16. What do the Braves do with Johnny Estrada

One of the biggest questions for the Braves this winter will deal with Johnny Estrada. Now that Brian McCann has shown he's ready to contribute as a starter, the Braves have to decide what to do with Estrada. Bill Shanks analyzes the subject as we continue our 35-part series.

The Braves are in an enviable position with their situation at catcher. They have a catcher with three years experience expected to be back at full strength after a nasty collision harmed his 2006 season, along with a 22-year-old heading into his second season with a tremendously bright future.

This is the Johnny Estrada / Brian McCann ‘dilemma,' although it might be incorrect to call it a ‘dilemma.' There's little doubt that McCann is the future catcher of the Atlanta Braves, and if Estrada was hooked up to a lie detector test he'd probably agree with that. McCann is a superb talent, and he's probably already better than Estrada.

Some have said there should be no dilemma or question, that Estrada should simply remain with the Braves and split time with the younger receiver. But Estrada is scheduled to make close to $2 million next season through arbitration, and with a team that's going to have a tight payroll, it might be difficult to carry a catcher with that salary that probably won't play everyday.

It's just not the smart thing to do. Every winter there are backup catchers available that can be paid between $500k and $1 million. And that extra million might help the Braves tremendously as they try to bring Rafael Furcal back, or perhaps sign a real-deal closer. An extra million shouldn't be that important, but with this team, it definitely is right now.

Plus, if Estrada were to hang around next season and more or less back McCann up, his value would decrease from what it is now. Even though he missed a good portion of the second half of the season with his injuries from the collision, Estrada is still thought of as a starting catcher. So his value is going to be higher now than it would be if he stayed around next season as a backup or part-timer.

And a catcher that has several years starting experience and makes only $2 million does have value - significant value. Estrada is not a Joe Mauer or a Pudge Rodriguez, but he can be a very solid starting catcher for a team. He was an All-Star a couple of years ago, and that should mean something.

When you look around baseball at the teams that will need to possibly acquire a catcher this winter there are some interesting possibilities. But before we do that we've got to remember something: the Braves aren't in dire need of anything major. They do not need a starting pitcher, and with the exception of shortstop, the starting lineup should return in tact next season. Could the Braves use Estrada to possibly acquire a starting shortstop? Certainly. But with Wilson Betemit around, and several players in the minors that could be up soon if Betemit doesn't cut it (Luis Hernandez, Yunel Escobar, and Elvis Andrus), wouldn't it be better to give him that chance and improve the team in another area?

The area that always seems to need improving with the Braves is the bullpen, and this seems to be the perfect scenario. Estrada has value, but teams aren't going to want to give up too much for him, so a solid reliever might be the perfect match. Make room for McCann by trading Estrada, and in return acquire a needed reliable arm for the bullpen for 2006.

So who needs a catcher? Well we've identified six teams that might be in the market for a starting catcher this winter: the Mets, Astros, Padres, Dodgers, Blue Jays, and Mariners. Do these teams have some relievers that might be available? Absolutely.

It's doubtful the Braves would want to deal Estrada to the division-rival Mets, who will be looking to replace Mike Piazza. Brad Ausmus may be finished as the Astros' starting catcher, and they have a few relievers they may be able to part with. Dan Wheeler, who pitched for Richmond a few years ago, and Chad Qualls could be options. They were both very productive setting up Brad Lidge for the National League champs in 2005.

The Padres have two candidates that the Braves' Nation has already become enamored with: Scott Linebrink and Akinori Otsuka, two of the best setup men in the National League the last two years. The only problem is the Padres have four free agent relievers to deal with, and Linebrink and Otsuka are their only experienced relievers on their roster right now. They've got to re-sign their closer, Trevor Hoffman, and also deal with Rudy Seanez, Chris Hammond, and Dennys Reyes. So the Padres, who also might have a new General Manager calling the shots, may not be so anxious to let go of a reliever, even though they could really use Estrada.

The Dodgers haven't had a catcher since they traded Paul LoDuca, and even though they have a terrific prospect that just finished Double-A, they may want a veteran with some experience. Yancy Brazoban and Steve Schmoll are two relievers that might interest the Braves.

Toronto has a number of relievers that have been effective the last couple of years, including former Brave Justin Speier, along with Jason Frasor, Scott Schoenweis, and Vinny Chulk. And Seattle has a couple of younger relievers in J.J. Putz and Matt Thornton that could be available, although if they let Eddie Guardardo go they may need relievers more than the Braves.

Chances are the Braves are going to either re-sign Kyle Farnsworth or take the money they'll offer in vain to Rafael Furcal and throw it at Billy Wagner, so the closer's job will probably be filled by one of those two. With Blaine Boyer, Joey Devine, Macay McBride, and John Foster all being rather young, the bullpen could use another experienced arm to join Chris Reitsma. The relievers we have mentioned may be good candidates.

Johnny Estrada is a very good major league catcher, and he did a terrific job in 2004 taking over for long-time starter Javy Lopez. But now we've got someone who is just better in Brian McCann. The Braves must take advantage of Estrada's value and improve an area that needs some help. A trade for a dependable setup man would be the perfect match, and expect General Manager John Schuerholz to explore all options this winter.

Tomorrow we'll talk about some veteran catchers that the Braves might bring in to backup Brian McCann if Estrada is, in fact, traded away.

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

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