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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51 Responses to “A Look Ahead: The Braves And Free Agency”

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  1. AJ says:

    Good thing Wren traded away Yunel Escobar for Alex Gonzalez’ slowly decaying corpse.

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  2. John says:

    Shut up! Look at what escobar did with the blue jays and we also got a good prospect in return. Dan Uggla for Omar Infante…. yeah frank wren is “terrible”!!

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    • Anon21 says:

      No, Wren’s not terrible, but Escobar is better in just about every way than Gonzalez, and Wren sold low on him. It was a bad transaction which marred an otherwise very good 2010.

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      • Adam says:

        The trade was made for the one reason that Escobar is not better than Gonzalez: the clubhouse factor. There was no doubt that it was a forced sell low deal because the Braves decided that they weren’t going to put up with Escobar any more.

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      • Holier says:

        Well, even if you don’t believe in change of scenery, Gonzalez played much better for his time in the Braves than Esco did, leading to an upgrade there for the Braves. Then they also used Collins they got to get Farnsworth & Ankiel. Farns didn’t do too much in-season but Ankiel helped what was a black hole in CF, and the combo of the two helped to be the difference in game 2 of the NLCS, which if nothing else put some more $$ in the Braves basket. Considering the Braves were 1 game away from having to do at least a play-in, I’d say the moves were worth it. Not to mention Gonzalez could potentially net the Braves some picks down the road and Escobar needs to turn it around or he could become non-tender material. Then there is Pastornicky, a useful but not elegant piece. There’s a good chance the Braves miss the playoffs without the trade. If Escobar turns it around it could hurt them down the road, but I don’t think the Braves are that upset at the results so far.

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      • Anon21 says:

        I don’t know how you can be so sure that Gonzalez was an upgrade for the Braves last season. Escobar and Gonzalez hit similarly poorly after joining their new teams: .275/.340/.356 vs. .240/.291/.386, respectively. Generally, Escobar is perceived to have a better glove than Gonzalez, so he probably provided more overall value to the Jays last season than Gonzalez provided to the Braves. And I don’t see what the point is of comparing Escobar’s first half to Gonzalez’s second half, since it assumes that Escobar’s first half represents his true talent level, or a talent level likely to persist across the course of the season, which was far from clear.

        Ankiel and Farnsworth were basically wastes of space. Yes, as it so happened they helped the Braves win Game 2 of the NLDS, but that wasn’t predictable or likely, and I’m not inclined to give Wren credit for freak occurrences. Ankiel was part of the CF black hole, he didn’t fill it; Farnsworth was abysmal.

        Meanwhile, the Braves have a really bad-hitting SS for 2011, vs. a SS who may have been bad, but has shown in the recent past (2009), that he’s capable of delivering above-average offensive production for his position. And past 2011, the Braves have no certainty at that position, whereas had they retained Escobar, they wouldn’t be scrambling to shove a prospect who’s not ready into the maw or acquire a free agent next offseason.

        Finally, I get the clubhouse thing, and how if you can’t get along with Bobby, then blah blah blah. So maybe Escobar absolutely needed to get moved at some point. Still, I don’t think it had to happen this past year. I think his value was at its nadir, and a good businessman does not unload an unwanted asset at its lowest point, he waits for it to rebound. Some people have said the Braves may actually have had reason to expect Escoabar to decline still further. I don’t see it–I see a good, relatively young player who had a down year. If Escobar does become non-tender bait, which I still think is unlikely, then I’ll retroactively up Wren’s grade on this deal. Until then, he earns a solid D- on the SS swap.

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      • Holier says:

        Can’t reply to the other post, so I’ll just go here.

        Ankiel has a .5 WAR in his time with the Braves, and the Braves as a total had -1.4 WAR. A pretty clear upgrade over McLouth and Melky at the time. That said, I would take McLouth over the other two going forward (ignoring contract).

