INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – To the surprise of no one, Braves free-agent center fielder Michael Bourn will decline the team’s one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer by Friday’s deadline.
“The market for him is going to be much greater than a one-year contract,” agent Scott Boras said of Bourn, who has or is expected to draw serious interest from multiple teams including NL East opponents Washington and Philadelphia.
While the Braves haven’t entirely given up the possibility of re-signing Bourn, they don’t seem at all inclined to approach the contract levels that Boras will seek for his client, which could be at least five years at more than $15 million annually.
The Braves are exploring other options via free agency – San Francisco’s Angel Pagan probably tops that short list — or through a trade. Minnesota center fielder Denard Span is likely high on the list of potential trade targets. He’s a leadoff hitter like Bourn, which is what the Braves prefer from a center fielder if they have to replace him.
The Twins have made it known Span is available and are looking for starting pitching in return, an area where the Braves have depth and general manager Frank Wren said they would consider dipping into in order to fill lineup needs.
The Braves continued to address possible free-agent offers and trades Thursday on the second day of baseball’s three-day GM meetings, but Wren said none of those discussions had advanced since Wednesday.
Boras, in what has become an annual ritual at the GM meetings and baseball’s December Winter Meetings, held court in the center of the lobby at the meetings hotel Thursday, surrounded by dozens of recorder- and notebook-wielding reporters.
Braves incumbent starter Tommy Hanson and pitching prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado would probably be in a three-way competition for the fifth-starter spot as things stand now. From that trio the Braves might be willing to trade a pitcher or two to get either a center fielder and/or fill their other need – a right-handed hitting left fielder or third baseman. (The Braves expect to move Martin Prado from left to third base to take over for retired Chipper Jones, unless something comes up that makes it easier to acquire a third baseman than a left fielder.)
Other free-agent center fielders include Shane Victorino and B.J. Upton, neither of whom ideally fits the leadoff part of the job description any longer, Victorino because he’s slowed some and Upton because his on-base percentage has declined steadily as his home runs and strikeouts increased.
As for the biggest name on the position player free-agent market, Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton has never been a likely Braves target despite rumors to the contrary. Hamilton, a huge talent with a famously checkered past (drug and alcohol addiction) and some nagging recent health issues, is reportedly looking for a contract of about seven years and $175 million.
The Braves, who won’t divulge the specific amount available, are thought to have about $25 million of room in next year’s payroll to spend on players to fill their two primary needs, plus the bench and maybe a veteran reliever.
“Instead of having one guy take up 20 percent of our payroll, we’d rather have two guys taking 10 percent [each],” Wren said, speaking in general terms about organizational philosophy. “It just allows us to have a deeper ballclub. I think when you’re a mid-market club, that’s how you’re going to have to build.”
Also, Hamilton is a left-handed hitter.
“We’re a predominately left-handed team,” Wren said. “And that’s something we’re always looking at as we add big pieces – can we balance our club a little better. A right-handed hitter who can hit in the middle would be more balancing for us. Because when you look at [Brian] McCann, [Freddie] Freeman, [Jason] Heyward all being left-handed hitters, it’s a little harder to put the lineup together if we keep adding left-handed hitters.”
Wren said the Braves’ payroll would likely rise slightly in 2013.
“This year we were around $94 million or $95 million,” he said. “We’re going to probably increase a little bit this coming year. We’ve been creeping [up] with our revenue. As our revenue goes up, they’ve given us the ability to ride that revenue up a little bit, as well.”
Qualifying offers are part of a new system in baseball that replaced the old arbitration offers that teams made to their free agents in order to assure draft-pick compensation should those players sign elsewhere.
Baseball set the qualifying offer of $13.3 million by averaging the top 125 salaries in baseball from the previous season, and only nine players were extended those offers by teams before the deadline five days after the World Series. Those players had seven days to accept or decline the offers, and if a player accepts he becomes signed by his team for 2013.