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Previewing the Winter Meetings

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The annual General Managers Winter Meetings officially start this Monday in Florida, but they unofficially start tonight when GMs and their entourages begin their myriad of discussions as they arrive Sunday night. With the way the free agent season has exploded in the first month of the hot stove league, the meetings this year are expected to produce an even greater flurry of signings and trades than they normally do. The question is, will the Braves be a part of them or will they remain on the sidelines.

One of the big advantages that Braves GM John Schuerholz may go to the Winter Meetings with is a large accumulation of groundwork. While the Braves have been transactionally quiet so far this off-season, Schuerholz has undoubtedly made a lot of phone calls and opened up a lot of options in his early efforts to trade Marcus Giles and open up payroll space for the once-possible return of Tom Glavine.

In the past week many of the small chips have fallen into place; Counsell in Milwaukee, Kennedy in St. Louis, Roberts, Aurilia, and Durham in San Francisco, probably Graffanino in San Diego and Lugo in Boston. As these pieces shake out, we will see some doors close as possible destinations for Marcus Giles, and others open up. The big problem the Braves face in finding a new home for their second baseman is that several clubs that have free agent holes at second base have penciled in their young stars. Pedroia in Boston and Kendrick in Anaheim potentially seal off two openings that would have otherwise been perfect destinations for Marcus. The deal with San Diego could still happen, but neither GM seems in a hurry to get it done.

I said in an earlier post that I believed Horacio Ramirez would be the first Braves player traded, and I stand by that assertion. He has been injured quite a bit in his brief Major League career, but he's still capable of 180+ innings, he's left-handed, and most of all he's very affordable. He becomes expendable to the Braves because of the return of Mike Hampton and the emergence of Chuck James. There is always the talk of Carl Crawford from Tampa Bay, and a package of Ramirez and Davies might get the trade done if the Braves are willing to part with both. The Rays would be fools to turn down two starters of that ilk for a piece of their crowded outfield. They have been another team that has been rather quiet this off-season, but after failing to get any major deal accomplished last off-season and the potential of watching Julio Lugo depart via free agency this off-season, the Tampa front office may have learned that the perfect offer for one of their stars does not exist, and that a decent offer should be accepted. They will also be under increased pressure to improve their starting pitching staff without adding to payroll, and dealing Crawford would seem to be the most logical piece to offer up to other teams to get the highest value in return.

The Braves stand at an even greater position of strength in starting pitching than many realize. The two relievers the Braves got from Arizona last season were both impressive late in the season as starters, and teams around the league looking for inexpensive fourth or fifth starters or potential swing men may value the services of Lance Cormier and Oscar Villarreal. Both of them seem to be more comfortable as starters than relievers, and that was reflected in their ERAs last season; .13 lower as a starter for Villarreal and 1.65 lower for Cormier. And while both are better in the starting role, they may not fit into the stronger bullpen the Braves are trying to build. These two guys may not have top value in stand-alone trades, but each of them could be used to add value to a potential Giles, Ramirez, or Hudson trade.

If the Rangers lose out on the Barry Zito sweepstakes and are smart enough not to go after Ted Lilly or Jeff Suppan, they could turn their free agent dollars towards a closer like Joe Borowski or Eric Gagne and trade Akinori Otsuka for starting pitching help. They may also lose out on the Vicente Padilla contract-of-overblown-value, and may be even more desperate to add one if not two starting pitchers. With no clear-cut center fielder they may also have some interest in Ryan Langerhans to man the middle of the outfield. Langy is someone else, like Villarreal and Cormier, who could be used to add value to any trade, and as an above average athletic outfielder could be seen by many clubs as a very respectable option in center.

There are plenty of other teams that need to fill one or two more starting spots - Brewers, Cubs, Nationals, Cardinals, Mariners, Blue Jays - there is hardly a team that is set at the starting pitching position. And while we profess a need for one more "top" starter, the top three of Smoltz, Hampton, and Hudson is still one of the top trios in baseball. There certainly seem to be plenty of options available for a deal to get done with one of our expendable starters.

The calm and lack of apparent urgency on the part of John Schuerholz and the Braves needs to turn around soon; and this week is the right time for it to happen. If the Braves don't come out of these meetings with several new additions in the bullpen, starting rotation, lead-off, or left field spots then they will be considered by many to have lost out or squandered a great deal this off-season. If they don't emerge from these meetings with something to show, then the potential markets for their tradable players may have eroded to the point of nothing more than salary dump options. John Schuerholz needs to quit playing possum and get something done.