The Atlanta Braves have done a good job improving the roster so far this winter. But there is still a ton of work to do before the start of the 2010 season.
Let's look first at what they've done so far and then make a few suggestions on what they should do the rest of the way.
The Billy Wagner signing was a no brainer. He's wanted to come to Atlanta for years. He showed he's healthy again after he returned in August. And with that velocity being back in the mid-90s, there is no reason Wagner cannot once again be the dominating closer he was in Houston, Philadelphia, and with the Mets in New York.
Wagner is just a perfect Braves player. He's a country boy, who likes to have fun and likes to win. He'll fit in much better than Rafael Soriano, who dared reporters to speak to him and looked as miserable as Tiger Woods' wife on her wedding anniversary. Wagner is going to have fun and will actually interract with his teammates.
Takashi Saito was another great move. Ok, so he's a bit older. But the guy can pitch. And from all accounts, Saito is going to really compliment Wagner on and off the field. A reporter from Japan told me this week in Indianapolis that Saito is perhaps the best pitcher to ever come to the majors from that country. And if you have any doubts, go refresh your memory on how dominant Saito was when he was in Los Angeles with the Dodgers.
A lot of people are saying, "Well, sure, if Wagner and Saito are healthy, the Braves might be ok." But look, Wagner came back well from his Tommy John surgery, and we know how many pitchers are better after they have the procedure. And while Saito had an elbow strain in 2008, he didn't even have to go into the training room when he was in Boston last season.
So yeah, if they are healthy the Braves are going to be fine. Will Braves' fans have to worry any more than they did last year with Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, who both had shaky injury histories?
Don't forget Scott Proctor. He's coming back from Tommy John surgery. His anniversary date is May 12, so Proctor could return sometime in late May or early June. He was a hard-thrower before he got hurt, and if he returns to form, the Braves will have another solid reliever to set up Wagner and Saito.
When the Braves complete the trade for Jesse Chavez, the bullpen will be done. Chavez is a cheap, young reliever who was extremely effective in his first full season last year in Pittsburgh. Chavez will join Peter Moylan, Kris Medlen, and Eric O'Flaherty to give the Braves what could be the deepest bullpen in the game.
You've got the deepest rotation in the game. You might have the deepest bullpen in the game. Anyone have a problem with that?
Some have criticized the Braves for signing Wagner and Saito so quickly. But give Frank Wren credit for knowing who he wanted and getting the deals done. There should be nothing wrong with that.
Even if Wren had waited to announce the signings, that was not necessarily going to guarantee that Soriano and his agent would have declined the arbitration offer.
Some have criticized the Braves for offering Soriano arbitration in the first place. Why? They wanted to get draft picks as compensation if and when Soriano were to leave. You can't blame them for that.
And as Wren said this week, "If we hadn't offered him (Soriano) arbitration, we wouldn't have gotten anything. And this way we do get something back."
It might not have been the 'something back' they were expecting in draft picks. But look, Chavez is going to contribute in 2010, while the draft picks would have taken time to develop and helped out later.
So how can anyone complain about that? The Braves got something back for a player they were not going to need next season. Not bad.
Once Chavez is acquired, the bullpen will be done. And the rotation will be done once Derek Lowe is traded.
No one in the organization necessarily wants Derek Lowe traded. The guy is well-respected, and the Braves believe if he did return next season he would get back on track. But this is all about math. The Braves have six pitchers for five spots.
Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson aren't going anywhere. Tim Hudson just signed a new contract for three more years. Kenshin Kawakami has two years left on his deal. And we all know how in love the Braves fell with Javier Vazquez last season.
That leaves Lowe, who is due $45 million over the next three years. The Braves believe once John Lackey, the top free agent pitcher on the market, signs, the market will open up for the second tier of pitchers who will be available. Then teams in dire need of a starter will come calling on Lowe.
But the Braves need to just give Lowe away. Hold on, I'm not saying don't get anything back. Lowe still has significant value. The Braves need to get a good return for Lowe. But it needs to be minor leaguers. The Braves need Lowe's money off the books to be able to do other, and more significant things.
Hopefully the Braves can convince a team to give up a couple of good prospects (like top ten prospects in a farm system) for Lowe. If they have to give that team $2 million per season for the rest of Lowe's deal, do it. Just get the salary space, and get the prospects, for Lowe.
The pitching is going to be great. We know that. But what about the offense?
Atlanta needs to sign Xavier Nady. This sounds like it's going to happen, as long as Nady's medical records check out. He reportedly wants to come to Atlanta, and the Braves have had interest in him in the past.
Let Nady come here, show he's healthy, and then improve his value so he can become a free agent again next year. Nady fits perfectly with what the Braves are looking for: a right-handed hitter with power, with the ability to play both the outfield and first base.
Nady averaged 20 home runs in the three years prior to missing last season. He's played mainly in right field in his career (408 games), but has also played left (100 games), center (45 games), and first base (82 games).
