INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Braves officials left the general managers meetings without crossing off any items on their offseason shopping list, but that didn’t mean their three days at a desert resort weren’t productive.
“Overall it was beneficial to sit down with clubs and discuss possibilities,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said before boarding a flight Friday afternoon out of nearby Palm Springs, “and we were able to advance some discussions.”
The Braves seek a center fielder/leadoff hitter and a power-hitting left fielder. At the GM meetings Wren and his top assistants, including Bruce Manno, John Coppolella and Jim Fregosi, got a better idea of what might be available and affordable on the trade and free-agent markets during discussions with various player agents and officials from other teams.
The groundwork for deals rather than deals themselves are generally what happens at the annual GM meetings, with the notable exception of the Braves’ trade for Dan Uggla at the 2010 GM meetings. Those type of deals usually happen closer to or during baseball’s Winter Meetings, to be held Dec. 3-6 in Nashville.
To the surprise of no one, Michael Bourn rejected the Braves’ one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer before Friday’s deadline for the nine free agents who got such offers to accept or decline them. The Braves made the one-year offer to assure they would receive a compensatory draft pick between the first and second rounds if Bourn signs with another team.
Bourn’s agent, Scott Boras, is believed to be looking for a contract of at least five years and more than $15 million per season for Bourn. The Braves haven’t given up on possibly re-signing him, but are looking into all other options in anticipation of Bourn’s cost exceeding the length and price of any deal they’re willing to offer.
Bourn was the Braves’ best offensive performer in the first half of the season, but tailed off significantly. He hit .311 with 30 extra-base hits and a .366 on-base percentage in 85 games before the All-Star break, and .225 with 15 extra-base hits and a .325 OBP in 70 games after the break, including a .195 average with 36 strikeouts in his last 34 games.
After leading the NL in steals for three consecutive seasons, including 61 in 2009 and 61 again in 2011, Bourn had 42 in 2012 and was caught stealing 13 times, second-most in his career.
Among potential replacements, Minnesota’s Denard Span tops a list of center fielders on the trade market, and the Twins need precisely what the Braves have in abundance: starting pitching. Wren said this week they might use some pitching in a trade to fill a lineup need.
Span, 28, has a .284 batting average and .357 on-base percentage in parts of five seasons. He’s twice had 10 triples and 23 or more stolen bases, and he’s under contract at an easily affordable $4.75 million in 2013 and $6.5 million in 2014, with a $9 million team option for 2015.
Colorado’s Dexter Fowler, an Atlanta native and Milton High School graduate, is another potentially available center fielder/leadoff hitter who could be a good fit for the Braves.
Among free agents, San Francisco’s Angel Pagan is the best of the center fielder/leadoff variety. Most industry insiders believe he’ll re-sign with the Giants after having one of his best seasons for the World Series champions, batting .288 with a league-high 15 triples, eight homers and 29 stolen bases in a career-high 154 games. He added two homers and six RBIs in the postseason.
Shane Victorino and B.J. Upton are among the other free-agent center fielders, but neither is well-suited for leadoff at this point. While not a requirement for the Braves that their center fielder also bat leadoff, it’s preferable because they don’t want to have to fill the leadoff spot elsewhere, and they don’t plan to move Martin Prado from the second spot where he thrives.
Boston center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury is another trade option, but the Red Sox would demand a lot in return for a player eligible for free agency after the 2013 season, when he will almost certainly go on the free-agent market with Boras as his agent.
Among corner-outfield possibilities, Arizona officials say they aren’t trying to trade Justin Upton but will listen to offers for the immensely talented brother of B.J.
One NL team official this week said Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers would ask for a trade bounty similar to the five-prospect package the Braves gave up years ago for Mark Teixeira. In 2011, Upton hit .289 with 75 extra-base hits (31 homers), 21 stolen bases and an .898 OPS to finish fourth in MVP balloting.
His OPS has been just below .800 in the two seasons surrounding that one, and Upton hit .280 with a modest 17 homers, 67 RBIs and 18 stolen bases in 150 games in 2012. He’s owed $38.5 million over the next three seasons, including more than $14 million in each of the last two years of his contract. At this point, it’s unclear how much, if any, interest the Braves have in either Upton.
Minnesota left fielder Josh Willingham is another potential good fit in a trade, but the Twins would demand plenty for the 33-year-old because of his recent production and a club-friendly contract that will pay him $7 million each of the next two seasons.
Willingham had 64 homers and 208 RBIs over the past two seasons with Oakland and Minnesota, and cranked out 30 doubles, 35 homers, 110 RBIs and an .890 OPS in 2012 for the Twins while playing home games in a pitcher-friendly ballpark.
MacPhail made Bobby Cox a manager
Lee MacPhail, the former Yankees executive who got Bobby Cox into managing, died Thursday at home in Delray Beach, Fla. MacPhail was 95.
The longtime baseball executive was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998. MacPhail was the Yankees’ general manager in 1970 when he asked Cox if he wanted to manage the Yankees’ Class-A team in Fort Lauderdale the following year.
At the time, Cox was finishing out the season as a player with the Yankees’ Triple-A Syracuse affiliate, and planned to retire and head home to California to become a high school coach. But when MacPhail flew down to Richmond during the season-ending series to talk to him about managing, Cox jumped at the opportunity.
Cox spent six seasons as a minor-league manager and took over as Braves skipper in 1978, beginning a major league managing career that lasted 29 seasons including 25 in two stints with Atlanta before he retired in 2010. Cox ranks fourth all-time with 2,504 wins — 2,149 with Atlanta and 355 with Toronto.
Journeyman center fielder Luis Durango signed a minor-league deal with the Kansas City Royals, after hitting .289 with an International League-leading 46 stolen bases in 62 attempts for Triple-A Gwinnett in 2012. He last played in the majors in 2011, when he got in two games with Houston.