November 2010

Braves still evaluating remaining needs

With the acquisition of Dan Uggla, the Braves gained the powerful right-handed bat that they were seeking to place in the middle of the lineup.  Now as Frank Wren constructs his Christmas wish list, he might want to request the acquisition of a creative accountant.

The Braves didn’t enter this offseason with a lot of financial flexibility and they obviously now have even less. With Uggla set to make around $10 million as an arb.-eligible player, the Braves essentially took on about $7 million payroll with last week’s trade with the Marlins (Infante $2.5 million and Dunn $450,000). 

Looking at the projected 25-man roster, the Braves could benefit from adding a veteran reliever and improving their depth in both the infield and outfield. With Diory Hernandez standing as the most likely candidate to begin the season as a utility infielder who can play shortstop, there would certainly be reason to believe this could be a priority. 

But before strengthening his outfield or infield depth, Wren may look to ensure he has enough money to provide Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters the influence of somebody who has previously closed in the Majors. 

Somebody like J.J. Putz would fit the description of what Wren is seeking in this role.  But Putz, who is drawing interest from the D-backs, could prove to be too expensive for the Braves who have these multiple roster needs and somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million left to spend. 

Wren might find some more financial breathing room if Kenshin Kawakami suddenly reveals that he is willing to return to his native land and pitch for one of the Japanese professional clubs that have said they are willing to eat a portion of the $6.67 million the Braves still owe him next year.

Before opening myself up to be criticized by those who believe I have bashed Kawakami while writing about this in the past, let’s remember that he’s not the one who offered himself the three-year, $23 million contract that he agreed upon before the start of the 2009 season. 

Nor has he had a chance to control the limited run support he’s received while going 8-20 with a 4.30 ERA in 41 career starts at the Major League level.

Still with this being said, it’s clear that Kawakami’s days of pitching for the Braves are complete.  At the same time, it’s become apparent that there aren’t too many Major League clubs currently showing strong interest in him. 

Even with the possibility that he might spend this entire season in the Minors, Kawakami has indicated he wants to remain in the United States.  If he returns to his native Japan, he feels he would erase his final opportunity to prove that he can be successful in the U.S.

Kawakami didn’t mind continuing to enjoy the U.S. lifestyle when the Braves optioned him to Triple-A Gwinnett last August.  The ballpark was just a short drive from the suburban Atlanta mansion (formerly resided in by rapper Lil’ Bow Wow) that he has rented the past two summers.

I’m going to have to guess he won’t find these same luxuries in Pearl, Mississippi.  Now that he might have realized the Braves are more than willing to keep him on the Double-A Mississippi roster, he might have to at least start reconsidering the possibility of pitching for one of those Japanese clubs that have shown interest. 

There really shouldn’t be any Braves-related surprises Tuesday when all
Major League clubs must decide whether to make arbitration offers to
their free agents.  This deadline really only applies to first baseman Derrek Lee, who is their only free agent who was ranked a Type A or Type B free agent by the Elias Sports Bureau.  

While the Braves would certainly like to gain the draft pick compensation they would gain courtesy of Lee’s status as a Type A free agent, they certainly aren’t in position to deal with the consequences of him accepting the offer to gain a one-year deal worth at least $13 million.   

Braves acquire Dan Uggla

The Braves have landed All-Star second baseman Dan Uggla from the Marlins in exchange for Omar Infante and left-handed reliever Mike Dunn. 

Uggla is coming off a career-best season that included a .287 batting average, 33 homers and 105 RBIs.  The 30-year-old infielder could play left field for the Braves or at least provide insurance until Chipper Jones proves that he is able to return from ACL surgery. 

Uggla has no played any other positions other than second base since arriving in the Majors in 2006.  There is some belief he could play third base if necessary.  Or the Braves could opt to keep him at second base and position Martin Prado at third base or in left field.  

With Uggla, the Braves have gained the right-handed hitter they were seeking to add to the middle of their lineup.  He has hit at least 31 homers each of the past four seasons and a total of 154 during his five seasons in the Majors.

The Marlins began actively shopping Uggla once they were unable to sign him to a multi-year contract reportedly worth $48 million.  The two-time All-Star is entering his final arbitration-eligible season. 

With Infante’s departure, the Braves will begin pursuing another utility player to compensate for the versatility lost in this deal.  Infante’s value soared this year as he earned his first All-Star selection and ranked third in the National League with a .321 batting average. 