        I think the main motivation to move him was part of what you said,
        “Some people have said the Braves may actually have had reason to expect Escoabar to decline still further. I don’t see it–I see a good, relatively young player who had a down year.” If the Braves believed how you did about Escobar, the trade likely would not have taken place, clubhouse thing aside. If they don’t think a bounceback is in order, it’s best to cut bait before his value starts seriously plummeting. The package in return was useful but not spectacular, but if Escobar truly becomes non-tender bait at the end of this year, the Braves end up with a lot more than they had riding him out.

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    • AJ says:

      No, you shut up! Is it so difficult to acknowledge that the Escobar for Gonzalez deal was hideous and is going to hurt the Braves long term? Is it franchise crippling? Of course not. I’m trying to mock one deal here, not indict the entire Frank Wren regime. Psst, it is the same logic that acknowledges my team’s GM can make a competent free agent signing. FRANCIS FOREVER!!!!!

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      • deadpool says:

        Man, people forget that before Escobar started playing in the Majors he was nobody. He was universally considered an overdraft and in his debut season in AA he posted a .346 SLG. He flashed power in four months of his rookie season and all the predictions that he was going to be a .280 empty hitter evaporated. I’m not saying you should never revise opinions, but even still there were alot of people who never though Yunel would be as good as he was in 2008, and still alot who thought that was his peak afterward. The only real improvement he made was in discipline and that made him above average, but alot of his value as a future “superstar” was tied into some vague notion that he’d find that power again. He’s got a good chance at being a useful player going forward, and that’s well and good, but whether he was worth the headache is something that we just can’t know on the outside looking in.

        I’d also point out that his attitude was a problem going all the way back to that AA season.

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      • My echo and bunnymen says:

        Jesus, I’m waiting for a third reich comment like I was Godwin.

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  3. Jack P says:

    I suspect that the Braves’ plan will be to avoid the free agent market as much as possible by leveraging some of their pitching depth to meet team needs, similar to the Uggla deal. If Teheran and Delgado develop as anticipated, one could well imagine Derek Lowe and/or Juir Jurrgens being offered to pitching hungry clubs in the off season.

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    • hoho says:

      I definitely see Jurrjens being traded mid-season if he’s healthy & the Braves aren’t in contention. He’s a free agent next year & his agent is Scott Boras. He just doesn’t seem to fit into their future plans.

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      • hooch says:

        I agree with the possibility of a trade, just wanted to point out that he’s under team control for another two seasons. If he comes back strong in the first half, he could fetch a solid return IMO.

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  4. stew says:

    Based on his last month of the season, Lowe might be attractive to someone (Yanks or possibly Rangers). Even if they they have to eat some of his contract, right now is a great opportunity to ditch him. If he could somehow pitch like he did in September and October, he could be a plus. But, I sincerely doubt that will happen and the cash saved will certainly be able to improve more needed areas.

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  5. rawwr says:

    One minor nitpick: Billy Wagner didn’t hit free agency this offseason – he was under contract through 2011 – he decided to retire.

    Aside from that, this is a nice summary of the Braves’ current personnel situation, though I disagree with some of the conclusions you made.

    1) I think the Braves view Pastornicky as their shortstop of the (near) future. A .338 wOBA in AA at age 20 shouldn’t be dismissed, especially when you consider that his glove is reportedly very good and he had enough speed to steal 35 bases in 44 attempts last season. He’ll likely start the season in AA, and if he shows even moderate improvement I’d be willing to bet the Braves will head into spring training in 2012 expecting that he’ll win the starting SS job. Also worth noting is the fact that Pastornicky is the only SS in the Braves system who will definitely be staying at SS; Salcedo will almost certainly be moving to 3B at some point, the Braves have said they’re considering moving Lipka to CF and Mycal Jones was moved from SS to CF this offseason.

    2) Even with Kawakami’s contract running out the Braves are going to have a log jam at SP in 2012. Hudson, Hanson, Lowe, Minor, Medlen, Beachy, Teheran, Delgado and Arrodys Vizcaino all have some chance of being ready to join the MLB rotation. A couple of those (Medlen, Beachy) could likely move to the bullpen, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or more traded, either at the deadline this year or in the offseason. While Frank Wren has been reticent to fill needs via free agency since taking over the Braves, he has made quite a few trades, so I think it likely that we’ll see him trade from the coming pitching surplus to fill a need or two.

