(Staff writer Carroll Rogers is filling in for David O’Brien.)
The Braves are pursuing multiple options at center field, both through free agency and the trade market, but B.J. Upton has emerged as their top free agent choice.
Braves general manager Frank Wren said the Braves are still in on the biggest free agent names out there, including their own Michael Bourn, Josh Hamilton and Angel Pagan, but they are making a strong push for Upton.
“We like him,” Wren said Monday. “But this time of year you’ve got a lot of lines in the water. You’re not sure which fish you’re going to catch. So you have to make sure that you have enough lines out there that you catch a fish. And we’re very much in that mode. We’re checking. We’re involved on just about everything, every center fielder that we like.”
The Braves invited the former Tampa Bay Rays center fielder to Atlanta last Thursday where team officials spent six hours with him touring Turner Field, giving him a behind the scenes look at their facilities and the inner workings of their organization and taking him out for a steak dinner in downtown Atlanta.
Upton and his agent Larry Reynolds met with Wren, assistant general manager Bruce Manno, manager Fredi Gonzalez, hitting coach Greg Walker and former Braves manager Bobby Cox.
“It’s a forum where you want both sides to get the information they need,” Wren said. “We felt like we got the information we needed, and we hopefully gave them all the information they need to have a good understanding of what we’re all about. And they got a chance to meet with the key people he’ll be interacting with. It worked out well.”
The Braves biggest competition for Upton is expected to come from the Phillies, who are prepared to make a big push as well. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel reportedly met with Upton last week as well.
Upton tweeted the night of his visit to Atlanta, “I’m really blown away by the love other cities are showing me right now. Can’t wait to see how this pans out.”
Upton, 28, a former No. 2 overall draft pick by the Rays in 2002, is expected to command a five-year deal worth around $75 million, which would make him more affordable than Bourn, despite being a year younger. Indications are that Bourn’s asking price will be well above that.
Upton is more of a power threat and would hit lower in the Braves order than the leadoff-hitting Bourn. Upton hit .246 last season but with a career-high 28 home runs and would give the Braves a right-handed bat for their lefty-dominated lineup. The Braves would then try to fill the leadoff role through a left field acquisition.
Still, Wren said the Braves haven’t ruled out Bourn, who turns 30 on Dec. 27.
“Until players start signing elsewhere, we’re in the mix and talking to everyone,” Wren said. “There are some preferences we have based on the way we feel like our team sets up. There are a number of guys out there that we like to fill that role for us.”
He includes Hamilton in that mix, even though the Braves aren’t likely to spend $20 million to $25 million annually to sign Hamilton.
“I just don’t exclude anything until we know for sure exactly what it’s going to be,” Wren said when asked about Hamilton. “I think it’s highly unlikely, but like I said, I don’t mark him off the list until he goes elsewhere and we hear that it’s not going to work.”
The good news for the Braves is that there are plenty of center fielders available this winter, including some that could come via trade, like Rockies center fielder and Atlanta native Dexter Fowler.
“We’ve got more than a handful of possibilities including trades and free agents,” Wren said. “So it’s a year where you would feel like you could come up with a center fielder that would be someone to continue to give us the quality we’ve had.”
Top choice to replace Ross
While it remains to be seen if the Braves will get their first choice in Upton – we need some big free agent chips to start falling – that’s what they did when they signed Gerald Laird to replace David Ross as backup catcher.
Wren said the Braves had a feeling as the season ended and the offseason began, Ross would command the sort of multi-year offer the Braves were not prepared to match for the 35-year-old. Ross got it from the Red Sox, at two years, $6.2 million, and the Braves immediately turned to Laird. They signed the 33-year-old to a two-year deal, believed to be for about $3.3 million.
Laird, who just turned 33 last week, has played for back-to-back World Series teams with the Tigers and Cardinals.
“We felt all along he was a real good fit for us,” Wren said. “He’s a younger veteran. He’s played a lot with winning programs, so he’s been a guy that’s been a key backup on two World Series teams. He knows what he’s doing back there.”
Wren said the Braves had a lot of first-hand knowledge about Laird as well, from one of his top scouts Dom Chiti, who was the Rangers bullpen coach from 2006-2008. Laird spent his first six major league seasons with the Rangers, from 2003-2008.
Wren is quick to acknowledge what Ross meant to the Braves and clubhouse and called him to congratulate him on his contract with the Red Sox.
“I called him and wished him well and thanked him for what he did for us,” Wren said. “And (I) congratulated him for putting himself in a position to get that kind of deal.”