Be patient about improving left field

Frank Wren was patient in his search for a starting pitcher, and he needs to be patient now in his search for a left fielder.

We all know the Atlanta Braves need a left fielder. That's obvious. They need another bat in the lineup. That's obvious. But we all need to be careful about thinking about what the Braves should do to fill those roles.

The moves that have been made this offseason, mainly to improve the rotation, were made to make the Braves competitive in 2009 and beyond. But the outfield situation is a little bit different in that reinforcements from the farm system have to be considered.

Jordan Schafer and Jason Heyward are two of the Braves top prospects, and when thinking about acquiring a veteran who has a few years left on his contract or may want several years on a new deal, you have to keep those kids in mind. They do not need to be blocked.

Schafer will go to spring training and compete for a job in center field. If the Braves sign Andruw Jones this week, it could give Schafer more time to develop in Triple-A Gwinnett. But Schafer could still be in the equation sometime this season.

Heyward will head back to High-A Myrtle Beach to start this season, but don't count on him finishing there. He is following the same track Jeff Francoeur did a few seasons ago, which might mean Heyward could be a factor sometime in 2010.

Speaking of Francoeur, he's in this equation as well. He has to bounce back, or that presents an entirely different problem for the team. Since the Braves have held onto him, Francoeur needs to get back on track to have one of the outfield spots in good hands.

Along with Schafer and Heyward, there are other players you have to keep in mind. Gorkys Hernandez will go to Double-A this season. He's a top prospect. And Cody Johnson will try to hammer home runs in the Carolina League with Heyward.

So there is depth behind the current players on the roster slated to battle it out for left field. And as a GM Frank Wren cannot ignore that. Yeah, he can't sacrifice today's potential success for tomorrow's potential. But with those numbers, it does allow him to be careful.

Would you then want to go out as the Braves GM and sign a player, say an Adam Dunn or Bobby Abreu to a deal for more than two years? Well, no. What would be the point with the talent that will be in place in 2011 to take over? And that's cheap talent compared to what you'd have to give a free agent like Abreu or Dunn.

If one of those two players were to take a deal like Pat Burrell accepted from Tampa Bay, then that would be tempting. But anything more than a two-year deal for an outfielder is just not what this team leads.

That's why Xavier Nady is enticing. The Braves talked to Pittsburgh last summer about Nady before he was shipped to the Yankees. He's under contract for just 2009, and the Yankees all of a sudden just don't have room for him. Now if the price were right, and the price for a player who is under contract for only one year can't be too high, Nady would be the perfect fit.

Even if Nady were a rental for one year, at the end of the 2009 season you could see where those prospects are. You'd know if Andruw Jones (if he signs of course) and/or Jeff Francoeur bounced back. Or if you wanted to you could make an offer for Nady to stay for an additional season until those questions are answered.

Nady would be a better fit than Nick Swisher, who is also reportedly available. Swisher has three seasons left on his deal, with the last season's salary set for $9 million dollars. The Braves just don't need to be on the hook for a salary that long and that expensive.

But might Nady be more affordable in a trade as the season starts and progresses?

Keep in mind the pitching depth that Wren has accumulated also figures into this. Okay we know the top four spots in the rotation are set for the start of the season with Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, Jair Jurrjens, and Kenshin Kawakami.

The fifth starter's spot will be a battle in spring training between Jo Jo Reyes, Charlie Morton, Jorge Campillo, and maybe Tom Glavine. James Parr, Tommy Hanson, and Kris Medlen also may get their chance as well.

Let's just say for the sake of the scenario that Glavine, if he does in fact sign obviously, does win the job as the fifth starter. That would mean Reyes, Morton, Parr, Hanson, and Medlen would probably be in the Gwinnett rotation. Todd Redmond could be there too. Those are six pretty decent pitching prospects who would be backups in Triple-A.

Now we all believe that if Hanson does not win the fifth starter's job in March, he will be knocking on the door at some point in 2009. And then on top of that you add the potential return of Tim Hudson, currently out recovering from Tommy John surgery, and you have a lot of depth.

Might that depth be used, sometime in the season, to acquire the outfielder that Frank Wren wants. Maybe it would be better for Wren to get the outfielder he wants, not just the outfielder this team needs right now.

Let's say the Braves only new outfielder between now and Opening Day is Andruw Jones. If he wins the job in March to be the starting center fielder, that would mean left field would be the other big competition (along with the fifth starter's job) at Disney.

You'd have Matt Diaz, Gregor Blanco, Brandon Jones, and Josh Anderson fighting it out for playing time. Schafer would probably be sent to Triple-A if Jones were to win the center field job. So those four would be your candidates to play left field.

The question Frank Wren has to ask is, ‘can those players hold down left field until we get the player for that position that we really want?' If he thinks they can, he's going to be very, very patient. It doesn't mean he'll give up the search, but he'll be more selective in whom to add to the lineup.

Finding a player in the season may just be easier than doing it right now. Wren has talked to the Cardinals about Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel. He's checked in with the Yankees about Nady. But as we get closer, or even in the season, it could be easier to strike a deal for one of those players.

And again, the leverage the Braves might have with depth in the pitching staff might make it more feasible later on this year to make a deal.

What if Detroit has a rough start to the 2009 season? Might they part with Magglio Ordonez, who is under contract through this season with options for 2010 and 2011? The Tigers may not want to part with him now, but if Wren waits Ordonez could be an option.

Wren's patience paid off in his search for help for the rotation. It would have been easy for him to panic after the Jake Peavy deal broke down or A.J. Burnett went to the Yankees. He waited for the prices to come down a bit and got Lowe to fill the top spot in the rotation. He got Kawakami to provide even more depth. So if he waits and is patient again, the situation in left will be improved at some point this year.

It just might not be as soon as all of us would prefer.



Bill Shanks hosts The Braves Show Talk Show, The Atlanta Baseball Show on 680 the Fan in Atlanta, and The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon. He is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



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