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  6. Beer me! says:

    I agree with Jack P. The best case scenario for the Braves in the winter of ’11/’12 would be that Jurrjens had a good 2011 and they’re able to flip him for either a SS or CF. They would then only need to acquire one of those two positions via free agency. Of course, as Ben stated, it’s quite possible that Chipper Jones won’t be around in ’12, which would mean moving Martin Prado to third and needing to acquire a left fielder as well. So that’d be two free agents.

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    • Bronnt says:

      Jurrjens is certainly trade bait, because the Braves will probably not want to be paying him what he could earn on the free agent market. They’ll certainly be wanting to clear a spot for top prospect Julio Teheran so that he’s not stuck languishing in AAA for them. Kris Medlen, coming off of Tommy John surgery, would give them a 7th option for their starting rotation, and if Randall Delgado is ML-ready by 2012, they could have as many 8 very good pitchers.

      The Braves will be probably be looking to turn that starting pitching depth into a good young shortstop. It’s unfortunate that they already traded away a good young shortstop under extended team control, but AA’s mind control powers are not to be underestimated.

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  7. Thomas says:

    Very nicely done. Wren has used the position player stopgap-to-prospect approach to free agency nearly exclusively as our GM. Since our we will continue to be a rotation/bullpen centric team with a few guys counted on to keep the lineup together going forward – McCann, Heyward, Uggla, Prado and depending on 2011 maybe Chipper and Freeman – I really dont see any huge contracts given out to CF or SS next offseason.

    Center will be filled by a healthy Schafer but if his lingering broken wrist
    ends his career then Wren will go the stopgap route waiting on Lipka or M.Jones. At short I really do believe Pastornicky can fill in well enough in 2012-2013 to be a stopgap for Salcedo, Lipka(again), or Simmons. If not I could maybe see a two year deal to a gloveman type but again nothing extravagant as to block any of our prospects.

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  8. Xave says:

    Nice article Ben. Looking forward to the rest of your series here at Fangraphs!

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  9. gradygradychase says:

    Oh, while many of the Braves are mentioned, Jason Heyward could never be seen at all.

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  10. ColoradoBravesFan says:

    Just a small detail..Wagner didn’t hit free agency. Hopefully Schafer and Chipper produce this year and next. Getting us to the younger prospects. But, I believe Jurrjens could have a good year and be traded next off season to fill needs. Go Braves….

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  11. harpago17 says:

    Wren has shown in his tenure with the Braves that he prefers to trade for talent than to acquire it via the free agent market. And from a stictly money standpoint he probably is working in the more efficient market, as players already under contract are generally paid less than they would be in a free agent deal.

    Also, while Albert Belle was ‘technically’ a Wren signing, it is relatively common knowledge that Orioles owner Peter Angelos was the one pulling the strings on that deal. Wren was never given the kind of autonomy in Baltimore that he now has in Atlanta.

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  12. PaulV says:

    Orioles are doomed

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  13. nick says:

    The Belle deal would have been a steal when it was all said and done if he didn’t get hurt. Jurrjens needs to be traded for a bat, maybe a Nelson Cruz since he will be entering free agency soon

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  14. Baxter B says:

    Gonzalez is good. Escobar showed lack of hustle on plays. Next offseason i think the Braves will sign Grady Sizemore and some other big free agent. Maybe Yuniesky Betancourt, oh and Jose Bautista.

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    • AJ says:

      Yuniesky Betancourt and big free agent in the same sentence. Can someone check my sarcasm meter as surely I must be missing the snark here.

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    • JT Grace says:

      I seriously hope you are joking about Yuniesky Betancourt. He is one of the worst players in major league baseball.

      Escobar > Gonzalez>>>>>>>>>Betancourt

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  15. Jim says:

    Good article, Ben.

    Regarding Kenshin Kawakami for a moment–yes, Kawakami’s contract will expire, and as he’s not on the 40-man roster currently, I don’t imagine he’ll make it through the end of the 2011 season with the Braves’ organization as it currently stands(he might even be traded before spring training begins, who knows?)

