NASHVILLE – After the Braves signed free agent B.J. Upton last week, manager Fredi Gonzalez noted the range of the new center fielder and Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward and joked, ‘We may not even need a left fielder.”
Of course the Braves do need a left fielder, and they will continue to search for one during the major league Winter Meetings that begin Monday at the sprawling Opryland Resort.
With previously targeted Minnesota outfielder Denard Span off the board after being traded to Washington, the Braves don’t view leadoff-hitting ability as a requirement, since available and attractive options already are limited.
“I think there’s other options out there,” said Braves general manager Frank Wren, who arrived in Nashville with his top assistants on Sunday. “We’ll have a good chance to evaluate all of them because now we’re down to very few needs.”
Left field and a couple of bench spots are what the Braves need to fill, and indications are that have a total of about $10 million or slightly more to spend on those positions. They have discussed bringing back Reed Johnson for one bench spot.
Free agent Angel Pagan is a viable leadoff hitter but might be too pricey if he opts to leave San Francisco. It’s also not known if he’d want to move from center field to left; the Braves intend to play Upton in center.
Other available free-agent outfielders in whom the Braves are known to have some interest include Shane Victorino, coming off a season in which he had a career-worst .321 on-base percentage and .704 OPS; Ryan Ludwick (26 homers, .877 OPS), and Cody Ross.
Ross was more affordable as a free agent last winter than he will be now, after totaling 34 doubles, 22 homers, 81 RBIs and an .807 OPS in 130 games for Boston in 2012.
Atlanta also could try to trade for a left fielder. Minnesota’s Josh Willingham might be a good fit for the Braves, but so far the Twins have indicated no desire to trade the veteran slugger and his club-friendly contract ($7 million per season for the next two years).
Upton’s younger brother, Arizona star outfielder Justin Upton, seems available but for a steep price, which reportedly must include a top-of-rotation starter and/or a standout shortstop or third baseman.
The Braves won’t trade shortstop Andrelton Simmons, the player the Diamondbacks want most off Atlanta’s roster, and it’s unknown if they’ll give much
“I think we’re going to have to do some digging, because the guys that are most available don’t fit us great,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said, without citing specific players.
If the Braves have to, they seem prepared to try second-year shortstop Andrelton Simmons at leadoff. But they would still prefer to land an outfielder who can handle hitting at the top of the order.
Besides Pagan and Victorino, there is another high-profile free agent with plenty of leadoff experience: Ichiro Suzuki. The former Seattle Mariners icon turned 39 in October and is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he posted career-worst OBPs of .310 and .307, but Suzuki did seem rejuvenated after a July trade to the Yankees. He hit .322 with a .340 OBP and 17 stolen bases in 67 games for New York, and will probably end up signing for a relatively low salary and a deal of one or perhaps two years.
The Braves don’t divulge how much money they have available to spend, but apparently that figure is closer to $10 million than the $14 million that was widely believed to be available in their budget after trading pitcher Tommy Hanson to the Angels on Friday.
The Braves freed up more than $3 million in that swap of Hanson for hard-throwing reliever Jordan Walden, who is still a year away from arbitration and probably will make less than $600,000 in 2013.
“It gives us more [payroll] flexibility, but that wasn’t the primary motivator” for the trade,” Wren said. “We already had good flexibility.”