Braves general manager Frank Wren went into the winter last offseason determined to trade a starting pitcher in hopes of acquiring some help for the Braves’ offensively-challenged lineup. The result was the oft-lampooned Javier Vazquez-for-Melky Cabrera trade.
The only difference this winter is the Braves are coming off a postseason berth — so maybe they won’t appear quite as desperate. But an unpopular move could be forthcoming: Are you ready to say goodbye to Jair Jurrjens?
I know — dealing Jurrjens seems unfathomable. Why would Wren trade his team’s young, inexpensive and talented starting pitcher? Simple: If he doesn’t, it’s going to significantly limit his options this winter and certainly would force him to get real creative with the team’s budget.
♦ 1.) The Braves’ payroll this season was approximately $84 million. It’s not expected to increase much, if at all. Owner Liberty Media’s Board of Directors, as you might’ve noticed, did not arrange a field trip to Turner Field for the postseason. Nobody handed out red foam tomahawks at stockholders’ meetings. In short, they don’t care. So don’t expect the club to be free to pursue a mega-dollar free agent like Tampa Bay outfielder Carl Crawford.
♦ 2.) Chipper Jones’ intention to hold off on retirement and rehab from a major knee surgery — he seems more determined than ever to come back and is a big fan of new manager Fredi Gonzalez — means his $13 million salary will remain on the books. Closer Billy Wagner ($7 million) falls off the payroll. So does big-money late-season acquisition Derrek Lee ($13 million, of which the Braves paid only a fraction).
But here comes the painful part: The Braves still have 2011 obligations to outfielder Nate McLouth ($6.5 million) and pitcher Kenshin Kawakami ($6.67 million) — both of whom were demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett during the season.
♦ 3.) The top three starters in the rotation are Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Derek Lowe. Lowe finished the season strong and was outstanding in two postseason starts (three earned runs, 14 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings, despite two losses). He is perceived as far more important to the success of this team than he was after last season. Also, even if the Braves wanted to move Lowe, the fact he is owed $30 million over the next two years makes that possibility unlikely.
♦ 4.) Unless Wren is willing to deal touted prospects, something he’s generally been averse to, that means he’ll either have to shop for low-budget free agents again or deal from his position of strength: starting pitching. Jurrjens is only 24 but his long-term future in Atlanta is uncertain, given that his agent is Scott Boras. Jurrjens also struggled this season with a hamstring and knee injuries. He dropped from 34 starts, 25 quality starts (allowing three or fewer earned runs in six or more innings), a 14-10 record and a 2.60 ERA in 2009 to 20 starts, 10 quality starts, 7-6 and a 4.64 ERA this season.
But of all the Braves’ tradable assets, Jurrjens is the most likely to fetch something decent in return. It’s either that or fill available starting jobs in left and center field on the cheap again.
After Hudson, Hanson and Lowe, the Braves’ next two spots would go to some combination of Kawakami (if he is kept and not paid to walk away), Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy and a low-budget free agent (back-end-of-the-rotation starters aren’t difficult to find). Kris Medlen will miss most of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Wren obviously moved quickly with his new managerial hire. But that move was kind of a slam dunk: Fredi Gonzalez was unemployed and living in Marietta. The roster fix won’t be as easy — and somebody may have to leave.
(I’ll leave you with this: Columbus, Ga., native and St. Louis center field Colby Rasmus clashed this season with manager Tony LaRussa and requested a trade two months ago. Would you be willing to part with Jurrjens if he was part of a Rasmus trade, or do you think the Braves can do better than Rasmus? And yes: I’m just throwing this against the wall. Below are all the pitchers who started games for the Braves this season, listed in order of quality starts.)
Pitcher QS (GS) W-L ERA K BB
Tim Hudson 25 (34) 17-9 2.83 139 74
Tommy Hanson 19 (34) 10-11 3.33 173 56
Derek Lowe 15 (33) 16-12 4.00 136 61
Jair Jurrjens 10 (20) 7-6 4.64 86 42
Kris Medlen 7 (14) 6-2 3.68 83 21
Kenshin Kawakami 7 (16) 1-10 5.15 59 32
Mike Minor 3 (8) 3-2 5.98 43 11
Brandon Beachy 0 (3) 0-2 3.00 15 7