The plan was for Turner Field to still be filing in nearly 50,000 Braves fans for the postseason. Unfortunately, the lasting images remembered are the cleanup crews picking up debris from angry Atlanta fans after the infield fly call made by Sam Holbrook and Chipper Jones walking off the diamond for the final time. It wasn't suppose to end that way.
Nonetheless, decisions have to be made about the 2013 club. Who will replace Chipper at third? Will they re-sign gold-glove center fielder Michael Bourn? Do Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm fit into their plans next season? Will Martin Prado and Jason Heyward receive long-term contracts? Who are free-agent and trade targets?
Those are just a few items on the docket for General Manager Frank Wren this winter.
The Braves have nearly $30 million to spend after the contracts of Chipper Jones ($14 million), Derek Lowe ($10 million) and Michael Bourn ($6.8 million) are erased from the books. Expect starter Jair Jurrjens, who made $5.5 million in 2012, to be non-tendered or released.
Atlanta is expected to pick up the options of Brian McCann ($12 million), Tim Hudson ($9 million) and Paul Maholm ($6.5 million)—as they should. All three are key components to the team's success.
The Braves could re-sign David Ross because of McCann's shoulder surgery, which will sideline him at least through the majority of spring training.
It may be the perfect time to look into long-term contracts for Martin Prado and outfielder Jason Heyward.
Prado was arguably the most valuable player for the Braves in 2012 with a .301 average. He also led the league in two-strike base hits (93). He can play a number of positions if needed. He is signed through 2013, and the organization can't risk losing a high-caliber player like Prado after next season.
Heyward, 23, had a bounce-back 2012 campaign after a sophomore year in which he was plagued by injuries and constant struggles. The 2007 first-round pick set career highs in runs, homers, RBI, stolen bases and slugging percentage. He was spectacular in right field, as he made some big catches for Atlanta in key moments throughout the season. It will be cheaper to get a long-term deal done rather than going through the eventual arbitration process.
The starting rotation is likely to be set with Kris Medlen, Tommy Hanson, Mike Minor, Hudson and Maholm. Brandon Beachy is on track to re-join the rotation from "Tommy John" elbow surgery around the All-Star break.
The two biggest decisions facing the Braves in the off-season are at third and the outfield. The likelihood is Prado finds a home at third. The Braves have played the 28-year-old at multiple positions, primarily left field since the acquisition of Dan Uggla before the 2011 season.
The outfield could go a number of different ways: re-sign Michael Bourn and bring back Jose Constanza to play left or let Bourn go and find two cheaper options to play left and center.
Bourn is expected to net around $15 million a year from a club in the free-agent market. The Braves can afford it, but it wouldn't be fiscally responsible. There are cheaper targets out there via free-agency or the trade market.
B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino, Angel Pagan and Cody Ross are all potential free-agent targets for Atlanta. None will command the level of money that Bourn will this winter.
What should Atlanta do with their outfield?
Upton, 28, is looking for a fresh start after spending his entire career to this point with the Tampa Bay Rays. The center fielder hit 28 homers in 2012. The level of consistency may be a concern for him. Other than 2007 when he hit .300, the former first-round selection has a career average of .248.
Victorino, whom the Braves know well from his days in Philadelphia, could be an option, as the Dodgers may not see him as a fit with Carl Crawford's eventual return from Tommy John surgery. The 31-year-old has a career .333 average in 60 games at Turner Field, which is tops among national league ballparks.
Pagan is familiar with the N.L. East from his days with the New York Mets. The outfielder hit .288 with eight homers and 56 RBI in 154 games with the Giants. He would be a cheaper option for Atlanta, as he would command in the area of $5 million after making $4.85 million in 2012. Pagan hit .290 in 80 games as the San Francisco lead-off hitter this season.
Braves fans remember how Ross tormented them during the 2010 postseason. A big game-tying home run and a go-ahead single lifted the Giants to a 3-2 game four victory in Bobby Cox's last game as Atlanta's manager. The 31-year-old Ross played well in his second stint in the A.L, as he batted .267 with 22 home runs and 81 RBI in 130 games with the Boston Red Sox. Ross has a career .300 average at Turner Field in 31 games and would see regular time as the left fielder.
Josh Willingham is a perfect fit for the Braves via the trade market if they wish to pursue it. The 33-year-old, who is owed $14 million through 2014, hit 35 home runs and 110 RBI for the Minnesota Twins in 2012. The $7 million a year price tag combined with the level of production annually should garner the Braves' interest.
The bullpen should be a strength for the Braves again in 2013 with the return of closer Craig Kimbrel, who has saved 88 games in his two full seasons in the majors. Top left-handed setup man Eric O'Flaherty will be entering into his final arbitration year and could make upwards of $4 million.
Christian Martinez, Luis Avilan, Jonny Venters, Cory Gearrin, Chad Durbin and Peter Moylan are all expected to be in the mix for spots again in 2013.
Important decisions will be made this winter, but the Braves should be at or near the top of the division standings again next season.
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