Entering the offseason, the Braves' two biggest needs were clear: a center fielder and a left fielder (or third baseman). While Frank Wren and company filled the former vacancy quickly by signing B.J. Upton, the latter has proven a more difficult spot to fill.
While much of the ink in Braves Country has been spilled on possible free agent solutions (Nick Swisher, Cody Ross, etc.) or on blockbuster trade possibilities (Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, etc.), there is no evidence that the Braves are pursuing any of these players with much vigor. That could change, of course; it's even possible that Wren is putting the finishing touches on a huge deal as I type this. But for now, he's saying this sort of thing:
#Braves GM Frank Wren said the team has interest in some one-year outfield stopgaps. He calls them "Caliparis.''— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) December 7, 2012
What does this tell us? Well, first of all, it shows that Wren has a wry sense of humor (I know just enough about college basketball to get that joke). Second, it shows that one of the following is true:
- Wren is genuinely uninterested in the multi-year free agent & trade possibilities and instead intends to acquire a short-term player to play left field.
- Wren is trying to send a message to agents and other teams that he has viable alternatives to signing/trading for their players.
I'm of the opinion that the second possibility is more likely, but let's pretend that it's the first one for this post. (Also, I'm assuming that the Braves don't go the Evan Gattis/Juan Francisco platoon route, as covered by Martin earlier.) If the Braves do acquire a stopgap player, what are their options?
The free agent stopgap possibilities aren't inspiring at all. Just about any free agent worth a damn is going to require a deal of more than one year. Even a part-time guy like Scott Hairston will almost certainly get a multi-year contract.
What's left is mostly decrepit former stars (Johnny Damon, Bobby Abreu, Raul Ibanez, etc.) and decrepit role players (Mark DeRosa, Endy Chavez, Scott Podsednik, etc.). I'm hoping Wren doesn't see those guys as options; we've already been down the Garret Anderson / Raul Mondesi route, and it didn't work.
Here are two slightly less hateful options who could reasonably be had on one-year contracts:
Kelly Johnson (will be 31 in February)
Was bad in 2012 and not very good in 2011; hasn't played in the outfield in 7 years; love or hate, TC regulars are already sick of talking about him
Has a history of bounce-back seasons (see 2010); offers solid OBP & power potential; is familiar to the organization; is young enough to rebound; is still a good athlete who could hold his own at LF or 3B
Ryan Raburn (will be 32 in April)
Was terrible with the bat in 2012 and not good in 2011 either; actually, he's declined offensively every year since 2009; is not a good defender overall; also is not a full-time player even in the best case
Had three straight 14+ homer seasons from 2009-11 in limited playing time; has hit lefties well in his career (.345 wOBA); can play 2B, 3B, and the outfield; has solid defensive ratings in left field (smallish sample, though)
And really, that's about it for guys who I'd even consider letting play regularly. Maybe Jack Hannahan to play third base? I'm really grasping at straws here.
But no, I'm not going to grasp at the straw whose name rhymes with Smellmon Dung. The Braves play in the NL, so that's just not a viable option.
Fortunately, there are some (much) better stopgap options who might be available in trade.
I checked this list of potential 2014 free agents and found several interesting (if flawed) options. All of these guys have just 1 guaranteed season left on their contracts, and all could be available in a trade, though the cost would be very high in a few cases. I left off Carlos Beltran and Hunter Pence because they play for contenders and haven't been mentioned in any rumors.
The list below is ordered roughly from most to least expensive in terms of what it'd cost to acquire each player. Caveats about availability apply, especially at the top of the list:
Curtis Granderson (will be 32 in March)
Probably isn't really available, though there are rumors; would require a huge return; has a high salary ($13M); is probably in decline defensively; would hit for less power outside of Yankee Stadium; strikes out a lot
Has averaged 16 road homers per season with the Yankees, so his power is not just the park; will take a walk, too (10.1% career rate); glove should play just fine in a corner; has lots of playoff experience
Jacoby Ellsbury (turned 29 in September)
Like Granderson, probably would require a big return (the Red Sox supposedly asked for Cliff Lee from the Phillies); will make around $8M in arbitration; has had two seasons ruined by injuries; has only had one above-average hitting season and likely won't hit nearly that well ever again; speedy but doesn't walk much
That one really good season was freaking amazing; is still young-ish; is an excellent defender and baserunner; could lead off; would still be a valuable player even if his bat doesn't bounce back
Shin-Soo Choo (turned 30 in July)
Again, would cost a lot in return (though not as much as the guys above); will also make around $8M in arbitration; had awful defensive ratings in 2012 (SSS, though, so I discount that); not much else, frankly
Top-tier OBP guy (.373 last year, .381 career) makes him a great fit at the top of the lineup; has good speed and decent power; just a very good all-around player, much like the Braves' other outfielders; relatively young
Carlos Gomez (just turned 27)
Doesn't get on base at all (.305 OBP last year, .294 career); has terrible plate discipline; has not been mentioned in any trade rumors that I know of, so he may cost a lot in trade
Is cheap, money-wise anyway: his arbitration estimate is under $4M; has had a power surge the past 1.5 seasons; is a great fielder; is still relatively young
Corey Hart (turns 31 in March)
Making $10M in 2013; bad enough defensively that the Brewers might move him to 1B; K and BB rates aren't great; numbers could take a hit outside of Miller Park
Averaged 29 homers and a .368 wOBA the last 3 years; is a solid, if unexceptional, player; likely wouldn't require a top prospect in return
Nelson Cruz (turned 32 in July) or David Murphy (turned 31 in October)
Probably won't be traded unless Rangers acquire another OF (Hamilton, Upton, etc.); Cruz is signed for $10.5M, while Murphy will make around $6M in arbitration; both have platoon worries, especially Murphy; moving from Texas will definitely hurt their numbers; neither is an outstanding hitter or fielder, all things considered
Could be had fairly cheaply (especially Murphy); Cruz offers solid power and Murphy offers solid OBP; both have extensive playoff experience (Cruz has been awesome in October)
There are also two potentially available players who have affordable team options for 2014:
Jason Kubel (turns 31 in May)
Is a brutal defender (he's basically the LF version of Dan Uggla); likely will only be dealt if Justin Upton isn't; HR totals will dip outside of Arizona; is owed $7.5M plus a $1M buyout on his option year
Very consistent; has good power and okay OBP; $7.5M option for 2014 could be worthwhile
David DeJesus (turns 33 this month)
Doesn't have any notable skill; power is especially lacking by LF standards; is getting up there in age
Is signed to a cheap contract ($4.25M for '13, $6.5M '14 club option with $1.5M buyout); offers solid OBP and defense; doesn't have any huge weaknesses
There's also Mike Morse, who I didn't include because he likely won't be traded in the division and really shouldn't be an outfielder anyway. Beyond that, there are a bunch of mediocre options along the lines of the free agent pool: Franklin Gutierrez, Coco Crisp, Rajai Davis, etc.
Personally, I'm still hoping for the Braves to make a bit more of a splash, but if they do go the stopgap route, there are some good options, in trade anyway. The best players would cost a lot to acquire, but even the mid-level guys listed above, like Hart or DeJesus, are perfectly adequate.
Taking everything into account, including trade and salary costs, I'm leaning towards Choo as the best stopgap option; he'd likely cost a top pitching prospect plus a couple other pieces, but that's doable. He's quite possibly better than Granderson and Ellsbury, but he likely would cost less than either (though that's just my guess).
We'll see how Frank Wren plays the situation. There are certainly a wealth of options for him to choose from. As long as he stays away from the late-30s-retread-type player, the Braves should be able to snag a good left fielder for 2013, if not longer.