PHOENIX – Chipper is retired, David Ross is gone, Michael Bourn is likely leaving, Brian McCann is hurt, and Josh Hamilton isn’t walking through that door.
So I can understand why some Braves fans are getting anxious or downright worried.
But folks, it’s mid-November. Still weeks away from the Winter Meetings, which is usually when things really start heating up on the trade and free-agent fronts.
So before convincing yourself that this will be another Garrett Anderson or Raul Mondesi sort of offseason for the Bravos, I’d advise to take a deep breath and understand the team has both the cash and/or trade pieces (which they now seem willing to part with) to assure they won’t have to settle for picking up a scrap-heap player for left or center.
No significant deals were struck but the hot stove was stoked during last week’s GM meetings near Palm Springs, and already we’re seeing things move a little quicker than usual around ‘ball. My guess is the Braves will have at least one of their two priority needs – center field and either left or third base – filled long before Christmas this year, and quite possibly both.
And add backup catcher to that list, too, now that Ross has gone, taking a two-year, $6.2 million offer from Boston that was too good to pass up. This despite the fact he loved playing in Atlanta, and after the season ended he and Braves had indicated they thought he’d be back and both sides wanted him back.
No one had anticipated a month ago that the soon-to-be 36-year-old catcher would double his salary and get a two-year deal. The Braves, after picking up the $12 million option on catcher Brian McCann, weren’t willing to spent another $3-plus million on the catching position in 2013, and also didn’t want to give Ross more than a one-year guarantee.
Considering their payroll, which GM Frank Wren said will probably be around $95 million or slightly above, can’t say I blame the Braves for not shelling out that kind of money for Ross. And that’s coming from someone who thinks his value far outweighed the stats he produced, which were solid.
Ross was as strong a presence in the clubhouse as the Braves have had during the past several years, and his intangibles – working with young pitchers, accepting and thriving in a secondary role to a perennial All-Star like McCann, always projecting optimism and good nature in the clubhouse – made him far more valuable than your typical backup catcher or bench player at any position.
Not to mention the fact that us writers might have collected some cash among us to help cover the difference if the Braves had been close in their offer to Ross, so good was he to work with for us in the reporting game. Of course, the Red Sox could find in their front-office lobby couches as much much as us writers might have scraped together.
So now the backup catching spot is added to the offseason to-do list. If I’m the Braves, I knock that one out sooner than later, since the McCann situation makes backup catcher more important than it would normally be. They hope to have McCann back as soon as mid-April, but if he takes the full estimated six months of recovery that doctors say his surgery usually requires, he’d miss the whole first month of the season and maybe some of May.
So while they can’t spend big for a catcher still in his prime, the Braves also can’t go into the season relying on someone like J.C. Boscan to handle the duties on a daily basis until McCann returns. Trading for ex-Brave Jarrod Saltalamacchia from those same Red Sox makes little sense because he’s going to make close to $5 million through arbitration and doesn’t hit lefties (.203 career average and .591 OPS vs. LHPs).
The Braves need to get the best fit to potentially play a few weeks and then be a complement to McCann, from a group of veteran backups some of the usual suspects, guys like Gerald Laird, Rod Barajas, Ronny Paulino, Miguel Olivo, Matt Treanor, Brian Schneider and Kelly Shoppach.
• Bourn free: OK, that’s the first and last time I’ll use that, and I realize that I showed my age in doing so. But what are blogs good for, right, if we can’t use poor puns and hackneyed phrases?
Anyway, surely no one who followed the Bourn situation closely was surprised that he and agent Scott Boras declined the Braves’ one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer last Friday, just like the other eight major leaguers who got qualifying offers (all were the same amount, as prescribed by the new system that replacing offering arbitration to your own free agents and having some classified as Type A or Type B for draft-pick compensation purposes).
The Braves made the one-year offer to assure they would receive a draft pick between the first and second rounds if Bourn signs with another team. They’ve also made a multi-year offer to Bourn through Boras, or at least let them know they wanted to discuss one (it’s tough getting a ready on exactly what they’ve done, as Wren said cryptically last week: “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.”
Boras is believed to be looking for a Bourn contract of at least five years and more than $15 million per season. The Braves haven’t given up on possibly re-signing Bourn, but won’t go nearly that high (or probably that long) in an offer. So they’re looking into all other options in anticipation of Bourn’s exit. With Boras, of course, it could take some time before Bourn signs with anyone.
Those who’ve said the Braves should give Bourn what he wants, keep in mind he’ll be 30 on Dec. 27, and speed usually doesn’t age as well as assets such as power.
