Braves Have Big Holes to Fill Before Spring Training

Jeff DickinsonCorrespondent IJanuary 4, 2009

When looking at the Atlanta Braves for 2009 and trying to get a grip on how they stand at each position, things actually look pretty good. There are quality players—both young and old—at many key positions.


The Braves’ outlook for next season looks especially good if you don’t pay much attention to the pitching mound and if you stop at the infield dirt. If, however, your eyes peruse the pitching rotation and the outfield, things start to get a little scary.


Atlanta has one of the best young catchers in the game, a solid first baseman, a steady second baseman, an exciting shortstop and a Hall of Fame third baseman. Unless you have the kind of stomach that can handle shock and gore, though, then it’s better not to analyze the Braves’ pitching and outfield options.


The Braves’ best outfield option right now is right-fielder Jeff Francoeur. He is also the same guy who was sent to the minor leagues last season because of his hapless hitting. Francoeur hit only .239 last year, with 11 home runs and 71 RBIs.


After Francoeur, it goes downhill from there for the Braves.


Unless Atlanta makes a trade or a free agent signing, it will begin the 2009 season with unproven Gregor Blanco in center and Brandon Jones in left. Blanco hit one home run and had 38 RBIs last year, while Jones had one homer and 17 RBI. Matt Diaz is also another outfield possibility, but he struggled at times last year.


The pitching isn’t much better on paper. The Braves’ No. 1 starter right now is going to come from the likes of Jair Jurrjens (13-10), Javier Vazquez (12-16) or Jorge Campillo (8-7). To think that one of those pitchers is a top-notch starter is anything but rational.


The bullpen—namely the closer—is also a tenuous position. Unless the Braves make a move, Mike Gonzalez is the leading candidate to close games for Atlanta in 2009. Gonzalez had a record of 0-3 with a 4.28 earned run average and 14 saves last season.


Those are hardly the numbers of an intimidating closer. Rafael Soriano is also another closing option for the Braves, but he had major elbow surgery in August and it is questionable whether he will be ready for the start of the season.


What do the Braves need to do before Spring Training arrives next season?


This will help, for starters:


Sign a free agent outfielder with some pop in his bat –Guys like CC Sabathia and Mark Texeira got all the headlines, but there are still a few solid outfield options that the Braves can pursue. Manny Ramirez may be past Atlanta’s payroll limits, but Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell, Milton Bradley or Bobby Abreu can immediately help.


Make a trade for a top starting pitcher –Although the trade for San Diego’s Jake Peavy didn’t pan out, the Braves can still add a solid starter via a trade. Kansas City’s Zack Greinke and Pittsburgh’s Ian Snell or Paul Maholm have been mentioned as being available to teams looking for starting pitching.


The Braves should also talk to the Seattle Mariners about Erik Bedard or to the Texas Rangers about Vincente Padilla or Kevin Millwood. Millwood started his career with the Braves and would probably welcome a trade back to Atlanta. Millwood was only 9-10, but he led Texas with three complete games.


Padilla led the Rangers with 14 wins last season. Atlanta’s Tommy Hanson is one of the most prized pitchers in the minor leagues, but the team would rather let him have another year of seasoning before bringing him up to the big club.


Take a minimal risk by signing a free agent closer – Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Fuentes, the two top closers on the free agent market, are both gone. But there are at least two free agent closing options that are still available that are worth looking into.


Trevor Hoffman, the all-time saves leader in Major League Baseball, is without a home after a bitter separation in San Diego. He is 41, but he had 30 saves and 46 strikeouts in 45 innings for the Padres last season.


Former Dodgers’ closer Takashi Saito is also another intriguing closing option for the Braves. He is a free agent who had his season shortened because of an elbow injury last year. He is supposedly healthy and might be a good one-year closing solution for the Braves. He had 18 saves for Los Angeles last season, with a 2.49 ERA and 60 strikeouts in only 47 innings.


Both Hoffman and Saito would come relatively cheap for Atlanta because of their age and/or injury status.