9. Should the Braves target Billy Wagner?

BravesCenter's Bill Shanks continues his 35-part series on the biggest questions facing the Braves this winter with a look at Billy Wagner. The Phillies' closer might be a free agent in a few weeks, and the Braves might have significant interest.

I thought about making journalism history and answering this question with a one-word article: "Yes." But we need more than that, don't we?

The Braves have a ton of decisions to make in the next three months, and we all know that until they decide on Rafael Furcal they won't be able to do much else. Any interest in Phillies' closer Billy Wagner hinges on two things: whether or not the Braves re-sign Furcal and whether or not the Phillies can re-sign Wagner before the free agent period begins in a few weeks.

And they are trying. It seems that every day for the past two weeks we have read about the Phillies talking with Wagner's agent or meeting with Wagner at his home in Virginia. The latest report has the Phillies giving in to Wagner's demand for a three-year, $30 million dollar deal, along with a no-trade contract.

But there is still a good chance that Wagner will file for free agency after the World Series is over. It seems like he doesn't want to go back there, especially with the uncertainty in their front office. However, if the Phillies hire Gerry Hunsicker as the General Manager, who was Wagner's GM in Houston, they may have a better chance to bring back the hard-throwing lefty.

There have been rumors for the last several months that Wagner would love to be an Atlanta Brave. It doesn't seem to be a secret. I've heard it from a very reliable source, and it's been printed elsewhere as well. The talk was so hot there for a while earlier in the season that I thought Wagner might finish the 2005 season in Atlanta, but the Phillies climbed back into the race.

Wagner is an exceptional closer. Forget about his 284 ERA, which is impressive enough. How about the 2.40 career ERA? How about the 840 strikeouts in 630.1 innings pitched? How about that 100 mph fastball?

He's arguably the best left-handed closer in the game. And now, as a free agent, teams needing help in the bullpen will have a chance to go after him. And this brings us back to the Atlanta Braves.

Dan Kolb didn't work. Chris Reitsma did well in only even-numbered months, but was horrible in odd-numbered months. And Kyle Farnsworth was perfect until Game Four of the NLDS. Yes, Joey Devine and/or Blaine Boyer might be closers one day. But this team needs an experienced closer, and there's not a better candidate than Billy Wagner.

It does help when a potential target has spoken out publicly about wanting to play with your team. The only question is whether or not Wagner will hold off and not sign with the Phillies so he can talk with the Braves. He seemed very unhappy in Philadelphia, so it's just going to be a surprise if he returns there. Sure, he's no fool; if they throw the money at him, why not go back? But he just seemed too unhappy to return no matter what their offer looked like.

If Furcal gets a larger off from the Mets or the Cubs, which is looking very possible, then the Braves will have some financial flexibility to offer Wagner a deal in the $8 million/year range. It's doubtful they can go beyond that, so if a bidding war breaks out, they may not be able to stick in there. But if Wagner was being truthful about wanting to play for a winner and wanting to play for the Braves, you'd think $8 million per season would be enough.

Of course, other options must be explored. Farnsworth might price himself outside of the Braves' neighborhood. And if Wagner re-signs with the Phillies, the Braves will have to look elsewhere. There are several attractive candidates.

Trevor Hoffman probably won't be one of them. He might leave the Padres, but they'd be foolish not to pay what he wants. No one expects him to be on the open market. The Braves have reportedly had some interest before in Bob Wickman and Ugeath Urbina, two closers who are free agents. And we all know the Todd Jones story. He's from Birmingham, and he's practically begged the Braves to sign him in the past. Now that he saved forty games for the Marlins in 2005, he once again considers himself a closer. Jones might be a backup plan, but you even wonder if he'd come be a setup man if he were to get a deal around $2 million from the Braves. Would they prefer to pay him $2 million to the same deal they may have with Chris Reitsma? Maybe.

The other premium left-handed closer on the free agent market is B.J. Ryan, who saved 36 games with the Orioles in 2005. The Braves have had some interest in Ryan in the past, so he too might be an option. But after his breakout season, Ryan will cost a pretty penny.

So the options are there. They might just re-sign Farnsworth, which wouldn't be horrible. But when you have the best left-handed closer in the game on the market, you have to look into signing him. Billy Wagner could make the Braves bullpen 100% better, and there's nothing like having a dangerous closer waiting in the bullpen. We had that with John Smoltz, and not having it in 2005 made the Braves a different team.

Tomorrow we'll discuss whether or not the Braves should non-tender reliever Chris Reitsma.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. He can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

Atlanta Dugout Top Stories