortstop] is the way we go,” Wren said. “But we’re very open minded in how we can configure that position.”
The Braves could possibly bring back shortstop Jack Wilson, a late-season 2011 addition who could also back second and third bases, but doesn’t hit much at all. Wren wouldn’t say Friday whether former Braves shortstop Edgar Renteria might be another option.
Pastornicky has no major league experience, limited high-minors experience – 128 games in Double-A, 27 games at Triple-A – and made 26 errors in 2011. Wren says the Braves saw enough in his performance the past two years, including a .314 average and .349 on-base percentage in ’11, to go to spring training with the speedy 22-year-old penciled in as a potential lineup regular.
“We’re comfortable with him at shortstop at the major-league level,” Wren said. “We think he’ll grow and get better, and offensively he’s shown us that he can handle the bat over the last year and a half. I think he’s at least a 20-plus stolen base player at the major league level, and his numbers in the minor leagues were double that.”
Wren knows that rumors are an almost unavoidable part of the social media-saturated world of pro sports.
“There’s certain times where you pick up the phone [to discuss a potential deal] and before you hang up somebody [in the media] has got it already,” he said. “That happens all the time. It makes it hard to deal with some teams, to get in-depth and talk about scenarios with them. There’s some clubs you can do that with and some you can’t trust.”
That’s only magnified in the Winter Meetings setting where hundreds of media members, agents and team officials are gathered in a sprawling hotel for four days.
In his four years as Braves GM, Wren has still managed to pull off notable trades without any prior leaks from either side of the deal. That included the trade for Nate McLouth from Pittsburgh in June 2009 and the Oct. 31 trade that sent Derek Lowe to Cleveland.
Wren said he and Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti had a recent discussion about how nice it had been to get the Lowe trade virtually completed on a Friday and for no mention of it to be leaked to the media until minutes before the deal was announced the following Monday.
If he had his druthers, every trade would happen that way, without any negotiations leaked to the media.
Three years ago the Braves weren’t so private with their dealings. Wren provided updates on some of the marquee players they were pursuing in trades and free agency, and each time one of those players landed elsewhere – Jake Peavy, A.J. Burnett, Rafael Furcal – it strengthened a perception that the Braves and Wren were floundering in their attempts to add big-time talent.
Since then he’s kept matters close to the vest, talking only in general terms about team needs and progress made toward filling them. When there are rumors of a Braves player on the block or a Braves inquiry about a free agent or trade possibility, the leak is often from another team’s front office or an agent.
“It’s clearly our preference to get as much work done behind the scenes, out of the public eye and out of the press if we can,” Wren said, “because the more people know about it the more opportunity for things to blow up and not get done.
“I think we have a baseball group that doesn’t look to get their name in the paper but ultimately to get the job done, which is to make our team better. It’s a pleasure having conversations with teams that operate likewise. That allows you to do your due diligence without it hitting your paper the next morning.”