Braves Should Make Minimal Changes

Every offseason is an exciting one for Braves fans. It seems every year there is the possibility for a pretty good amount of turnover. With five significant free agents of their own, it is very likely that we could once again see a 25-35% turnover in the roster that won 96 games in 2004.

However, this offseason General Manager John Schuerholz will also have to be somewhat cautious in his planning. There are two position players, two potential significant position players, who are not that far off from contributing. Therefore, decisions made this winter could affect the next decade for this franchise.

This article is going to detail two things, both what I think will happen and what I think the effect, and consequently the results, will be.

The Braves had the second youngest starting lineup in the National League in 2004 (that is as long as Julio Franco was not in the lineup), so this is a young nucleus with solid talent. There is not a lot of need for change, but the free agent decisions and pending arrivals of several significant rookies will make the moves both critical and interesting.

Now I know the criticism is going to be that we shouldn't plan our present around our future. Well that's true, but I truly believe that outfielder Jeff Francoeur and third baseman Andy Marte are two very special players. These two 21-years-olds could be apart of our lineup for the next 10-15 years. These two, not Chipper and Andruw, are our future. Therefore, their place in our lineup must be considered even when determining the present status of our roster.

However, the biggest question is, ‘When will they be ready?' As of now, the prevailing thought is that Francoeur is closer than Marte. Francoeur will go back to AA to start 2005, but he could easily do a David Wright and prove he's ready by July. Marte could go back to AA, but even if he heads on up to AAA Richmond, he won't be hurt by one more full season in the minors. However, the talent is there for either of these kids to be knocking on the door in midseason.

The Braves are not going to move Chipper Jones back to the outfield. For now, he will start the 2005 season back at third base. They were thrilled by his defense there, and there's no question that he was a bigger offensive threat when he was back at third. So even with Marte looming, Chipper will return to third base.

As for what happens when Marte is ready, well evidently the Braves are simply going to play that by ear. It will be much easier when Francoeur is ready, but when Marte proves he's ready for a promotion they will have to also make a decision on Chipper. Either Chipper goes back to the outfield and Marte plays third, or Marte learns how to play the outfield. But they'll deal with that later. For now, Chipper's the third baseman.

So that would appear to have the infield somewhat set with Jones at third, Rafael Furcal at short, Marcus Giles at second, and Adam LaRoche at first base. The Braves may be tempted to make a long-term decision on Rafael Furcal this winter, who will be eligible for free agency next time this year. If they are convinced Furcal is going to be too expensive, they may float his name his out there to see what he could bring in a deal. But I don't expect the Braves to move Furcal. He's just too valuable to the offense to deal right now. If something happens where the Braves were out of the race next season and knew Furcal was going to leave, then they could shop him more aggressively. But for now, I think "Fookie" wills stay.

The biggest question is in the outfield, where right-fielder J.D. Drew is a free agent and centerfielder Andruw Jones is being mentioned in the media as possibly being trade bait. I do not believe J.D. Drew will return to the Braves. If he took a more proactive approach, a la Andruw Jones, to his free agency, there would be a better chance of Drew returning. But he's simply going to wait around until Scott Boras calls him with the news that he's snookered somebody into paying Drew $10 million. I don't believe Drew is worth that much money. He's only played one season at full strength, and while it was a good season, there are still questions about his ability to play in a full season over a number of years.

The one chance I think the Braves will have in getting him back is if he accepts arbitration, which I think the Braves will offer. He could go up to over $8 million if he accepts, and then if he again plays in close to a full season, he'd be in a better position to still get his big contract next winter. Then he would have proven he indeed could play more than 120 games.

But chances are some team will be dump enough to panic and give Drew the big money. I hope he'll stay healthy for them.

As for Andruw, I would not be surprised if the Braves are floating his name out there to see what could be available. But if someone comes up with some great offer, they could pull the trigger. But chances are other teams are going to undervalue Jones and shortchange the Braves on any offer. Therefore, I think Andruw will be right back where he belongs, in centerfield for the Braves in 2005.