Kawakami outrighted to Mississippi

There is little reason to believe Kenshin Kawakami will be a part of the Braves rotation next year.  But the Japanese hurler continues to provide a burden to the clubs payroll as general manager Frank Wren attempts to determine how much money he has to satisfy offseason needs.

Wren’s attempts to trade Kawakami or sell him to a Japanese club have so far proven to be unsuccessful.  But the Braves have removed the 34-year-old hurler from their 40-man roster.

Kawakami passed through waivers and was sent outright to the Double-A Mississippi roster.   He  has gone 8-22 with a 4.32 ERA in 50 appearances (41 starts) since signing a three-year, $23 million contract with the Braves before the start of the 2009 season.

The Braves still owe Kawakami $6.67 million heading into the final year of this contract.

The Yomiuri Giants and Nippon Ham Fighters are among the Japanese clubs that are believed to have shown interest in Kawakami.  But another unidentified Japanese team provided the Braves reason to believe they would be willing to assume more of the $6.67 million figure than those two teams.

Kawakami has revealed that he does not like pitching in the Tokyo Dome, which serves as the home for the Yomuri Giants.  But if he remains with the Braves, he might have to find a liking to pitch in Minor League ballparks.
After Kawakami went 1-9 with a 4.48 ERA in his first 15 starts this year, the Braves put him in their bullpen and provided him just a one-inning relief appearance before optioning him to Triple-A Gwinnett in August. 

Given a chance to make an emergency start in place of an injured Derek Lowe on Sept. 3, Kawakami allowed the Marlins five earned runs and issued four walks in a 73-pitch, three-inning effort.   He would pitch just one more inning of relief before the season concluded. 

Instead of allowing Kawakami to pitch in place of an injured Jair Jurrjens, the Braves gave Brandon Beachy three starts during the regular season’s final two weeks.   Beachy, who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008, had made a total of 21 Minor League starts before being thrust into the thick of a pennant race. 

When the Braves traveled to San Francisco to begin their National League Division Series, they did not include Kawakami in their traveling party.  Once the regular season was complete, they told him he was free to return to his native Japan.     


Trade talks could soon heat up for the Braves

There hasn’t been a lot of buzz surrounding the Braves during the early portion of this Hot Stove Season.  But there’s a sense that things might heat up after Frank Wren assembles with his peers at the general manager meetings in Orlando early next week.

While the Braves might eventually land a veteran reliever or possibly another starting pitcher on the free-agent market, their primary focus is to find at least one outfielder.  With anywhere from $10-15 million to spend, it appears they’ll most likely fill this need via the trade market. 

The Braves have seemingly shown some interest in free agent outfielder Pat Burrell, who rejuvenated his career while helping the Giants win the World Series.  But early indications are that the veteran, defensively-challenged outfielder might prove to be too expensive.

Thus it appears more likely that the Braves will find themselves taking a gamble on an outfielder available via trade.   The Dodgers don’t seem interested in trading Matt Kemp and the Braves don’t seem too interested in even contemplating the idea of taking a chance on B.J. Upton.

There’s a chance that Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox) or Colby Rasmus could be acquired for the right price.  But the Braves seem intent on finding a right-handed outfielder to fill their already left-handed heavy lineup.

Thus it seems more likely that they would pursue somebody like Josh Willingham from the Nationals or maybe a potential leadoff hitter like Rajai Davis from the A’s.

Davis produced a mediocre .320 on-base percentage while hitting .284 and recording 50 stolen bases this past year.  Willingham’s injury woes increased this past summer when he was forced to undergo arthroscopic surgery in August to repair meniscus in his left knee. 

With limited funds, the Braves are likely going to have to acquire an outfielder who will be viewed as “having some warts.”   But as the Giants proved this past year, you can benefit from taking chances on guys like Burrell and Aubrey Huff when you have a solid pitching staff. 

The Braves will have a better idea of how much money they can spend once they determine where Kenshin Kawakami will be pitching next year.  A month ago, it appeared they had found a Japanese club willing to acquire Kawakami and offset about $3 million of the $6.67 million the Braves owe him in the final year of his contract.

There has sense been some reason to believe that Kawakami would rather continue pitching in the United States.  The Yomuri Giants were believed to be one of the clubs interested in the 34-year-old right-hander. 

