Emptiness describes how the Braves feel after their 2012 season concluded in the wild-card playoff game October 5.
The best way for the organization and their fans to rid themselves of the heart-break is to look forward into the off-season. Important contractual decisions need to be made on some key players.
Michael Bourn will become a free-agent during the winter, and will command a lot of money on the open market. San Francisco, Washington, and Cincinnati could be possible destinations for the Scott Boras client.
The Braves have some financial relief as Chipper Jones' retirement allows them to shave off at least $7 million from the 2013 vesting option. The Braves will shed themselves of the remaining $10 million owed to Derek Lowe (traded to Cleveland 2011, DFA in 2012, eventually picked up by the Yankees). Eric Hinske, David Ross, Miguel Bautista, and Ben Sheets will also be coming off the books.
It's likely Bourn's next contract will net him at least $15 million a year, and the Braves aren't willing to spend all their assets on one player. Atlanta is likely to pick up Brian McCann's $12 million team option for next year, and are expected to pick up Tim Hudson's $9 million option as well.
Atlanta will be looking to lock up Martin Prado as he will be entering his second year of arbitration. It could be cheaper to sign a long-term deal as the 28-year-old will be campaigning for a higher pay raise than the $4.75 million he received in 2012.
It's easy to make a case that Prado was the organization's M.V.P in 2012. A .301 average with 10 HR, and 70 RBI doesn't even tell the entire story. He played multiple positions including left-field, third, second, shortstop, and even first base. The versatility that he showed on a daily basis is what every team covets. Prado is by far the Atlanta Braves' most important player and should be taken care of this off-season.
The Braves can move Prado to third to replace Chipper, and look for a cheaper solution in the outfield. Names who come to mind are Angel Pagan, Cody Ross, Jonny Gomes Shane Victorino, and B.J. Upton.
The likelihood of Upton walking is high as the Rays are not planning on bringing him back at an unreasonable price. The center fielder hit .246 with 28 homers and 78 RBI in 2012 with Tampa Bay. He won't command the money Bourn will, so this option could make sense.
A trade option could be to match-up with the Minnesota Twins and acquire Josh Willingham. The 33-year-old outfielder hit 35 home runs and drove in 110 runs in 2012. He is owed $7 million each year through 2014.
The greatest need for the Twins is pitching and the Braves could center a deal around left-handed pitching prospect Sean Gilmartin.
The 2011 first round draft pick spent the majority of 2012 with Double-A as he made 20 starts and posted an ERA of 3.54. He finished the season with Triple-A Gwinnett and compiled a 4.78 ERA in seven starts (1-2).
Mike Minor has solidified himself as a starting pitcher in the big leagues with a 2.16 ERA in 14 starts in the second half. The Braves have the luxury of trading Gilmartin with top young arms Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado in the system.
General Manager Frank Wren, who was recently extended through 2014, has a lot of decisions to make in the off-season on how to strengthen the 94-win club. The best solution is to allocate the money to a number of different players, rather than give one player a mega contract.
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