Bourn was the Braves’ MVP, in my view, during the first half of the season, but then his production fell off big-time. He hit .311 with 30 extra-base hits and a .366 OBP 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.
And after stealing 61 bases twice in the past three seasons, he had 42 in 2012 and was caught 13 times.
Who to replace him? I’ve noted a few times that an ideal replacement, both in terms of player type and cost, might be Minnesota’s Denard Span, who is good with the glove, if not the Gold Glove-caliber defender that Bourn is. He’s also a leadoff hitter, not the base-stealer or dynamic presence Bourn often is, but maybe a steadier hitter in terms of average and OBP (.284 and .357 in parts of five seasons).
He’s twice had 10 triples in a season, and Spann, 28, is under contract at an affordable $4.75 million in 2013 and $6.5 million in 2014, with a $9 million team option for 2015.
Plus – and this is a big one – the Twins need in trade what the Braves have a surplus of: young starting pitching. And last week, Wren said the Braves might use pitching in a trade to fill at least one of their lineup needs. He and Twins GM Terry Ryan met during the meetings last week.
Among free agents, San Francisco’s Angel Pagan, to me, is the best of those that fit the center fielder/leadoff description. But most people I talked to last week say he’ll be re-signed by 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, and then two homers and six RBIs in the postseason.
Shane Victorino and B.J. Upton are the other top free-agent center fielders, but neither is well-suited for leadoff at this point, Victorino because he’s showing his age (he’s slower, and so is his bat speed) and Upton because his OBP has dropped steadily over the past five years as he’s become more focused on hitting homers. Can’t have a sub-.300 OBP in the leadoff spot, and that’s what he was last season. But he gives you plenty of homers and stolen bases, and he can go get it in center.
If the Braves don’t get a center fielder who can bat leadoff, they’ll have to fill the leadoff spot, too, since they indicate no intentions or desire to move Martin Prado to leadoff, and Andrelton Simmons doesn’t profile as a leadoff hitter either, not at this point at least.
Boston center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury is another trade option who can hit leadoff, but the Red Sox would demand a lot in return for a player who is eligible for free agency after the 2013 season and will almost certainly go on the free-agent market (Boras is his agent). Plus, Ellsbury is going to make about $9 million or more in 2013. Can’t see the Braves trading prospects and paying that salary to get one year from him. But maybe I’m wrong.
•And in left? Among corner-outfield possibilities, another Upton jumped to the front of the line last week in the view of many Braves fans.
Arizona GM Kevin Towers made it clear he’ll listen to Justin Upton, the marquee name that people have been buzzing about. He could move from right field over to left (Jason Heyward sure won’t be moving from right to left) and give the Braves a pair of 30/30 threats at the corners in what would surely be one of, if not the most dynamic outfields in the league.
However, writers and a couple of front-office types I talked to last week believe Towers will demand a Teixeira-like haul in exchange for Upton. (Yes, the Braves’ five-prospect trade package they sent to Texas for Mark Teixeira is still viewed around baseball as an example of what can happen when you become too focused on winning now and getting a player you believe will put you over the hump in the postseason.)
The difference, of course, is that Upton is under contract for the next three seasons, not a year-and-a-half away from free agency as Tex was. But it’s not as if there’s no risk involved, given that Upton’s had relatively modest 17-homer seasons on both sides of his tremendous 2011 season. Yes, at his worst he’s still a very good player, but Upton will make more than $14 million in each of the last two years of his contract, so to give up multiple top prospects for him, a team better be convinced he’ll be a consistent game-changer.
Upton in 2011 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 hit hit .280 with 17 homers, 67 RBIs and 18 stolen bases in 150 games in 2012. It’s unclear how much interest the Braves have in either Upton, but I don’t think either of them is at the top of their board.
Who else? I’m in agreement with those who believe free agent Torii Hunter, a longtime center fielder, would be a good fit for the Braves in left, even at 37. He’s in great shape, coming off a real encouraging season — 313 average, .365 OBP, 17 homers, 81 RBIs — tempered slightly by his abnormally high .389 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). A potentially important note to keep in mind: He’s become good friends with Heyward, both belonging to the the select group of baseball endorsers on Nike’s Jordan label.
The Braves are interested in him and he’s told people the interest is mutual. For now, I still doubt Hunter will leave the AL, where he’s spent his entire career. He wants to win a World Series with a team before he retires, and with Texas, Detroit, Boston and others pursuing him from the AL, the Braves would presumably have to outbid them or convince him they are as close as any of his AL pursuers are to winning a title. Maybe they will convince him and/or outbid the others. I’ve certainly been wrong before in matters such as this.
