26. Should the Braves pursue any free agents?

The Braves promise to be aggresive this offseason. Does that mean they'll pursue a free agent to replace an existing starter? Bill Shanks looks at this as he continues his series on the top 35 questions facing the team this winter.

When you look at the possibility of going after a player to exist any of your existing starters, you have to keep one thing in mind: you must make sure you are definitely going to improve the production at that position if you are making a change. Sometimes teams make these kind of moves just for the heck of it, and all General Managers have to be careful to not fall in that trap.

There are a few positions we can probably going ahead and strike off as being candidates for improvement: third base, catcher, center field, and right field. With Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Andruw Jones, and Jeff Francoeur, the Braves have four players they are obviously comfortable with for the 2006 season.

So let's look at the other four positions to see if there might be any candidates out there to replace existing starters, and, of course, the pending opening at shortstop.

Adam LaRoche's inconsistency has been documented. But with so many internal options (Chipper moving to first, Andy Marte moving to first, and Scott Thorman), it seems difficult to believe the Braves would need to bring in another player from the outside.

They won't be able to afford Paul Konerko, although you sure wish they may have made a play for him when he was languishing in the Dodgers' system a few years ago. Konerko is the main first base star on the free agent market. The other second-tier candidates are Kevin Millar, Daryl Ward, J.T. Snow, and Scott Hatteberg - no one that makes you want to send LaRoche packing.

One interesting option might be Frank Thomas, a right-handed batter that could replace Julio Franco if he leaves as a free agent. Thomas is not the Frank Thomas of old, but he is a Columbus, Georgia native, and like Tim Hudson, Thomas has always had an interest in playing for the Braves. I wonder if the Braves would be tempted to bring in Thomas for a one-year, low money contract.

For the end of the 2005 season, Ryan Langerhans had squeezed past Kelly Johnson to take over left field. So as of now the left-handed hitting Langerhans is penciled in to be there next season. The one player that many Braves' fans are clamoring for the Braves to pursue is Brian Giles, the older brother of second baseman Marcus Giles, who has expressed an interest in playing with his baby brother.

Brian Giles will be 35 years old in January. While his power has dipped the last few years, his on base percentage is what attracts many fans to him. Brian Giles still does get on base, posting a .423 OBP last season and a .413 OBP throughout his career. But is it really smart to give Giles a contract in the $6 million range when we have two young left-handed hitters in Langerhans and Johnson that also have the ability to get on base? Neither one of those two may be as good as Giles, but they may be good enough to allow the Braves to put that money toward a position they really need help with, like the bullpen.

Plus, you would think if the Braves did get another left fielder, they may get a right-handed batter, one that could either platoon with Langerhans or Johnson. Those options include Reggie Sanders, Jeff Conine, Rondell White, Marquis Grissom, Richard Hidalgo, Juan Encarnacion, and Matt Lawton. Again, these are not players that you automatically want to throw a couple of million dollars at to join your team.

And then you have to remember the other outfield options. It is still possible that Andy Marte could make the move to the outfield, as could Scott Thorman, and down the road, Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Since Johnson and Langerhans will only be in their second season in 2006, there's still a lot of potential. With that potential and the other internal outfield options, is it really logical to spend money on a position that is fairly well-stacked?

It's looking more and more like Rafael Furcal might leave the Braves and sign a big money deal with the Cubs or Mets. So should the Braves look to replace Furcal with another, cheaper free agent and not give Wilson Betemit the starting job at shortstop?

There is one interesting free agent that could interest John Schuerholz. Nomar Garciaparra is looking for a team. Some say he'll play third base or the outfield, but he's still a shortstop. Garciaparra has humongous injury issues, with only two full seasons out of the last five years, but we all know what he can do if he is healthy. Garciaparra may need another one-year contract to prove that he can once again be an impact player, and that might tempt Schuerholz to bring the former Georgia Tech star back to Atlanta.

All the other free agent shortstops are marginal players that would be brought in to play with Betemit. Schuerholz might choose to go down that road, simply adding a veteran to compliment his young switch-hitter. Alex Gonzalez of the Marlins, Alex Gonzalez of the Devil Rays, and Royce Clayton may fill that need.

And then there's second base. Should the Braves re-sign Furcal, they may decide to trade Marcus Giles. With no automatic internal replacement on hand, Schuerholz would probably have to acquire a second baseman. It's slim pickens there, with Mark Grudzielanek, Todd Walker, and former Brave Tony Graffanino on the market.

Count me as one who hopes the other seven starters (not counting Furcal obviously) return next season. Could we improve a position or two if we had an unlimited budget? Perhaps. But these young kids, particularly Langerhans, Johnson, LaRoche, and especially Betemit, deserve a chance to play consistently. Let's put any additional money in the area that needs the most attention for next season: the bullpen.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves' front office. You can contact Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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