The Braves don’t know who’ll hit leadoff or play left field when they open the season against Philadelphia on April 1, but they left the Winter Meetings in Nashville last week thankful to know who’ll be playing center field.
The five-year, $75.25 million contract the Braves gave center fielder B.J. Upton on Nov. 28 was the first significant move of baseball’s Hot Stove season, and at the time many of us thought the Braves were impulsive in so quickly giving Upton the largest free-agent contract in franchise history.
But in light of some deals signed since, and contract figures being bandied about for free agents in Nashville, the Upton deal has begun to look like – well, maybe not a bargain, but not unreasonable.
If 32-year-old Shane Victorino, coming off a season in which he hit .255 with 11 homers, 55 RBIs and a .704 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, got a a three-year, $39 million contract from with Boston, and 32-year-old Nick Swisher rumored to be in line for a four-year deal worth about $60 million, the Upton contract doesn’t seem outrageous.
Of course, the Braves never viewed it that way, though Upton’s deal makes him the highest-paid player in franchise history with an average annual value of $15.05 million.
“Some of the contracts have surprised us,” Wren said, when asked in Nashville if anything at the Winter Meetings surprised him. “Surprised us in that, I think as we were doing Upton and kind of projecting what the climate would be for free agents, some of what’s going on here is what we were afraid of. It’s why we wanted to get out in front of it.”
As big as the Upton contract was – about $20 million above the next-highest known offer – it’s conceivable his price could have risen even higher if he were still available when other teams saw where prices were going for outfielders in a market that has some teams conspicuously flush with cash from exponentially increased projected TV revenues.
“It’s a good thing we got B.J. done early,” Wren said. “We had a situation where we wanted him and he wanted us. We were able to get it done early. But I would have hated to have gotten [to Nashville] with that need still in place, because it’s a tougher environment to get that done.”
After signing Upton, the Braves traded starting pitcher Tommy Hanson for setup reliever Jordan Walden on Nov. 30, and re-signed outfielder/pinch-hitter Reed Johnson to a one-year, $1.75 million contract Thursday, announced just after the Winter Meetings ended.
By the time hundreds of front-office officials, agents and media members gathered in Nashville, the Braves had only three main items on their winter to-do list: left field, and two bench bats (one right-handed, one left-handed). Johnson took care of a bench spot.
They also signed left-handed-hitting utilityman Blake DeWitt to a minor-league contract.
The Braves missed out out Nate Schierholtz for a lefty bench bat, after he signed a one-year, $2.25 million deal with the Cubs on Wednesday. They’ve had trade and free-agent discussions about other options and remain confident they’ll add in that area.
The more interesting and important matter is left field.
Ideally, the Braves would like to add a left fielder who can bat leadoff, although those options dwindled after some they pursued went elsewhere last week: Victorino signed with Boston and Minnesota traded a pair of speedy outfielders the Braves coveted, sending both to NL East rivals — Denard Span to Washington and Ben Revere to Philadelphia.
If the season began today, the Braves could go with Juan Francisco as a primary or platoon third basemen, and have Martin Prado split time between left field and third base instead of moving to third full-time as originally planned. Johnson could also play plenty in left field.
In that scenario, Wren said Prado or shortstop Andrelton Simmons could bat leadoff.
“Those are the most likely candidates from the seven players that are pretty much guaranteed to be in our lineup,” he said. “But we’ve got another opening in left field that we could have some other options, based on who plays there.”
If Toronto decides to trade infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonifacio, he could be a perfect fit for the Braves: a switch-hitter, can play left field, affordable, under contractual control for two seasons, and a leadoff hitter who stole 30 bases in just 64 games in 2012 when he was limited by thumb and knee injuries.
He had his best season in 2011 when he hit .296 with a .360 OBP, five homers and 40 steals.
The Braves have checked into other possibilities, most notably Arizona’s Justin Upton, Colorado’s Dexter Fowler, Cleveland’s Shin-Soo Choo and Kansas City’s Alex Gordon, the latter three potential leadoff hitters. The asking price for each was deemed too high from the Braves’ perspective, the level of talent being asked for not commensurate with the return.
Other potential trade targets carried a high a price tag and/or were left-handed non-leadoff hitters, including Arizona’s Jason Kubel and Gerardo Parra. While Wren has said being a right-handed hitter isn’t so important for a leadoff hitter, he otherwise prefers to add right-handed hitting to a lineup that leaned left in recent years, in a division where the Braves faced numerous lefty pitchers.
Many fans have wondered if the Braves might move B.J. Upton to left field if they acquired another center fielder who might be rated ahead of him according to defensive metric statistics. When asked about that, Wren said Upton would be the center fielder.
“We think he’s one of the best center fielders in the game, so there was never a question he was going to play center field,” Wren said. “Defensive metrics, we think, are still a work in progress. And because of the way that they’re not specific – all of the weight of the metric is not specifically on an individual player, it’s on the players that play beside him.
“They’re not as accurate as they probably should be, and that’s why they’re still a work in progress. So we think he’s a much better player than that, and quite frankly everybody we’ve talked to – scouts and people around, they all chime in that this guy’s a really good center fielder. We knew he was going to be our center fielder. As we went through the process, [assuring him he'd play center] was not to sell him on the organization, because we wanted him to be [the center fielder]. We think he’s one of the best.”
Many Braves fans have conjured images of a potentially spectacular outfield with Jason Heyward and the Upton brothers, but the Braves never considered giving up Simmons, the player Arizona demanded in a trade for Justin Upton.
Simmons’ arm and glove are both rated at 80 by most scouts on the 20-to-80 scale, and he hit .289 with a .751 OPS in 49 games, after being brought from the minors at the end of May and missing two months for a broken hand from a slide in the last game before the All-Star break.
While Wren said he doesn’t consider any player untouchable, he sees Simmons as “unreachable,” meaning he couldn’t envision a deal being proposed that would make him consider trading him.
“He’s a special player,” Wren said. “The other thing is, we’ve seen him grow so much in the last two years, from the time we drafted him to rushing through the minor leagues and winning a batting title at the A-ball level. He just continues to get better and better. We may be just scratching the surface of how good he can be.”
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez called Simmons “very special” and a potential multiple Gold Glove winner and added: “People are going to probably criticize me when I say this, but I think if he would have stayed healthy, I think at the end of the year him and Bryce Harper, it would have been a hell of a decision about who was going to be the rookie of the year. Because [Simmons] was headed that same direction.
“I think he would have had enough games to justify the [vote] — because he added that type of energy to us when he came up, the way that Bryce did to Washington. Again, he got hurt, so there’s no discussion there. But I really thought that he could have been that candidate if he would have stayed healthy.”