12. Can the Braves trade for a young ace?

As The Braves Show's Bill Shanks continues to look at the top questions facing the Braves this winter, he looks at the possibility of the team finding a young top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.

Two years ago, with Russ Ortiz and Paul Byrd leaving via free agency, the Braves went out to start a young ace. They found Tim Hudson, a then-29-year-old that had dominated the American League in the previous five and a half years. The Braves wanted him to take over the rotation and be the ace in a post-Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux era.

Unfortunately, that hasn't worked out too well. Hudson has been no better than a number three starter, and for a team that has needed a strong number two that's just not been good enough. If Hudson was still the Tim Hudson the A's had in Oakland, the Braves may not be in such a need for a young ace, but at this point it would not hurt to have one.

John Schuerholz has said that the Braves will look to upgrade the pitching staff, knowing that the need is there to return to the old ways where pitching dominates the Atlanta team. So can the Braves go out and trade for a young ace?

Free agency is one option, but the Braves may not have that much flexibility in the payroll. They have some, but not enough to compete with other teams for a star pitcher. If they got into a bidding war, there would be a limit, whereas other teams (Yankees, Mets, Red Sox) would just offer more money. So a trade would be the more logical option.

However, there are a few names on the free agent list that may interest the Braves. While the Braves have plenty of left-handers already, they have always liked Ted Lilly, a 31-year-old who will leave the Blue Jays after going 15-13 in 2006. He made only $4 million last season, but teams could line up for his services.

Tony Armas has always been a favorite of Bobby Cox. He'll turn 29 next April, and the Braves might think he could finally become a 15-game winner in the right environment. Armas made only $2.1 last season, so would he go for a two-year, $8 million dollar deal?

Gil Meche throws gas, and the Braves might look for flamethrowers this winter. He's only 28 years old, and he was 11-8 last season for a mediocre Mariners' team. The Braves might think Meche is ready to breakout and become a top-of-the-rotation starter. He made $3.7 million last season, so he might command a three-year, $15-$18 million dollar deal.

Would Mark Mulder join his former A's teammate, Tim Hudson, in Atlanta? The 30-year-old lefty had shoulder surgery, but he's expected to come back next season. Mulder would not make near the $7.25 he made in 2006, but he could try to resurrect his career and position himself for a larger contract down the road.

Jeff Suppan is another pitcher Bobby Cox has always liked. He made only $4 million in 2006, but with a decent season (12-7, 4.12) and a solid postseason so far, Suppan could command top dollar. Vincente Padilla will also get a huge increase on his $4.8 million dollar deal from this season. But Padilla turns 29 next season, so he might be reaching his prime.

While he's not young, 34-year-old Jason Schmidt, a former Brave, is a free agent. While the Braves would probably love to bring back their former pitcher, Schmidt will be looking to get an increase on the $10.5 million he made in 2006. Schmidt could command $12 million per season, which is out of the Braves' price range even if they free up significant payroll.

It's not easy to go out and find an ace on the trade front. Why would a team want to trade one? Well the reason a team might trade a younger quality starter is either for financial reasons or to fill a more pressing need. Consequently, who might be available?

Many fans have zeroed in on Padres' right-hander Jake Peavy. It is no secret that the Mobile, Alabama resident grew up a Braves fan, and the soon-to-be 26-year old fits the definition of a young ace to a tee. He struggled a bit in 2006, going 11-14 with a 4.09 ERA, but the Padres could fill several needs if they traded him.

Marcus Giles' name will be forever linked to the Padres, and with the Braves probably trading the second baseman this winter that could be a match. Yes, the Padres have Josh Barfield at second base, but they could move him to the outfield to replace Dave Roberts. It's hard to believe the Padres would not want Marcus Giles, who could join his brother Brian as hometown players.

The Braves could possibly offer Giles, Horacio Ramirez, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia for Peavy. Ramirez could pitch in his native Southern California, while Salty could be the Padres' future catcher. Would that be enough for Peavy? Maybe not, but you would almost be shocked if John Schuerholz does not at least call the Padres when investigating trade possibilities for Giles. And he'd be nuts not to at least ask for Jake Peavy, who again fits the definition of a young ace perfectly.

The Cardinals could be in the market for Giles, but there's little chance they trade the Braves Anthony Reyes or Adam Wainwright, two pitchers the Cards believe will be the cornerstone of its rotation. Wouldn't Wainwright be nice in the Braves' rotation next season? Certainly, but don't hold your breath.

If Andruw Jones is traded, that could present several opportunities to acquire a young ace. The Dodgers may be one of the teams interested in the center fielder, and they have a couple of starters that are interesting. Certainly the Dodgers wouldn't give up 22-year-old Chad Billingsley, who was 7-4 as a rookie in 2006. But they may be willing to trade Brad Penny, the 29-year-old who started the All Star Game last summer. Penny had his problems with Dodgers' Manager Grady Little, and his makeup is somewhat questionable, but his age and his contract status (signed for three more years for $24.75 million) makes him interesting.

There have been rumors the Red Sox might call again about Jones, and the last time the two teams talked about Jones the Braves had an interest in young lefty Jon Lester. But since then Lester was diagnosed with lymphoma. His uncertainty makes it unlikely the Braves would want him in a deal. Jonathan Papelbon is moving to the rotation, but there's no way he's going to be traded. The Red Sox don't have other young pitchers to offer in a potential Jones deal.

The White Sox are another team that might have interest if the Braves shop Andruw Jones, and there have been rumors that Chicago could be talked into trading one of their top starters. The White Sox have three pitchers in their prime that are all eligible for free agency after the 2007 season. Javier Vazquez was a favorite of Bobby Cox, and the Braves have had interest in him before. He's due $9.5 million next season, and most of his success was in the National League.

Freddy Garcia will earn $10 million in 2007, but his 17-9 record in 2006 has him as one of the best starters in the American League. And Mark Buehrle is the one many believe the White Sox will trade. He's the youngest of the three, turning 28 next March. Buehrle will make $9.5 million next season in the last year of his deal.

If Jones is traded, the Angels might be a candidate. And they have a young pitcher that has been rumored to be used in a deal to net a star in soon-to-be 24-year-old Ervin Santana, a 16-game winner in 2006. Santana could be a cornerstone for a rotation for years to come.

The Indians have a pitcher that might be on the market this winter. Jake Westbrook, a Georgia native, was 15-10 in 2006 but is a year away from free agency. He'll make $5.6 million next season. Cleveland could have some interest in Marcus Giles.
The Rockies have three young pitchers that could flourish with the Braves. Jeff Francis (26 years old), Jason Jennings (28 years old), and Aaron Cook (28 years old) could all be entering their prime. Jennings is a year away from free agency, so he might be the one the Rockies would trade. While Colorado needs to keep all the pitching they can, they could fill several needs with a trade of one of their big three.

Of course, we're just throwing out names to see what might stick. The Braves have obviously formed a similar list in thinking who might be available this winter, and if the goal is to improve the rotation, it's possible one of these pitchers might be a Brave next season.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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