I’ve already said — more than some here want to hear — another player I think the Braves should target for left field: Minnesota left fielder Josh Willingham. He’s 33, and yes, with a history of back problems and mediocre defense. But he’s coming off a couple of highly productive offensive seasons, is owed just $7 million each of the next two seasons, and getting him would leave the Braves with enough money to spend big on center field and add some bench pieces and a reliever.
Willingham totaled 64 homers and 208 RBIs over the past two seasons with Oakland and Minnesota, and had 30 doubles, 35 homers, 110 RBIs and an .890 OPS in 2012 for the Twins while playing home games in a pitcher-friendly ballpark. It would appear he’s learned to manage the back issue, but a team would obviously view the medical reports closely before making a deal for him, if Minnesota will trade him.
People familiar with the Twins’ thinking told me last week they’d be surprised if they traded Willingham, because of that club-friendly contract and because doing so would open a hole in their lineup and they’d struggle to get a right-handed bat at an affordable rate to replace him.
• Whither Juan Francisco? Lost in all the discussion about the Braves moving Prado from left field to third base (or getting a third baseman and leaving Prado in left field) has been the status of Juan Francisco. Or whether he has any status at all going forward with the Braves, who traded pitching prospect J.J. Hoover to the Reds for the out-of-options Francisco in the last weekend of spring training.
At the time, Wren said Francisco, who was (and is) out of minor league options, would probably be Chipper’s primary backup third baseman and could figure in the Braves’ long-range plans. Seven months later, Francisco is rarely mentioned in the Braves’ long-range plans, but Wren said the team hasn’t given up on him and he still could be a factor.
They’re just not counting on him. The onus is on Francisco, who fell out of favor with the Reds after showing up for spring training way out of shape and didn’t do much to compete for a major league roster spot.
He showed flashes of his immense raw power with the Braves, and played well for much of the season’s when filling in for Chipper before going into a late-season funk and losing the confidence of his manager, who went with Prado at third base and used Reed Johnson some in left field after Johnson came over in a trade from the Cubs.
He hit .234 with nine homers, 32 RBIs, 11 walks and a whopping 70 strikeouts in 192 at-bats in 93 games for the Braves, for a .278 OBP and .432 slugging percentage. Turner Field fans saw how good Francisco can be: He hit .298 with a .927 OPS in 46 home games, compared to .185 with a .580 OPS in 47 road games.
But after hitting .275 (39-for-142) with 10 doubles, eight homers and an .839 OPS in 70 games from April 14 through Aug. 17, Francisco went 5-for-40 (.125) with one double, one homer and a .371 OPS the rest of the season, getting multiple at-bats in only eight games in that six-week stretch.
“I think over the course of the season, probably until the last month or so, when he got a chance to play regularly for Chipper, he played extremely well,” Wren said. “Not only offensively, but defensively. And the power – the power speaks for itself. In the number of at-bats he had and the number of home runs he hit, it’s clear he has power, and if he played every day we think he could be a 20-plus home run producer.”
Francisco had some promising stretches of slugging in his early and midseason starts, and worked with hitting coach Greg Walker to iron out a serious flaw in his stance and swing that made the left-handed slugger particularly susceptible to lefties. Francisco had a pronounced turn of his front (right) knee in and down, a dip that also cause his shoulder to dip and his body to twist, forcing him to uncoil, which might’ve helped him get an extra 50 feet on a few homers, but made it difficult for him to see the ball and react quickly.
“We need him to show a commitment, by coming into spring training in better shape,” Wren said. “ We also need to see him continue to work on the swing corrections that Greg Walker put in place at the end of the season and sent him back to the Dominican with. And we’re following up. We’ve had a number of meetings with him in the Dominican to reinforce all those things.
“He’s hired a personal trainer. He’s working out every morning for a couple of hours. And he’s serious about getting himself in the best possible condition coming into spring training.”
Francisco has struggled against lefty pitchers in his limited major league opportunities against them (12-for-63 with no homers, one walk, 24 strikeouts), but hit decently against lefties in the minors.
He struggled as a pinch-hitter this past season, going 5-for-41 with one homer, four walks and 20 strikeouts. But as a position player? Well, third base seemed to bring out the best in Braves including Francisco in ‘12: Prado hit .365 with a .482 slugging in 85 at-bats at third, Chipper .286/.449, and Francisco hit .265 (40-for-151) with eight homers, 27 RBIs and .497 slugging as a third baseman in 2012.
