The Braves’ starting outfield for the first two games against Washington: Eric Hinske in left, Gregor Blanco in center, Melky Cabrera in right. Blanco began the season in the minor leagues, while Hinske was imported primarily as a pinch-hitter and Cabrera as a fourth outfielder.
The Braves’ outfield health: Lousy. Jason Heyward (bum thumb) just went on the disabled list. Matt Diaz (ditto) just exited the DL. Nate McLouth (sore head) is still there.
The good news: The Braves remain in first place.
The reality: They’ll need more outfielders to stay there.
The rumor: Jon Paul Morosi of FoxSports.com reports that the Braves are seeking a right-handed outfield bat before the July 31st trade deadline. Morosi names three names: Josh Willingham of Washington, Corey Hart of Milwaukee and Jose Bautista of Toronto.
The caveat: All three will become free agents after the 2011 season, and we know how well the Braves do at keeping free agents. So any of the three would likely be a 14-month rental and would surely require the Braves to trade one of their minor-league pitching prospects. (Morosi mentions Mike Minor, the club’s No. 1 draftee in 2009.)
The better option (says me): B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay center fielder.
The story so far: Upton is one of the game’s biggest talents, but he’s also among its greatest mysteries. He’s hitting .226, and a guy this skilled should be able to bunt .300. He got into a dugout dust-up with teammate Evan Longoria over Upton’s disinclination to hustle after a ball Sunday, and Tampa manager Joe Maddon didn’t start Upton in Tuesday’s game. (Though not, Maddon said with a straight face, for disciplinary purposes. Just to rest the young man, who apparently wasn’t getting enough rest while playing center field.) But Upton was deployed as a sub, and he legged out an eighth-inning triple. So there.
The downside: Upton might not be manageable. He might continue to swing at everything. (He has more career strikeouts than hits.) He might play no better for the Braves than he has for the Rays.
The upside: He’s 25. He makes only $3 million (but is arbitration-eligible after this season). He’s right-handed. He plays center field. He is, as noted, a talent of the first rank, and we can’t really say that about any Braves outfielder other than Heyward. If/when Upton does figure things out, he’ll be a major star.
The obvious risk: The Braves’ clubhouse, never a boiling cauldron, is utterly harmonious at the moment. Upton could upset the equilibrium.
The potential gain: A first-place team would get a lot more talented in a hurry, and Upton won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2012 season.
The upside for Upton: A change of scenery, which can’t hurt if he’s getting into it with Longoria, who’s the main man in Tampa. And a different managerial voice in Bobby Cox, for whom everyone loves playing. And the promise of an even different managerial voice when Fredi Gonzalez takes over next season. (Wait. Am I getting ahead of things here?)
The potential snag: Fredi Gonzalez doesn’t like guys who don’t hustle. Ask Hanley Ramirez.
The worst-case scenario: Upton comes here and continues to hit .226, which would still be an upgrade over McLouth, who’s hitting .176. The Braves don’t win the division and then, disenchanted, don’t tender Upton over the winter. Which means he walks away and the whole thing is written off as a Teixeira-sized fizzle.
The best-case scenario: Upton gives the Braves their desired right-handed bat, plays the best center field the Braves have seen since Andruw Jones discovered carbohydrates and re-invents himself as the missing piece on a championship team.
The bottom line: Me, I’d do it. Upton is a far more dynamic player than any of the three mentioned by FoxSports. (Hart is the most intriguing of the three — he has 60 RBIs — but he’d also be a mighty expensive quick fix.) Unless you believe Jordan Schafer, who’s hitting .221 at Class AAA Gwinnett, is still the center fielder of the future, the Braves must move to upgrade that essential position at some point. Why not now, I say? Why not upgrade with Upton?