Braves add to the intrigue by scheduling a meeting with Lester

Braves president of baseball operations John Hart has repeatedly said his club does not have the payroll flexibility to pursue the top starting pitchers on this free agent market. But with the opportunity to slash some funds off the payroll with some potential moves, Hart has at least not ruled out the possibility of giving Jon Lester a chance to be employed near his suburban Atlanta home.

A Major League source said Lester and the Braves will meet on Thursday. There is a chance this meeting will simply enhance the demand for the veteran left-hander, who is also drawing interest from the Red Sox, Cubs and Blue Jays. But at the same time, there is now further reason to believe the Braves are prepared to make more trades in order to create the financial flexibility necessary to significantly impact their need for starting pitching.

By trading Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to the Cardinals on Monday, the Braves improved their rotation with the addition of Shelby Miller and also took approximately $11 million off a payroll that is expected to rest around $110 million again this year. To get in position to afford Lester, who is expected to gain a $20 million-plus salary, Atlanta would likely have to trade Justin Upton, who is owed $14.5 million before becoming a free agent next year.

There has long been reason to believe the Braves would trade Heyward, Upton and possibly Evan Gattis at some point this winter. Given that he has one more arbitration-eligible season remaining, a trade involving Gattis would not create any immediate financial relief. But the right-handed slugger could draw a nice return from an American League club that could use him as a catcher and designated hitter.

Lester’s draw to the Braves might be rooted in the fact that his Peachtree City, Ga. home is located approximately 25 minutes from Turner Field. The 30-year-old southpaw produced a 2.46 ERA and 2.80 Fielding Independent Pitching mark while combining to make 32 starts for the Red Sox and A’s last year.

Atlanta’s rotation currently consists of Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Alex Wood and Miller. Given that David Hale is the only other Major League-ready starting pitcher in the system, the Braves are expected to target more starters over the next few weeks.

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