    But, just for a minute, let’s assume he did end the season on the Braves’ 40-man roster–or any other teams’ 40-man roster, for that matter. Does he qualify for free agency like some Japanese players have(Koji Uehera, for one), or does he become arbitration-eligible/subject to automatic contract renewal, depending on his service time? I’m thinking of Takahashi Saito as an example of the Japanese players who have had to go that route, what with being non-tendered by the Dodgers a few years ago when he became arb-eligible.

    Just curious, as there doesn’t seem to be much uniformity to how Japanese players are treated with regards to expiring contracts and free agency once they come over to MLB(or is just the players who were stars in Japan who are allowed to become free agents once their first contract expires, versus regular players who become arb-eligible after a 3-year contract, for example?)

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  16. Brian says:

    Gonzalez was an upgrade to Escobar in 2010 for Atl. Escobar had only 11 extra base hits with just 16RBI in the second half with Tor, while Gonzalez had 25 extra base hits with 38RBI in the second half with Atl. Atlanta got exactly what they wanted in the trade, more power from SS spot that was terrible in the 1st half, and more leadership and experience.

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    • Bronnt says:

      Welcome to Fangraphs, where we look beyond silly stats like Extra Base Hits and RBIs and try to look deeper.

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      • Brian says:

        you can look deeper…and still see that he was an improvement over the immature 28yr old Escobar, regardless of XBH or any other numerical stat.

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    • AJ says:

      Damn those cursed numerical stats [like XBH and RBI], which you use to justify the Gonzalez deal. Of course, they are extremely volatile and ignore other more worthwhile statistical evaluations of players, but they do involve numbers. I’m far more sympathetic to the concept that Escobar was a d-bag in the clubhouse, but there is no way of knowing that other than some very good investigative reporting not done by the MLB Pravda.

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  17. Daniel says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but won’t Chipper’s contract be expiring after this season so we’ll either: A. have to find a new third baseman or B. move Prado to 3rd and get a new full-time LF as well as a CF and SS.

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    • Brian says:

      its through 2012, with an option for 2013. Here is a decent breakdown:

      Jones receives annual salaries of $13 million from 2010-12 and can earn $1.5 million a year in performance bonuses: $750,000 each for 135 and 140 games.

      His contract contains a $9 million option for 2013 that would become guaranteed if he plays in 123 games in 2012 or averages 127 games in 2011-12. The option price could increase by up to $4 million: $1 million each for 128, 133, 138 and 140 games in 2012 (or averages of 132, 137, 138 and 140 in 2011-12). In addition, he could earn $1.5 million in performance bonuses based on the earlier criteria.

      If the vesting option fails to become guaranteed, the club would hold a $7 million option.

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  18. Scout Finch says:

    Nice synopsis of the Bravos’ putative plans. Looking forward to more of these.

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  19. NickH says:

    Chipper’s contract is as follows:
    # 10:$13M, 11:$13M, 12:$13M, 13:$7M club option
    # 2013 option guaranteed at $9M with:

    * 123 games in 2012, or
    * average of 127 games in 2011-12
    # 2013 option price increases by $1M each for:

    * 128, 133, 138, 140 games in 2012, or
    * averages of 132, 137, 138, 140 games in 2011-12

    Source: http://mlbcontracts.blogspot.com/2005/01/atlanta-braves_15.html

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  20. harpago17 says:

    I really doubt that the Braves will be huge players in FA next offseason either. The only significant payroll they have coming off the books is McLouth and Kawakami, and they also will have arbitration raises to Prado, Jurrjens, and possibly Hanson, as well as salary increases to McCann and Uggla due to their contracts. Combine that with the possibility of signing some of their younger guys to long-term deals (Hanson and Heyward seem the most likely options), and I don’t know that there is a ton of flexibility in the Braves budget. Fortunately, there won’t be many holes to fill either, as McLouth and Gonzalez are the only projected starters that are not under contract for 2012, and the bullpen should be able to be replicated for a similar price to what they are paying this year (and possibly cheaper due to the glut of young arms the Braves have at AAA and AA). It’s even possible, though far from likely, and Jordan Schafer develops enough this year to take over McLouth’s job in 2012, which leaves the Braves in the enviable position of simply needing a SS.