Kawakami has said that he doesn’t like pitching in the Tokyo Dome, which serves as the Giants home.  My only response to that is, “Would he rather pitch in Gwinnett County’s Coolray Field?

If they need additional funds to land the outfielder they are seeking or simply need to enhance a trade package, the Braves might opt to trade one of their projected starters for the 2011 season.  They won’t deal Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson or Mike Minor.  Nor do they seem very excited about the possibility of trading Jair Jurrjens.

Thus we’re back where we were last year, when they were contemplating the idea of trading either Derek Lowe or Javier Vazquez. But this year, it doesn’t appear they’ll be actively shopping Lowe like they were last year before reaching the point where they had to deal Vazquez to the Yankees. 

Having gone 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in his final five regular season starts and then impressing in his two postseason starts, Lowe certainly looks more appealing than he did at this time last year.  But the Braves would certainly be hard pressed to deal him without eating at least a portion of the $30 million they owe him over the next two years. 

If the Braves end up trading a pitcher, Vazquez will certainly be among the pitchers that they target to fill the rotation void.  But there is a belief that the Nationals or Marlins will be willing to offer more to give him a chance to rekindle the success he enjoyed in the NL East in 2009.

Minor League hires: When the Braves announce their Minor League coaching staff within the next couple of days, there will be a couple of familiar names.  Former Orioles manager Dave Trembley has reportedly been hired to serve as the Minor League field coordinator. 

In addition, Jonathan Schuerholz is expected to be named the manager for the Gulf Coast League Braves.  Schuerholz is the son of former Braves GM and current president John Schuerholz.

After playing his college ball at Auburn University, the younger Schuerholz played six seasons in the Braves organization, advancing as far as the Triple-A level.   He has spent the past couple seasons serving as the club’s Minor League infield instructor. 

This role provided Schuerholz the opportunity to be around the game on a daily basis and spend countless hours interacting with the likes of Triple-A Gwinnett manager Dave Brundage and former Double-A Mississippi Phil Wellman.        



Let the free-agent frenzy begin

While the Giants and their fans are still basking in the glory of winning the World Series, the rest of the baseball world has moved forward and accelerated their roster reconstruction plans for the 2011 season.

As soon as Giants closer Brian Wilson ended this year’s Fall Classic with a strikeout of Nelson Cruz last night, the free-agent market officially opened.  All players eligible to enter this market officially became free agents last night and over the course of the next five days their current clubs will have exclusive negotiating rights. 

In other words over the course of this week, the Braves will have exclusive negotiating rights with Troy Glaus, Eric Hinske and Derrek Lee.  Hinske stands as the only member of this trio who could return to Atlanta next year. 

But it will likely be at least a few more weeks before Hinske learns where he’ll be playing in 2011.  He will take advantage of the chance to evaluate his demand from other clubs. 

The Braves are looking for a right-handed backup for their left-handed first baseman Freddie Freeman. But if Hinske’s cost remains around $1.5 million, there’s certainly a chance they could attempt to bring him back to their bench. 

Closer Billy Wagner is among the Braves who had a team option for the 2011 season.  But when asked again this morning if he ‘d altered his plan to retire, Wagner didn’t even hesitate before emphatically saying, “No.”

Later today, the Braves will likely announce that they have exercised the $2.5 million options to bring both Alex Gonzalez and Omar Infante back next year.  They could also soon announce that they have reached an agreement with Scott Proctor, who would be entering his final arbitration-eligible season.

Proctor, who struggled while attempting to return from Tommy John surgery this past year, will likely get a base salary of approximately $750,000.  The veteran reliever’s contract will include some performance-based incentives that could allow him to earn close to $1 million.

The Braves aren’t expected to exercise the options to retain Kyle Farnsworth or Rick Ankiel.  Farnsworth’s $5.25 million option includes a $250,000 buyout.  Ankiel’s $6 million option includes a $500,000 buyout.

In other Braves-related news, general manager Frank Wren has hired highly-regarded Bob Johnson to serve as one of his advance scouts.  Johnson gained great respect from his peers during his long tenure in this role with the Mets. 

“He’s as good as it gets,” one Major League scout, not affiliated with the Braves, said earlier this week.

Johnson will be replacing Chuck McMichael, who was recently relieved of his duties with the organization.  McMichael had been with the Braves since the end of the 2000 season.  


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