Changes for 2014 center on McCann, Hudson, Uggla
Braves ready to usher in new era as backstop hits free agency, veteran righty rehabs
ATLANTA -- With the disappointment of being eliminated by the Dodgers in the National League Division Series still fresh in his memory, Braves general manager Frank Wren has already begun evaluating some of the tough decisions he will need to make this offseason.
While it is assumed Brian McCann will exit via free agency, Wren has to at least consider whether to attempt to bring Tim Hudson back next year. Hudson, who fractured his right ankle on July 24, will not be cleared to begin normal offseason activities for another month, making it difficult to project if there will be any lingering effects on the 38-year-old hurler.
Another top offseason priority will involve the future of Dan Uggla, who was benched at the end of the regular season and left off the NLDS roster. Uggla has two years and $26 million remaining on his contract. In order to move him via trade, the Braves will have to find a suitor and be willing to eat a significant portion of that salary, possibly as much as $20 million.
The Braves could benefit from the addition of a legitimate ace. While the free-agent market will not include a pitcher that fits this description, Atlanta could be among the clubs that at least look at what it might take to acquire David Price from the Rays.
Early indications are that the Braves could have somewhere in the neighborhood of $15-20 million to spend on the free-agent and trade markets. But this total will be influenced by Uggla's situation and significant raises owed to many of Atlanta's 13 arbitration-eligible players.
Craig Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman are going to receive significant raises as they enter their first arbitration-eligible seasons. The same can be said of Jason Heyward and Chris Johnson as they enter their second arbitration-eligible seasons.
The Braves made a lot of noise last winter when they gave B.J. Upton a franchise-record contract and then acquired his younger brother, Justin Upton, and Chris Johnson in a blockbuster deal with the D-backs.
This winter could prove to be eventful yet again for Wren and his staff. But the direction this offseason goes will be influenced by a number of different financial variables.
Arbitration-eligible: Heyward, Freeman, Kimbrel, Johnson, RHP Jordan Walden, RHP Kris Medlen, RHP Brandon Beachy, OF Jordan Schafer, LHP Jonny Venters, RHP Cristhian Martinez, INF Ramiro Pena, INF Elliot Johnson, INF Paul Janish
Free agents: McCann, Hudson, LHP Eric O'Flaherty, LHP Paul Maholm, LHP Scott Downs, RHP Luis Ayala, RHP Kameron Loe, RHP Freddy Garcia
Club Options: OF Reed Johnson ($1.6 million option, $150,000 buyout)
Non-Tender Candidates: Venters, E. Johnson, C. Martinez and Janish
Rotation: Regardless of whether Hudson returns, the Braves will enter 2014 with more certainty about their rotation than they did this year. When this past season began, the rotation consisted of three pitchers -- Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran -- who combined for fewer than 55 career starts. But over the past six months, each member of this trio proved they were capable of serving as Nos. 2 or 3 starters at the big league level.
The Braves' rotation will receive a big boost if Beachy regains his health and the form that helped him produce a Major League-leading 2.00 ERA before he underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in June 2012. Beachy returned to make five starts this year before having to undergo another surgery to clean some areas around his surgically repaired elbow. The club has said Beachy will not have any limitations at the start of Spring Training.
Alex Wood certainly has the potential to begin next year in Atlanta's rotation. The left-hander posted a 0.90 ERA in five August starts, then battled some fatigue as he neared the end of his first full professional season. Another candidate who could draw attention in Spring Training is David Hale, who earned a postseason roster spot courtesy of the two strong starts he made as a late addition to Atlanta's expanded September roster.
Bullpen: If Luis Avilan and David Carpenter build off this past season's success and Walden rebounds from the late-August groin injury that made him ineffective down the stretch, the Braves will feature a strong core of setup men for Kimbrel. Anthony Varvaro has proven he can provide reliable depth. It will be interesting to see if the club attempts to keep either O'Flaherty or Venters. Both will be sidelined until at least mid-May while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Catcher: With McCann likely to exit via free agency, the Braves will usher in a new era behind the plate. Gerald Laird will return to likely serve as a backup and mentor to Evan Gattis and Christian Bethancourt, who stand as the most likely candidates to serve as Atlanta's starting catcher. Gattis gave the Braves some confidence he can handle the position from a defensive perspective, while defense has never been an issue for Bethancourt. But to gain the everyday role, he will have to prove the offensive success he had during the second half of this season with Double-A Mississippi was a sign of things to come.
First base: Freeman will return next year looking to build on what he accomplished while establishing himself as a National League Most Valuable Player Award candidate this year. His presence has provided the Braves the stability they lacked at first base since Fred McGriff's days in Atlanta concluded.
Second base: If the Braves are able to move Uggla, Pena, Elliot Johnson or Minor Leaguer Tommy La Stella stand as the top internal candidates to fill the everyday role at second base. The club will also spend the next few weeks and months looking at acquiring other options via free agency or trade.
Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons provided more than could have been imagined during his first full Major League season. Along with being credited with more Defensive Runs Saved (41) than any other shortstop since the metric was first used in 2003, he hit 17 home runs, which stands as the second most totaled by a shortstop in Braves history.
Third base: Chris Johnson proved to be the most surprising contributor this past season. After platooning with Juan Francisco for two months, he assumed the starting role at third base and proved his doubters wrong by continuing to provide consistency at the plate. While he might not compete for a batting title every year, he has shown his offensive capabilities should not be discounted.
Outfield: It seemed the Braves could be comforted with the confidence that Heyward and the Upton brothers would serve as their outfield trio through at least the end of the 2015 season. But that was before B.J. Upton's struggles reached the point where he spent most of the final two months in a backup role. With four years and $59.8 million left on his contract, he will likely enter the 2014 season as Atlanta's starting center fielder, with his younger brother and Heyward manning the corner spots. But if he does not turn things around, Schafer could once again gain a more prominent role than expected.