    A lot can happen between now and next year, so odds are that the needs the Braves actually face going into 2012 will be drastically different that what we are currently projecting. But it is fun to speculate on what might happen (my guess is that a trade for Stephen Drew makes a lot of sense between now and next season….).

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  21. guy mcdonald says:

    IF JJ returns to form, would a package of JJ and Gonzo be a good package for a year and a half of Stephen Drew?

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  22. JT Grace says:

    Good article but I don’t see the Braves as needing any free agent relievers next year. They have tons of young pitchers marching through their minor league system. Several should be ready by next season.

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  23. Ryan says:

    If Hanson, Hudson, Lowe, Jurrjens, and Kawakami were all to perish in the same car, they could hypothetically start 5 rookies. Minor, Beachy, Teheran, Vizcaino, and Delgado right now would be miles ahead of what the Pirates or Royals will use in April. I think the Braves are going to be just fine.

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    • Joe says:

      Vizcaino, who nearly blew out his elbow and threw 2 innings after June? And only had a cup of coffee in A+ this year? That Vizcaino? Please.

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    • Bronnt says:

      And now they have the great Rodrigo Lopez as well. Yay!

      Seriously though, instead of Vizcaino, you’d have been better off with Jose Ortegano or Erik Cordier or Todd Redmond. They’ve got some solid depth in AAA starters who might suffice for brief stretches.

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  24. Josh says:

    Ok guys technically Wagner DID hit free agency, because when the time came for players to “hit” free agency, Wags hadn’t filed the paperwork to retire, and I’m still not sure he has so Ben is completely right he was/is a FA. One thing I saw is that you (Ben) called Beachy a “reliever” when he hasn’t been a reliever at all for ATL or Gwinnett…he’s a starter battling Minor, Lopez for the 5th starter spot come spring training. Now Beachy might end up being a long man or MR for the Braves in ’11, but that’s no sure thing, anything can happen in spring training. Otherwise a good analysis, and hope we can afford Reyes if he does make it to the market, seems like he’s what we have been needing since Furcal left….a speed leadoff and that can reach base and completely mess with a pitchers concentration.

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    • DonCoburleone says:

      Jose Reyes is not going to happen. If he bounces back this year or is even the same as 2010 the Mets will sign him long term. If he keeps getting hurt this year or just flat out sucks then why would the Braves sign him in 2012?

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  25. Josh says:

    And by the way Yunel was garbage, if you are a braves fan you knew it. He had an attitude worse than Hanley Ramirez (and that’s saying something). He was slower than Adam Dunn and I had never accepted him to be the future for us at SS. Frank Wren and the Braves know what kind of character they want on the team and that was clearly not Escobar, I applaud him for getting something for him.

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  26. Josh says:

    And some more, the link for the Wagner signing and one showing how he is still currently on the Braves 40 man roster, like I said, I assume you understand what a 1 year deal means: http://www.talkingchop.com/2011/1/21/1948820/braves-quote-for-the-day-wagner-still-on-the-40-man-roster. And the other: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=4705811. Well there was a club option for ’11 but obviously it was not exercised so again technically he is a FA/in limbo player. You are welcome Ben.

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  27. DonCoburleone says:

    I predict the Braves either trade for a Shortstop after this season or they re-sign Alex Gonzalez to a cheap, 1 year with a vesting option type deal. Where they go to free agency will be in CF, and thats not necessarily a good thing. I question whether Beltran and Dejesus can even play center field anymore while Sizemore and Crisp (and Beltran) are giant injury risks.. Man, I guess of those 4 Sizemore is the best if healthy, but again if he’s healthy this year then next offseason there will be a bidding war for him. I say sign Crisp to something like a 2 year, $12MM deal next offseason.

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  28. Josh says:

    No we don’t miss Andrus that bad other than the glove and wheels he is a joke. 0 homers come on man! He can’t hit for average either.

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