Upgrading first base should be a priority

The Braves Show's Bill Shanks talks about what might happen at first base.

Less than two weeks remain now until the trade deadline, so we know the Braves are looking at what they might be able to do to improve the club for this year's stretch drive.

But the Braves' front office also has to start thinking about this offseason. There's a chance the Braves are going to have some financial flexibility this winter, and that will afford them the opportunity to improve the offense for 2010.

The Braves will undoubtedly try to upgrade first base, even perhaps before this month is up. Casey Kotchman is a nice player, but the Braves are just not getting enough production out of first base.

Atlanta will closely monitor the development of young Freddie Freeman, who is now in Double-A Mississippi. Freeman is hitting .301 overall, with 6 home runs, 41 RBI, and a .389 OBP in 299 combined at bats between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi.

Most believe Freeman is going to need one more full season. He doesn't turn 20 years old until September 12th, so Freeman is still very, very young. Even if he is ready to make his debut on Opening Day in 2011, Freeman will still only be 21 ½ years old.

So with Kotchman not really giving the Braves what they need at first base, and with Freeman perhaps needing another year of development, the Braves may look for a short-term option at the position.

Also, you have to believe the Braves will be looking for a right-handed hitter to add to the lineup. The lineup is already lefty-dominant, and the possibility of lefty hitters Jason Heyward and Jordan Schafer being there next year would make it even more left-handed heavy.

There are three people to keep in mind that the Braves might have their eye on. There's no guarantee these players could be available, but they do fit the criteria the Braves may look for in upgrading first base.

First is White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, who has been rumored to be available at times over the past few seasons. Konerko will be in the last year of his contract in 2010 at $12 million dollars. He's a right-handed hitter, and he'll be 34 next season. Konerko numbers this season: .304/.356/.522 with 17 home runs and 61 RBI in 316 at bats.

The White Sox may think Kotchman is more suited for the American League, and they may accept a package that could save them some money. Again, Konerko has been mentioned in rumors before, so since he'll be going into the last season of his contract it might make him available.

The other Chicago first baseman could also be an option. Like Konerko, Cubs' first baseman Derrek Lee will be 34 next season and he will be in the last year of his contract in 2010 – making $13 million dollars.

The Cubs' ownership situation is what makes you wonder about Lee's future with the organization. It is still unsettled, and with Lee struggling earlier in the season, the Cubs might think this winter is the time to move Lee. This season Lee's numbers are .286/.358/.524 with 18 home runs and 58 RBI in 290 at bats.

Lance Berkman is a fan favorite in Houston, and maybe he joins Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell as lifelong Astros players. But Berkman, who is a switch-hitter, will be 34 next season, and he will earn $14.5 million. Berkman also has an option for 2011 for $15 million. If owner Drayton McLane drops payroll, Berkman could be at the top of the list.

Berkman is hitting .269/.402/.520 this season with 18 home runs and 55 RBI. He might be the most unlikely of the three players listed to be moved, but he does fit what the Braves might be looking for in an upgrade for first base.

Any of these three would look pretty good in the Atlanta lineup. General Manager Frank Wren will be in a tricky situation this winter. He needs a better first baseman for 2010, but he knows he's got a potential long-term answer for the position in Freeman maybe a year away.

There will be some free agents who will be out there this winter. Adam LaRoche, Carlos Delgado, Aubrey Huff, and Nick Johnson are all left-handed hitters. Some of those players may be possibilities before the trade deadline this month. Delgado, who has missed most of the season with injury, would be the only one of those four who would probably accept a one-year contract for next year.

The Braves need another bat for the stretch drive this season, but the way they handle the in-between time between now and when Freddie Freeman is ready could provide even more drama this winter.

Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and 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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