With or without Drew back in the fold, there is no reason to change the situation in leftfield. Let's see what Charles Thomas and Eli Marrero can do again next season. If Drew leaves, they may have to drop Giles down in the batting order, which could prompt a move of Thomas to the #2 whole to give the Braves a speedy duo at the top of the lineup. Thomas is a Luis Polonia-type player, and if he continues to play well as he did in his rookie season, the Braves will have a very decent player on their hands.

I also do not believe the Braves will be able to re-sign free agent right-hander Jaret Wright. There is a lot of interest in Wright (including the Reds who shouldn't be ignored), and it might come down to another team willing to give Wright a longer deal. The Braves might offer three years, but I think they might be more comfortable with a two-year contract.

Russ Ortiz is gone. And the other two free agents, Paul Byrd and Antonio Alfonseca, should not be discounted just yet. I think both pitchers will be considered fallback options, in case the Braves are not able to find anyone better. But chances are they'll be gone as well.

So what will the Braves do? Ok, here we go.

1. John Smoltz returns to the starting rotation.

This is going to happen; it's just a matter of time before they work out something with the contract. The Braves will probably offer Smoltz another year on his deal based on innings that will allow them to spread out the extra money from him starting in 2005 into deferred payments. Smoltz wants to do it, and even though the Braves still wonder if he can make it through the season, they're going to give him the chance. If this doesn't happen, it'll be because of the contract. But expect them to work something out. Smoltz simply has a passion for starting, and there's no use denying him anymore.

2. Braves Acquire Kevin Brown from Yankees for lefty reliever Tom Martin and James Jurries

The Yankees will pay the Braves $12.7 million dollars to take on Brown, meaning the Braves will have to pay him only $3 million. Plus, with Martin's $900k salary going to New York, the Braves will have a net gain of only $2.1 million on the payroll. Jurries has troubles defensively, so he needs to be included in a deal with an American League team so he can go hit. Brown will tell the Yankees that he will only accept a deal to the Braves, and the Yankees will be forced to give him to the Braves. If Brown stays healthy, he'll be good enough for 15 wins next season. Here's betting he'll thrive in our pitching environment and do just that. If he struggles with injuries, the Braves have two pitchers in Jose Capellan and Dan Meyer who could be completely finished with their development by midseason – not to mention Juan Cruz. So it wouldn't be losing much if, say, Brown missed significant time with injury. The Braves have capable replacements. With Smoltz and Brown as our two best starters, the Braves will have two tremendous top-of-the-rotation pitchers – as long as both stay healthy. It's a gamble, but to get Brown for practically nothing, it's worth the risk.

3. Braves trade Nick Green, Ryan Langerhans, and Kevin Barry to the Chicago Cubs for Kyle Farnsworth

The Cubs are expected to give Farnsworth away, and the Braves should be front and center in line to try to get him. He shouldn't be worth much in return (as far as major league players), since he struggled last season and it has now been discovered that he too was not around on that last day of the season when the Cubs played the Braves – just like Sammy Sosa. While Farnsworth is a question mark with his makeup, the Braves have always liked him and he is from the Atlanta area. Now I'm not necessarily advocating going after all players from the state of Georgia, but there is logic in believing that players who are at home will do better. The Braves scouting department is currently executing that philosophy, and they've had positive results. Farnsworth is someone who could become a tremendous closer. He's got great stuff, with an exceptional fastball that reaches the high-90's. The Cubs have been talking about him becoming a closer for two years, but now he might have worn out his welcome in Chicago. Farnsworth will come to Atlanta and battle for the closer's role. Again, just like with Kevin Brown, you must wonder what a pitcher like Farnsworth will do in our pitching environment. I think he will reach his potential and be an effective closer. The Braves clear up some of their troubles with their roster by trading two currently on the 40-man roster (Green and Langerhans) and one who is supposed to be or could be lost in the Rule V draft. Green can go to Chicago and battle for playing time at second base. He's a solid player, but the Braves might be wise to maximize his value now. Pete Orr might be able to replace Green next season. Some believe Orr might be a tad bit better player. Also, Wilson Betemit might have a higher ceiling, and with him being out of options, he must be kept on the roster next year or be lost through waivers. Langerhans deserves a chance to play, and right now it's just unlikely that he'll be given a chance to replace Drew in right field. Barry is a pitcher who will pitch in the big leagues, but with our depth we can afford to give him up. Green, Langerhans, and Barry are all decent players, but to get a potential closer, they're worth giving up.

