A Look Ahead: The Braves And Free Agency

This is the first of a series of guest posts that we’ll be publishing from Ben Nicholson-Smith, one of the lead writers for MLB Trade Rumors. The guys over at MLBTR have an interesting perspective on things, and we thought it would be fun to give Ben a chance to share his views on a few different topics with the FanGraphs crowd.

Frank Wren hasn’t relied on free agency since taking over as the Braves’ GM; he handed out just two multiyear free agent deals in his first three offseasons in charge. This winter, as division rivals like the Nationals and Phillies committed hundreds of millions to the top available players, the Braves have spent a modest $2.65 million on Major League free agents – less than Jayson Werth or Cliff Lee makes in a month.

The Braves are approaching free agency like a small-market team, but unlike the Indians and Royals, the Braves have sustained payrolls in the $85-100 million range for the past decade and are built to contend in 2011. It’s not that they can’t spend on free agents, it’s that they didn’t have to.

Once the 2010 season ended, Atlanta’s offseason needs became apparent. Derrek LeeTakashi SaitoKyle Farnsworth and Billy Wagner hit free agency, so the Braves needed a first baseman and relief depth. And after a season in which Braves outfielders combined for just 40 home runs, the team was on the lookout for a right-handed slugger. Luckily for Braves fans, help from within was on its way.

First base prospect Freddie Freeman might not have Carlos Pena’s power, but he didn’t cost $10 million and he should become an everyday player for the Braves. Jonny VentersEric O’FlahertyCraig Kimbrel and Brandon Beachy are capable young relievers who can assume larger roles next year while earning considerably less than middle relievers like Jesse CrainMatt GuerrierJoaquin Benoit, who signed multiyear deals this offseason.

The Braves were able to address their most pressing need – right-handed power – by turning left-handed relief depth and a surplus of capable infielders intoDan Uggla.

Because the Braves had big-league ready players where they needed them most, they avoided free agency while other teams spent aggressively. So far this winter, 22 teams have signed at least one free agent to a multiyear deal, but the Braves are not one of them; they have limited themselves to one-year deals with lefty specialist George Sherrill and utility player Eric Hinske.

But it won’t be as easy for the Braves to avoid the free agent market next year, largely because it doesn’t appear that the team’s prospects will align as neatly with the big league team’s needs. Pitching prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado could be ready to contribute within a year, but the Braves’ currrent starters are all under team control for 2012, so the rotation is not the team’s main concern.

Though the Braves have their core players under team control, they’ll see a couple relievers (Sherrill and Scott Linebrink) hit the open market and will have to replace or re-sign Alex Gonzalez. Plus, Nate McLouth is likely a goner after the 2011 season, so the Braves will be looking for a center fielder unless McLouth starts playing like an All-Star again or Jordan Schafer rebounds.  In other words, it’s entirely possible that the Braves will have glaring needs at shortstop and center field next winter (and don’t forget about Chipper Jones, who turns 39 this April, is recovering from knee surgery and has had more than his share of minor injuries).

It doesn’t seem likely that Gonzalez’s immediate successor at short is currently in the Braves organization. Infield prospect Brandon Hicks’ once-promising power disappeared in the upper minors and Baseball America doesn’t consider the 25-year-old’s glove anything special. Tyler Pastornicky doesn’t appear to be on the cusp of the majors and teenage shortstops Edward Salcedo and Matt Lipka need time to develop.

The contracts for Kenshin Kawakami and McLouth expire after the season, so the Braves figure to have a modest amount of money at their disposal next winter, when shortstops Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes hit free agency. Center fielders such as Carlos BeltranDavid DeJesusCoco Crisp and, potentially, Grady Sizemore are also entering walk years, so the Braves will have options on the free agent market.

Back when he was running the Orioles, Wren signed Albert Belle to an ill-fated five-year, $65 million contract. The GM is no stranger to long-term free agent contracts and the risk that accompanies them, especially now that his biggest free agent signing in Atlanta – Derek Lowe – has been unspectacular.

It’s possible to avoid the pitfalls of free agency with consistent player development and well-timed trades, as Wren showed this offseason. But I expect that the Braves will be considerably more active on the free agent market next offseason, when they could be looking for relievers, plus a shortstop and a center fielder.



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