Top-5 Off-Season Questions For The Atlanta Braves: #5

This is part five of a five part series of posts that will examine the most pressing questions for the Atlanta Braves this off-season.

Question Five:  Do the Braves have any money to spend?

Count me among those who just assumed that the Braves would have more payroll flexibility next season. Count me among those who would be wrong. Here's how:

Coming off the books will be $7 million from Kenshin Kawakami. About $2 million the Braves were paying Scott Linebrink. The $6.5 million the team was paying Nate McLouth, minus the $1.25 million buy-out for declining his 2012 option. The $1.2 from George Sherrill, $2 mil from Peter Moylan (who I assume will be non-tendered, though he may be re-signed to a lower salary), and $2.5 mil from Alex Gonzalez. That's a rough total of around $20 million coming off the payroll.

But the Braves have already committed money to players that will add to next year's payroll. Dan Uggla's salary will increase by $4 mil. Brian McCann's will increase by $2 mil. Michael Bourn will essentially replace McLouth's salary, and likely make somewhere around $7 million in 2012 after arbitration. Jair Jurrjens will probably add another $3 million to his salary after arb, Martin Prado will add around $2.5 million to his salary, and Eric O'Flaherty will add around $2 million. That total comes to around $20 million of additional payroll that was not a part of last year's team -- essentially wiping out all the savings the Braves would get from the salaries coming off the books.

My math may be off here and there, but the general idea holds -- the Braves will not have any wiggle room to add players with their current salary structure. Over the last few days we've been talking about the need to add a reliever or two and possibly some more offense, but doing that by taking on salary does not seem like an option for Atlanta this off-season; not without clearing payroll first.

I've also focused on several trades the Braves could make, and if the team wants to add any player making more than the minimum MLB salary (around $400,000), then they are going to have to part with some of their higher priced players. I've mentioned trading either Tommy Hanson or Jair Jurrjens, though I reasoned that Jurrjens was more likely to be moved. With the added salary that he will be making, Jurrjens looks like the prime trade candidate if the Braves wish to add players.

Martin Prado was also someone I identified as being a player that could likely be traded. And just as his value to another team in the infield may be worth that team giving the Braves a good return, his expected salary next season makes his departure a more likely move by the Braves.

This makes it even more of an imperative that the Braves try to unload at least some of Derek Lowe's salary. That may be the hardest mountain to climb of the off-season -- the team certainly couldn't move him either of the last two off-seasons -- but clearing even half of Lowe's $15 million would give the team enormous flexibility to add a player or two. Still, it's highly unlikely that will be possible, and so moving Jurrjens and/or Prado look like the best trade options on the team, if the Braves are to make any moves.

Then again, the Braves could simply stand pat and not do much of anything. With little flexibility in the payroll to add players, the front office may decide that Fredi Gonzalez and company have to try and win with the team they currently have. But in a season that saw the team undergo one of the worst collapses in the history of sports, will fans be happy if the composition of the team doesn't change? Injuries and ineffectiveness down the stretch aside, some fans will simply not be satisfied if changes aren't made. The real question may be, "how will the players respond if they show up in spring training and all 25 faces are the same?"

Let the most uncertain off-season ever for the Braves begin.

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