4. Braves sign left-handed reliever Gabe White to a one-year, $1.5 million dollar deal.

The Braves have liked White for several seasons, so he replaces Tom Martin as the primary lefty reliever out of the bullpen. As of now, he becomes the only lefty, but Macay McBride may change that during the season. Macay could be another Randy Myers-type reliever, and he could be ready sometime in 2005. So the Braves bring in White as the primary lefty out of the pen. He should be much more effective than Martin. Other candidates include Steve Kline and Kent Mercker, but Chip Caray will beg the Braves to stay away from Mercker.

5. Braves sign right-hander Scott Williamson to a one-year, $1 million dollar deal

Here's another guy the Braves have supposedly always liked. If he's healthy, he could be their other signee for the bullpen. He came back for the Red Sox and pitched well late in the season, so again I'd take a chance on him. He's always put up awesome numbers, so there's an effective pitcher in there somewhere. If he's a setup man with Reitsma, Gryboski, and Colon, the Braves could have a very good bullpen.

6. Braves invite left-hander Chris Hammond and right-hander Todd Van Poppel to spring training as non-roster invitees.

Hammond returns where he had so much success in 2002 before bolting for the Yankees. Not sure anyone will give him a roster spot, so he'll come pitch close to home for a chance at a spot. I think it would almost be apropos for Todd Van Poppel to come to the Braves fourteen years after they almost took him with the first pick in the 1990 draft. Thankfully, they didn't do it. But they'll see if they can fix him in spring training.

So here's the pitching staff:

John Smoltz
Kevin Brown
Mike Hampton
John Thomson
Horacio Ramirez
---
Jose Capellan
Dan Meyer

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Kyle Farnsworth
Scott Williamson
Chris Reitsma
Gabe White
Kevin Gryboski
Roman Colon
Juan Cruz
---
Chris Hammond
Todd Van Poppel
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Another reason to not sign a big-time free agent reliever (i.e. Benitez) is the potential that Capellan could still be a closer down the road. Why block his way? I personally think that is where Cappy will be, so I'd prefer to not give big money to a Benitez type if Cappy could be just as effective in a year or two.

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7. Braves sign free agent outfielder Jermaine Dye to a one year, $6 million dollar contract with an option for a second season.

With Drew gone, the Braves really need a left-handed hitting outfielder to take his place. But there are not any good left-handed hitting candidates on the free agent list. The alternative is to go for a trade, and the best candidate would be Jacque Jones. But Jones would cost a pretty decent package of players. His situation would be similar to Drew's, in that he'll be eligible for free agency next winter. But I would prefer to not give up players for a rental again and simply go sign a mid-level outfielder. Dye would return to the team that developed him before dealing him to the Royals in 1997. He would put up decent production for the Braves and given the team another good bat in the middle of the lineup. Other candidates for the same type of salary and deal could be Richard Hidalgo and Danny Bautista. But of the three, my preference is Dye. The only problem is that he (or for that matter either of the other two) might want a two-year deal. If it were mandatory, then I would add an option for a second season based on plate appearances. If Francoeur is ready in 2006, then the Braves could have Dye play left field with Thomas, replacing Marrero.

8. Braves invite Julio Franco to spring training as a non-roster invitee.

Franco comes in as a non-roster guy, but wins the job as LaRoche's backup. Why not keep him around as long as he can still hit. And until he can prove he can't, keep him.

So our lineup would be:

Rafael Furcal
Marcus Giles
Chipper Jones
Andruw Jones
Johnny Estrada
Jermaine Dye
Adam LaRoche
Thomas/Marrero

Is that as dangerous a lineup as 2004? Well you've got to believe that LaRoche is going to get even better. We've got to keep these guys healthy. Chipper and Giles need to stay in the lineup and get 550-600 at bats. If Dye can put up a .270 average, 25-30 homers, and 85-100 RBI, then it hopefully won't be that much of a drop off from Drew.