“He kind of hit that wall in August, he was doing fine against lefties,” Wren said. “The whole game was plenty good enough. It’s just he hit that wall. Once he got to that point, he just wasn’t as good. Then [Gonzalez] kind of lost confidence in him. He was racking up a lot of strikeouts when he did play. We had to use other people to get through those at-bats when Chipper didn’t play, and he lost the opportunities.”
But they haven’t given up on him, for one main reason:
“You don’t find many explosive bats like that,” Wren said.
• Towers tact: Let’s circle back to Justin Upton for a moment. Because I was struck by something at the GM meetings. Kevin Towers’ tact, or seeming lack thereof.
Say what you will about Towers, but the Dbacks GM certainly doesn’t follow convention when it comes to discussing players. Whatever his motivation for saying so, he’s come out more than once now in the past year or so and made it known that Upton could be traded. That’s not the way most teams treat one of their brightest young standouts.
Here’s what Towers said to a group of us last week at the GM meetings, when the Upton rumors started flying again
“I just keep an open mind. Justin’s name gets bandied about, but people have asked here about Montero, Goldschmidt… Tough guys for us to move, but you need to listen,” he said….
“I’m open-minded into hearing what people have to say. If a deal presents itself that makes the Diamondbacks better by trading Justin Upton, I think I need to be open-minded to that. The last two years, there has not been a deal that we feel would make us better. That’s why we’ve retained him and we’ve kept him.”
When asked how Upton might feel about that, if he was worried about how the player would react to the rumors, Towers said: “I talked to him at the end of the season last year. I said that’s the way I do business, don’t this personally but if people ask about you, I listen.”
• Ross’s final words as a Brave: The day after the Braves’ Wild Card loss to St. Louis, in which he hit a two-run homer to give the Braves the early lead, David Ross talked about becoming a free agent and his desire to come back for a fifth season and third contract with the Braves. This was before the sides had talked contract, and obviously before Boston entered the fray with its big offer that landed the veteran catcher.
“I definitely want to be [back]. I love it here,” Ross said as the Braves packed up their lockers that Saturday morning, Oct. 6. “I love the chemistry of the guys. This is probably my favorite place I’ve ever played. It’s real convenient for me. There’s a lot of positives to being here. It’s no secret that the pitching staff here is a lot of fun to catch. And for me, the things that weigh most for me are, 1. Do I have a chance to win, at this point in my career? Obviously we have a chance to win; we won 94 games this year, with a lot of young talent.
“Do they still want a veteran presence, do they still want a backup? What direction are they going? We’ll see in the offseason. But I love it here and couldn’t be happier with the guys here. You’re talking about a bullpen that’s one of the best in the game and is just getting better and better. You’re talking about a starting rotation – it makes my job real easy, and fun.
“I definitely think there’s a chance to win here. Heyward and Freeman are only going to get better. You’ve got Simmons, who’s going to be one of the better shortstops, I would think, in the league next year. I don’t know what they’re going to do at third, but Martin Prado is one of my favorite players that I’ve ever played with. Eric O’Flaherty. We’ll have to to see what they do with Michael Bourn. But for the most part they’ve gone some core pieces here that are going to be really good, and I would love to be a part of winning a championship. I think you’ve got as good a chance here as anywhere.”
That same day, Wren indicated the Braves hoped to have Ross back. Little did any of us know, the Red Sox were probably already thinking about how much they coveted the soon-to-be free agent.
Now, he’s gone.
• OK, let’s get this filed. I’m posting this blog from 36,000 feet or so, on way back from Phoenix after seeing a couple of Arizona Fall League games. I’ll write a couple of stories about shortstop prospect Nick Ahmed and third baseman Edward Salcedo later in the week. Ahmed really impressed with a couple of line-drive hits today and is putting the finishing touches on an AFL season in which he’s opened some eyes.
Let’s close with a great tune from the underrated singer-songwriter Jesse Malin, which you can hear by clicking here (and see a pretty cool and original video).
“QUEEN OF THE UNDERWORLD” by Jesse Malin
Queen of the underworld
Took a ride on the tilt-a-whirl
Meanwhile another girl
Out on the street you hear their laughter
And pretty green eyes have turned to blue
Everything you’ve heard I’ve gotten
Persecution’s nothing new
Queen of the underworld
Took awhile baby to unfurl
Meanwhile another girl
Queen of the underworld
I never got an invitation
Never heard too much
I’m gonna make a reservation
But I’m not in a rush
And all across this alien nation
Or in a town called Resume Speed
Out on the highway of perfection
We only wanted to be free
Queen of the underworld, etc.
Don’t turn around