NASHVILLE – Reed Johnson could be back, but the Braves career of Matt Diaz appears to be over.
The Braves want to add two bench players – a right-handed hitter and a lefty – and hope that outfielder Johnson is one of them. The right-handed hitter had a .290 average and .337 OBP in 269 at-bats last season with the Cubs and Braves, including .413 as a pinch-hitter with a majors-leading 18 pinch hits.
Johnson hit .311 with a .798 OPS against left-handers, and general manager Frank Wren said the Braves have had discussions with Johnson’s agent.
“I think he’d like to come back, but I think he’s also at a point where he wants to just explore and see what opportunities are out there,” Wren said of the veteran, who came from Chicago in a July deadline trade along with Paul Maholm. “We’ve expressed an interest in bringing him back. He’s expressed an interest in coming back. But we’re just not there yet.”
Meanwhile, the Braves don’t plan to bring back Diaz, a popular outfielder whose production has dipped in recent seasons. He hit .222 with two homers and a .280 OBP in 108 at-bats in an injury-shortened 2012 season, including 5-for-26 (.192) as a pinch-hitter.
“As a right-handed [hitter], I think we would probably go with Reed, if we can get Reed back,” Wren said. “That would probably be our first choice, and then go from there.”
Mejia will get look
Longtime minor league first baseman Ernesto Mejia could get a shot at a backup first-base job with the Braves after being added to the 40-man roster and continuing his power-hitting binge with an impressive showing in the Venuezuelan Winter League.
Mejia, 27, has hit .296 with 50 homers and 191 RBIs in the past two seasons in Double-A and Triple-A. He hit .329 with a .565 slugging percentage in 41 games in Venezuela before Tuesday, and was tied for the league lead in homers (10) and tied for second in RBIs (29).
He’s been selected to play in the Dominican Republic vs. Venezuela winter league All-Star game next week.
Wren and several of his top assistants are going this weekend to see Mejia and other Braves prospects in Latin winter leagues, including slugger Evan Gattis in Venezuela, and catcher Christian Bethancourt and pitchers Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado in the Dominican.
“That’s why we felt compelled to put him on the roster, because he just keeps progressing as a hitter,” Wren said of Mejia, who would likely have been taken by another team in this week’s Rule 5 draft if they hadn’t placed him in the 40-man protected roster.
“He’s really turned into a pretty feared hitter. In Triple-A he was really impressive, and now he’s repeated it down [in winter ball].”
The Braves didn’t try to re-sign Eric Hinske (who signed with Arizona on Tuesday) and don’t have an obvious choice for the backup first-base job behind Freddie Freeman. But Wren said he believed they could cover it with players in the organization, mentioning versatile Martin Prado and third baseman Juan Francisco along with Mejia, who’s played more than 700 games in the minors and none in the majors.
Bonifacio available again?
The Braves continued trade discussions Tuesday on the second day of the Winter Meetings as they continued their search for a left fielder, preferably one who can hit leadoff. They are believed to have at least inquired about possible trades for Arizona’s Justin Upton, Colorado’s Dexter Fowler, Cleveland’s Shin-Soo Choo and Kansas City’s Alex Gordon, among others.
The Braves were interested in speedster Emilio Bonifacio, before he got traded last month from Miami to Toronto. But until they got to the Winter Meetings, they didn’t know he might be made available again, this time by the Blue Jays.
Speaking in general terms and not naming specific players, Wren mentioned Tuesday “getting here and finding out that some teams are willing to talk about players that we had no idea [were available] three or four days ago.”
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez liked Bonifacio a lot when Gonzalez was Marlins manager, and if the Blue Jays decide to trade him the Braves might make an offer for Bonifacio, who could play left field and lead off (he’s experienced at all outfield positions, along with second base, shortstop and third base).
The switch-hitter stole 30 bases in 33 attempts in 2012 despite playing just 64 games because of thumb and knee injuries. He batted .258 with a .330 on-base percentage, and four of his eight extra-base hits were triples.
Bonifacio, 27, had his best season in 2011, setting career highs in average (.296), OBP (.360), slugging percentage (.393), home runs (five), stolen bases (40), RBIs (36), runs (78) and games played (152), only the second time he played in as many as 75 games.
There might also be increased interest in Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury, now that Shane Victorino has signed with the Red Sox and made Ellsbury more expendable. However, Ellsbury is only one season away from free agency and represented by Scott Boras.
“Talked to a lot of the same clubs and continued in the same vein as [Monday],” Wren said, indicating nothing was imminent.
Mejia, by the way, is not a candidate for any outfield job, backup or otherwise. He had outfield experience earlier in his minor league career, the Braves don’t think the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder moves well enough to play the outfield in the majors.
“He’s in really good shape,” Braves assistant GM and farm director Bruce Manno said. “He’s really got himself firmed up and strong. But he’s not a runner. He’s better suited to playing either first base or DH.”