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Predicting what the Braves will do is always dangerous. If someone had bet me my house last year at this time that Adam Wainwright and Bubba Nelson would have been traded before Opening Day 2004, I would have taken that bet and been homeless right now. So you never know what is going to happen. You've got to trust that John Schuerholz will not only contruct a roster that will make us competitive in 2005, but that he will also be careful with the integrity of our future. I think he will.

Now I know this might not be the type of changes many Braves fans want to see them make. However, I believe these changes would keep the team as the favorite in the National League East. We would also be a bit under the payroll limit (maybe around $2-$3 million under), meaning if we were in fact in the race, John Schuerholz could have a little flexibility to acquire additional help late in the summer.

The main thing these changes do is that it gives our kids time to finish their development. I truly believe that Jeff Francoeur will be up sometime in 2005. If he does well to start the season in Mississippi, they'll move him up to Richmond. If he does what he's capable of, this kid could be ready sometime in July. While I doubt Marte's debut will be as soon as Francoeur's the possibility exists that he could be ready to play sometime in 2005. He has the talent to go back to AA, dominate, then go up to AAA and show the Braves the poise that will make them consider when he should debut. It is very possible that Francoeur and Marte could finish the season in our lineup. That's how good they are. Therefore, I'm not interested in paying a lot for a Drew replacement when there could be outfield reinforcements right around the corner.

I believe the pitching staff will be tremendously effective as long as Smoltz and Brown stay healthy. I still have my questions about John's arm, but not his heart. He genuinely wants to start again, and he deserves a chance. If he and Brown can stay healthy, which again is admittedly a huge question mark, then we could have one hell of a rotation. I think it's a gamble worth taking. Then next winter, we can make another decision on Brown and Thomson that can be made also considering the readiness of pitchers like Capellan, Meyer, and Kyle Davies.

Let me note that I do believe there is a real possibility that we could go after Kris Benson. I wouldn't be totally opposed to it, since I also believe that if put in our pitching environment, Benson would thrive.

Don't get me wrong. I want us to win. But we have to be very careful this offseason not shooting all our bullets out of our gun just to win for one year. The long-term picture must be examined this winter. We've got two kids in Marte and Francoeur, and three pitchers in Capellan, Meyer, and Davies, who could be very, very special. Compare this time in Braves history to the late 80's, as far as developing impact players and pitchers, with the huge difference obviously being that we are not currently a winning franchise.

Don't trade Andruw. Don't blow our system and our depth on a Jacque Jones-type player. It's not necessary with Francoeur around the corner, not to mention the real possibility that Marte himself could be in the outfield for us one day if Chipper is so entrenched at third base. And don't tie us into long-term contracts with pitchers who could easily be replaced in a year or two by a younger and cheaper pitcher from our system.

We have a lot of talent. It's getting ready to seriously be maximized. I wouldn't think John Schuerholz likes the term "stopgap," but those are the exact types of players I would bring in until our future stars are ready.

The group in the minor leagues right now has a chance to be very, very special. If these kids can't win a World Series, well we might never win one again.

I really think this could be our lineup in 2006:

Rafael Furcal
Marcus Giles
Chipper Jones
Andruw Jones
Johnny Estrada
Adam LaRoche
Jeff Francoeur
Andy Marte

This is some lineup. This is also why I don't want for us to blow everything on anyone who is going to preclude this from happening.

So I think we should be very careful in damaging the core of our talent, and instead simply bring in productive players who can fill the gap until our stars are sufficiently developed in the minor leagues.

I see no reason why this lineup can't win the National League East. But as someone once said, "the playoffs are a crapshoot." That may be the only thing I the world I'll agree with Billy Beane about. But he's right. We've just got to once again assemble a winning and championship-caliber players. I think this roster would put us on track for our 14th straight playoff appearance.

Bill Shanks can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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