INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – The Braves again have more major league-ready starting pitchers than can fit into a rotation, and some are no longer viewed as next-to-untouchable by general manager Frank Wren.
The Braves seek a couple of hitters to fill out their lineup – a left fielder and a center fielder/leadoff man — and could use part of their pitching surplus to fill at least one of those needs
“There are clubs that recognize we may have some pitching,” Wren said Wednesday after talking with other GMs on the opening day of the general managers meetings that run through Friday. “Whether we’ve got enough to fill [other needs] or not, I don’t know.
“But we like the depth that we have, and we might be able to use it to get something that we need. And there’s some teams that have pieces that would be helpful to us.”
One of those teams is Minnesota, which needs pitching and is open to trading center fielder Denard Span, who has a .284 career batting average and .357 on-base percentage in parts of five seasons, and twice totaled 10 triples and 23 or more stolen bases.
Span, 28, is under contract for two more seasons at $4.75 million in 2013 and $6.5 million in 2014, with a $9 million team option for 2015.
The Braves haven’t ruled out re-signing free agent center fielder/leadoff man Michael Bourn. But his agent Scott Boras’ expected asking price could be at least $75 million over five years, figures that Atlanta would probably be reluctant to pay for a 30-year-old whose greatest asset is speed.
“Michael was a good fit on our ballclub, and continues to be a good fit,” Wren said. “Really, the ball is in their court. We served it over there at the end of the season, and it hasn’t returned. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Among free agents, Angel Pagan seems the best other center-field/leadoff possibility, but is expected to return to the Giants. There are others including the Rays’ B.J. Upton (28 homers, 31 steals) and the Dodgers’ Shane Victorino, but Upton’s career-worst .298 OBP in 2012 and Victorino’s career-wost .704 OPS raise caution.
The Braves could keep Martin Prado in left field and acquire a third baseman to replace Chipper Jones, but are more likely to move Prado to third and pursue a left fielder.
The Twins might also listen to offers for left fielder Josh Willingham, who has 64 home runs and 208 RBIs over the past two seasons, and hit .260 with a .366 OBP and career-best .890 OPS at age 33 in 2012. Since Willingham is signed at a relative bargain rate of $7 million each of the next two seasons, it might take an overwhelming offer to pry him from the Twins.
Span is available because Minnesota has 24-year-old speedster Ben Revere available to take over in center field. Wren said it’s not a prerogative that the leadoff man be a right-handed hitter, but the Braves would want the other acquisition to hit right-handed.
Span hits left-handed (like Bourn) and Willingham hits right-handed.
“Anybody that’s got numbers [of starting pitchers] or anybody that’s got a possibility maybe of having a lot of depth, then more than likely we have talked to them,” Twins GM Terry Ryan said, without naming specific teams. “They aren’t just going to distribute pitching to other clubs unless they can get something back that fills a need. Some way or another we kind of know who we match up with.”
If spring training began today, the Braves would probably have the first four spots in their rotation filled by Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson and left-handers Mike Minor and Paul Maholm, with the fifth spot being contested among Tommy Hanson and prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado. Brandon Beachy is recovering from ligament-transplant elbow surgery and is expected back around or slightly before the All-Star break.
“I think you have to be realistic,” Wren said. “When you’re looking to fill needs, where do you have the most pieces to move if you have to move someone? And I think that’s how we look at our pitching – we’re not looking to move any of them, but if it helps us fill a need, we’re open to it. And that’s how we’re approaching it as we talk to teams. We like our pitching staff the way it’s constituted. We like the young guys a lot, but as we put our team together, if something makes sense we’re open to discussing it.”
The Braves could also get involved in discussions with the Diamondbacks about right fielder Justin Upton, who had 31 homers and an .898 OPS when he finished fourth in the MVP balloting in 2011, between a pair of 17-homer seasons. Arizona GM Kevin Towers said he’s not looking to trade Upton but confirmed he would entertain offers for the right-handed hitter, who is owed $38.5 million over the next three seasons.
However, the Diamondbacks would be looking for multiple players in return for Upton, including a quality major league shortstop or third baseman.