• Exclusives

    What the future holds for Braves’ offense

    When the non-tender deadline passes today, teams around baseball will know exactly where their rosters stand. Like the twenty-nine other teams around the league, the Braves have been aware since the season ended what their biggest holes. For Atlanta, as Kent Covington pointed out, the most glaring problems have been with pitching. An ongoing crisis of arms that began with the fall of Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens continues today as the Braves decide which of Kris Medlen or Brandon Beachy to tender. However, the offense is not without its problems and its hole, too.

    Yesterday the Seattle Mariners signed slugger Nelson Cruz to a 4-year deal. The deal itself seems likely to blow up for Seattle somewhere between seasons two and three. Seattle had been one of the teams that seemed the most likely fit for a guy like Justin Upton. Though the Braves contend they haven’t been shopping Upton around, they have been getting plenty of calls about he and fellow slugger Evan Gattis. Prior to the Cruz signing, it would have seemed that Upton and Gattis together could answer all of the Mariners offensive woes (protection for highest-paid player Robinson Cano, backup for everyday catcher Mike Zunino) while giving the Braves what they need most: starting pitching. This didn’t work out and as of this writing the Braves still have both Upton and Gattis.

    Tommy La Stella was sent to the Chicago Cubs in November for former Brave Arodys Vizcaino.

    Tommy La Stella was sent to the Chicago Cubs in November for former Brave Arodys Vizcaino.

    With the possible trade partner of Seattle, the Braves were all but assured a starting pitcher. Whether that be Taijuan Walker or James Paxton, that would have answered the pitching need that saw the Braves trade away Jason Heyward to the Cardinals for starter Shelby Miller and Tommy La Stella to the Cubs to reacquire Arodys Vizcaino. The Mariners, unlike the Braves, have a flexible and growing budget. It was a better organizational decision to seek out a free agent. The Braves, despite the growth in their budget in the last two years, do not have this luxury.

    Where does this leave Atlanta with possible trades? They have spoken for nearly a year with the Astros about Evan Gattis. Their requirement of Houston seems a bridge too far, though. The Braves would require the Astros to pick up the remainder of the B.J. Upton deal in addition to swapping Gattis for Dexter Fowler. This, of course, wouldn’t answer the question of what to do in rightfield with the departure of Heyward. Fowler could potentially be a lead off man, but not exactly the prototypical lead off man it seems Atlanta has been looking for over the past four to five years.

    A small market for outfielders means the prices will be high for free agents. This would include aging and health-plagued bats like Torii Hunter and Nick Markakis. Other OF options out there are Alex Rios and Matt Kemp. The chances of the Braves taking on the money and potential health risks of Kemp are slim. Rios looks to be more likely to stay in the American League.

    Let’s take a step back for a moment and assume the Braves don’t make a deal to send Justin Upton elsewhere. Upton is due to make $14.5 million in 2015. He will then leave as a FA, assuming he is too expensive for the Braves to hang on to. If they make a qualifying offer after the 2015 season and he chooses to walk, they are assured a draft pick. For a guy who still hit 29 homers and posted 102 RBIs in 2014, that’s not a terrible bat to keep around despite the strikeouts. Unlike his brother, there is a still a huge upside to keeping Upton.

    As far as Evan Gattis, he is more expendable for Atlanta (yes, it breaks my heart to say that). Young and cheap for the team, he isn’t breaking the bank sticking around, but he is a semi-valuable trade chip. If they could come to terms with Houston in a deal that would bring either a hitter like Fowler or even a starting pitcher like Feldman to the club, it would be worth it to the front office to do so. Gattis has the potential to be a very good American League hitter–given the ability to DH regularly–and would still be able to catch either in a starting or backup role. Let’s face it: He’s not a great option in left field for any club.

    While on the topic of backup catchers, let’s discuss our old friend David Ross. Ross left two years ago to go win a World Series with the Boston Red Sox and now his contract is up. Because his battery mate Jon Lester is also looking for a team, the probability that they end up in the same place is good given their chemistry and Lester’s improved numbers with Ross behind the dish. But if Lester were to sign with Atlanta, a club he has talked to, or Ross were to sign away from Lester, Ross would be a great guy to have back with the club in a backup role. The front office has been looking for a veteran guy to fill the backup role behind either Gattis or Bethancourt and Ross fits that bill on top of already having amazing chemistry with the other guys on the roster. A few other options for Atlanta to consider: Retaining Gerald Laird, signing A.J. Pierzynski, approaching John Buck or continuing their offseason trade partnership with the Yankees to get Austin Romine. Of those options none add much to the offense above and beyond what Laird has the last two years. In fact, Laird, despite not having much power, is the better bet at getting on base. But if the Braves are looking for a guy who can lead the staff every few days, you can’t go wrong with John Buck.

    On a final note let’s return to the issue of who will fill the lead off hitter void that Jason Heyward leaves. Heyward was never meant to be a lead off hitter. It just so happened he was the Braves’ best option. Andrelton Simmons isn’t meant to be a lead off hitter and B.J. Upton’s lead off days went the way of the dodo when his strikeout rate went through the roof. With Ramiro Pena and Tommy La Stella gone, the options are few. If the Braves ever give Jose Constanza a true shot in the big leagues he could presumably lead off. And the latest Yankee to join the club, Zoilo Almonte, is too much of a wild card. That leaves the possibility of signing Fowler and asking him to step into that role or doing something else entirely.

    Here’s a thought: Say the Mariners are still interested in Justin Upton or Evan Gattis. They do still need a right fielder and maybe a backup catcher. They have a backlog of outfielders in Triple-A (guys like Julio Morban and Stefen Romero) and players they have been hanging onto despite talks during the trade deadline last year. What about Dustin Ackley? He, too, isn’t a prototypical lead off man. But he brings speed, good base running and exceptional baseball IQ to his game. After wanting to bring up Nick Franklin and then Chris Taylor followed by signing premiere second baseman Robinson Cano, Dustin Ackley was tried in the outfield and turned into a decent left fielder. His speed would be an asset in the large expanse of Turner Field as well as on the base paths. He’s a grinder and one any club would love to have. Are you reading this John Hart? A trade for Ackley, depending on the circumstances, could also bring with him a reliever from one of the best rated and least talked about bullpens in either league.

    Perhaps it’s merely wishful thinking on my part to see the Mariners and Braves become trade partners. Never rule out the wild card in baseball: Billy Beane. It’s said that the A’s also have interest in Gattis, Upton or both. If that’s the case, who knows what will happen.

    With the non-tender deadline today and winter meetings to begin soon, it looks like we’ll have answers soon.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.