The Braves could use Nady at first base, especially if his elbow needs less stress on it after he returns. Or if the elbow is doing fine, they could put him in the outfield. His versatility to play both positions, considering the Braves need help at both spots, is attractive to the club.
He'll be playing for a bigger contract, and who knows, maybe the Braves will want to keep him around. But Nady could really help that Atlanta lineup. He's just a perfect fit.
The next thing the Braves need to do is hope and pray Garrett Atkins is non-tendered by the Colorado Rockies this weekend.
Reports have surfaced that Colorado is having trouble trading Atkins, who made $7.05 million last year and is due arbitration this winter. So there's a good chance the Rockies will non-tender Atkins, making him a free agent.
If that happens, the Braves need to jump on Atkins. He, like Nady, would be a perfect fit. Atkins is a right-handed hitter, who has averaged 19.4 home runs in his first five seasons in the big leagues.
Atkins had a three-year stretch from 2006 through 2008 when he hit 29, 25, and 21 home runs. He also averaged 110 RBI in those three seasons. That's the kind of production the Braves are looking for to add to the lineup.
In his six years in the big leagues, Atkins has mainly played third base (642 games). Now the Braves have a third baseman in Chipper Jones, but it wouldn't hurt to have someone able to fill in for Jones when he gets hurt, and we know it'll probably happen at some point next season.
Atkins has also played 105 games in his career at first base, and that may be where he'd get the most action if he were signed by the Braves. He's also played three games (in 2004) in left field, so perhaps that could be an option as well.
But if Atkins and Nady were signed, the Braves would have two very versatile players who could play the positions the Braves have needs at: first base and left field. More importantly, Atlanta would have two dangerous right-handed hitters who can hit the ball out of the park.
There is one more move the Braves need to make. With the Yankees trading for Curtis Granderson, they could have a surplus of outfielders. New York also has Melky Cabrera, and they are talking about bringing Johnny Damon back to play the outfield.
So that could make Nick Swisher the odd man out. If the Yankees do bring Damon back, or even if they sign another outfielder, Swisher's contract could be too much for the Yankees to keep around.
Swisher is due $6.75 million next season, and then $9 million in 2011. The club has a $10.25 million option on him in 2012, with a $1 million buyout.
The Braves were interested in Swisher last year before the Athletics traded him to New York, and even after that deal Atlanta talked to the Yankees about trading Swisher. So with that previous interest, it would make sense if the Yankees do decide to trade Swisher for Atlanta to be high on the list once again.
Swisher is a switch-hitter, who just turned 29 last month. In his first five seasons in the big leagues, Swisher has averaged 26.2 home runs per year. His career OBP is .357, and he's walked 86.2 times per season in his career.
There is no doubt his average, a career .245 mark and .249 last season, is a concern. But along with his power, the advantage to Swisher is where he can play in the field.
Swisher has played 331 games in his career in right field, 249 games at first base, 131 games in center field, and 117 games in left field. So again, Swisher would be able to play the positions the Braves are looking to fill.
Perhaps the Yankees would be interested in a Lowe-for-Swisher trade. That would be worth asking them about. But even if New York just wants to dump the salary, the Braves would have enough pieces to put a trade together to acquire Swisher.
Last year the big problem for the Braves was in the bottom of the order, especially early in the season. Remember Jeff Francoeur, Casey Kotchman, and Jordan Schafer rounding out the order? It was an unproductive lineup during that time. So these three players could be a tremendous improvement on what the Braves had last year.
Nady, Atkins, and Swisher can all play first, and they can all play the outfield. They all have power, and they all hit from the right side of the plate.
Plus, it's very conceivable that they can all be acquired and be affordable, as well. Nady would probably sign for around $5 or $6 million. If Atkins is released, he might sign for around the same amount. You couple those two salaries with Swisher's $6.5 million, and you could possible have all three for under $20 million.
That would be doable for the Braves as long as they got Derek Lowe's contract off the books. They would still be under $100 million, and even have the room to sign a utility infielder or two for a reasonable contract.
The Braves pitching staff is going to be outstanding next season, and they've just got to add a few pieces for the lineup. Don't forget about Jason Heyward. He might take up that right field spot sometime next season, even as early as opening day. But even if that were to happen, the Braves would be able to afford to have one of those three hitters on the bench. And you know if Heyward does make the roster, there's a chance with Bobby Cox as the manager that someone would have to be there from the right side of the plate to work as an occasional starter. Cox just rarely gives a rookie, much less a 20-year-old rookie, a chance to play in 162 games.
But let's look at a potential lineup if Nady, Atkins, and Swisher were acquired:
Regardless of how you wanted to assign the last three in that lineup, it would be a tremendous upgrade from last year. You take that lineup with the pitching staff the Braves have constructed, and there is little doubt the Braves would have one of the most feared teams in the game next season.
So there you go, Frank Wren. There's the blueprint to get the Braves back in the World Series. It's financially possible to make these moves, and it just makes a lot of sense. It's the type of roster that could give Cox a great chance for a run at a title in his last season as manager.
Let's see what happens.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.
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