With Adam LaRoche now headed to Pittsburgh, pending his Thursday physical, the Braves will be in search of a new first baseman for the 2007 season.
Twenty-five year old Scott Thorman is first in line for the job. The Braves' first round pick in the 2000 draft got his first taste of the big leagues last season with 55 games in Atlanta. Thorman hit .234 with 5 home runs and 14 RBI in 128 at bats.
But Bobby Cox's history shows that it's very likely Thorman will start his career as a part-time starter. Remember how LaRoche took two and a half seasons before he assumed full-time duties? Well, Thorman's probably in store for the same scenario.
The only player on Atlanta's big league roster with experience at first base is Chris Woodward, who was signed last month as a free agent. Woodward is more of a middle infielder, but he has played first base in 43 big league games (8 for Toronto between 2000-2002, 34 games at first for the Mets in 2005, and one game at first for the Mets last season).
Matt Diaz tried out at first a bit last spring at Disney, but the fact that he saw no more action there in the regular season may be a hint of how well he did in that tryout. Ryan Langerhans has spent a bit of time at first base in batting practice, but he's a lefty hitter which would not help that much since Thorman also hits from the left side.
There are two right-handed hitters that could be in Triple-A this season that could get a tryout. James Jurries almost won the job as LaRoche's backup last March with an excellent spring training, but he had a miserable year in Richmond and may not even be invited to big league camp.
And Barbaro Canizares, a Cuban defector signed last March, played first for Mississippi last season. Canizares is a hitter (.307 between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi last year in 300 at bats), but his defense is very questionable. Most believe Canizares needs more development in the minor leagues.
One long shot is Chipper Jones, who played around at first base a few years ago. Jones is a switch-hitter, and with Willy Aybar a decent replacement for Jones at third base, the Braves may consider giving Jones some time across the diamond.
The most probable scenario involves bringing in a veteran first baseman via a trade or through free agency. The free agent market is about dried up. The best and perhaps perfect candidate may be 30-year-old Craig Wilson, who played last year for the Pirates and Yankees. Wilson has mainly played first in his career, along with the outfield and an occasional stint at catcher. The Braves had some interest in Wilson last spring when the Pirates were shopping him, so they may renew that now.
Phil Nevin turns 36 tomorrow, but he might still be able to fill the role as a part-time first baseman. Nevin spent last season with the Rangers, Cubs, and Twins and played in 44 games at first base. Overall, Nevin hit .239 with 22 home runs and 68 RBI in 397 at bats.
Eduardo Perez is a year older than Nevin, and he's mainly been a designated hitter the last few years. Perez split last season between Cleveland and Seattle and played in 34 games at first. With the bat Perez hit .253 with 9 homers and 33 RBI in 186 at bats.
David Bell has mainly played third and second in his career, but he did play first in 16 games for the Mariners, Giants, and Phillies between 1998 and 2002. Bell is now 34 years old and played last season for Philadelphia and Milwaukee.
It's doubtful the Braves would go for switch-hitter Dmitri Young, who was released by the Tigers last summer. Young is a good hitter, but he's got serious makeup issues. And Mark Bellhorn played in 18 games at first base last season for the Padres, but Bellhorn had a horrific season with the bat and is a question mark.
The Braves could make a trade for a backup first baseman. They have several areas of depth that could provide players for a deal. Tony Pena, Jr. is out of options and is in jeopardy of not making the roster with the signing of Woodward. And the relievers who may not make the bullpen competition (Chad Paronto or Lance Cormier?) could also be available in a deal.
With the LaRoche trade, Atlanta's payroll is projected to be about $4 million dollars under the $80 million budget right now. Here are some projections, including the potential renewed salaries for non-arbitration players and the potential arbitration figure for Oscar Villarreal, the Braves' lone remaining arbitration player:
John Smoltz - $8.000
Mike Hampton - $8.100
Tim Hudson - $8.500
Chuck James - $.450
Kyle Davies - $.425
Bob Wickman - $6.500
Mike Gonzalez - $2.300
Rafael Soriano - $1.200
Tanyon Sturtze - $1.200
Macay McBride - $.450
Oscar Villarreal - $1.100
Tyler Yates - $.425
Boyer/Devine/Cormier - $.425
Brian McCann - $.450
Brayan Pena - $.380
Scott Thorman - $.380
Kelly Johnson - $.380
Edgar Renteria - $6.000
Chipper Jones - $12.333
Chris Woodward - $.850
Pete Orr - $.425
Willy Aybar - $.400
Andruw Jones - $14.000
Jeff Francoeur - $.450
Matt Diaz - $.425
Ryan Langerhans - $.425
So the Braves still have some flexibility with the payroll, even if some of those figures are a bit low for the renewable contracts. Even if there is $3 million remaining, that's enough to perhaps spend $2 million on Craig Wilson or maybe $1.5 million on Phil Nevin.
Obviously, with two young players (Scott Thorman and Kelly Johnson) slated to be the starters on the right side of the infield, it may behoove the Braves to bring in another veteran. Perhaps they would instead look for a veteran second baseman, hoping Woodward would be able to stand in for Thorman when needed.
The other thing to watch this spring is potential talks with Tampa Bay regarding outfielder Rocco Baldelli. The Braves had some common ground with the Devil Rays when talking trade last month, but do not expect Atlanta to budge on giving up lefty starter Chuck James. He's off limits. If the Devil Rays would accept a package highlighted by shortstop Yunel Escobar and some other prospects, then a deal might get done.
And with James practically untouchable, don't expect the Braves to instead offer up projected fifth starter Kyle Davies. It's doubtful the Braves would want to go into spring training with Lance Cormier and Anthony Lerew battling it out for that last spot in the rotation. So Davies is probably staying put for now.
Baldelli has to be attractive to this team, particularly with Andruw Jones probably gone next winter. But the Devil Rays are known to hold out for a high price for their talent, so that might make a deal unlikely.
The deal with the Pirates may be the last major move, but the Braves may still add a piece for first base before camp begins next month. And with the budget possibly under the projected $80 million figure, the Braves might have flexibility in case a move is needed during the regular season.
Click here to read more coverage about the LaRoche/Gonzalez trade
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 email@example.com.
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