Atlanta Braves' Offseason Questions That Still Need to Be Answered
The Atlanta Braves front office has spent quite a pretty penny this offseason, shelling out a combined $27.5 million in 2013 to Tim Hudson ($9 million), Paul Maholm ($6.5 million) and Brian McCann ($12 million) in addition to the $75.5 million contract that will be given to newly-acquired center fielder B.J. Upton over five years.
Money doesn't always answer the burning questions of the offseason though.
Sure, Upton solves a lot of problems with his bat, gloves, legs and youth.
Others were solved by Atlanta bringing back most of the roster that won 94 games a season ago.
Even the leadership role vacated by the retirement of Chipper Jones will likely be a non-issue (or as close to a non-issue as the absence of a legend can be), as the confident Jason Heyward will be aided by the fiery Kris Medlen, the comical Tim Hudson and the experienced Brian McCann.
Still though, questions abound.
Who Hits Leadoff?
The speculation here is under the assumption that Atlanta goes with its current roster on Opening Day and does not bring in a hired hand to hit leadoff.
For the last season and a half, hitting Michael Bourn leadoff was a luxury Fredi Gonzalez enjoyed immensely. One of the best one-spot hitters in the game, Bourn was the first classic leadoff hitter Atlanta enjoyed since the days of Rafael Furcal in the early 2000s.
Now, Gonzalez is going to have to be a little creative determining the first name he writes on the lineup card.
B.J. Upton has had experience batting leadoff in Tampa Bay, but his power and OBP suggest he should bat fifth to break up the lefty sluggers of the Braves offense and to best utilize his skill set.
One possible solution could in fact be outfielder Todd Cunningham, a switch-hitter with speed and plate discipline who performed very well for Double-A Mississippi in 2012. However, Cunningham would need to first break camp with Atlanta, then proceed to produce a high OBP from the leadoff spot. It's unlikely, but it could work.
Martin Prado would easily be the best solution for the role of leadoff hitter, as he produces a remarkable batting average and OBP, but he is tailor-made for the two-hole, and since no other obvious two-hitter options are available, the Braves probably intend to keep him there.
Which brings me to the most likely solution: Andrelton Simmons. He'll hit for a decent average and with a year of experience under his belt, his walk rate will likely improve. In fact, Bill James projects Simmons to get on base at a .351 clip; Michael Bourn hasn't sported an OBP that high since 2009. Simmons also has the speed to wreak havoc on the basepaths once he develops technique and savvy.
What to Make of Winter League Stars?
When Frank Wren sent Juan Francisco and Evan Gattis to the Winter Leagues to spend time developing their games, I'm not sure anyone could have predicted the sparkling results that were played out.
With Chipper Jones retiring, Francisco must have seen an enormous opportunity to lock down a starting gig on a contending team, as it was reported that he is looking trimmer than ever.
That's not all though. In the Dominican Winter League, Francisco has slugged nine home runs in 34 games en route to a .944 OPS.
He has played so well that it is becoming increasingly likely that the Braves give Francisco an extended look at third base during Spring Training. And if he comes out of the gate producing, Francisco could be given 500 at-bats this season as Atlanta's primary third baseman.
Gattis, on the other hand, might force a big league platoon with the left-handed Francisco, due to his ridiculous numbers in the Venezuelan Winter League. The catcher/left fielder has put an absurd 16 home runs over the fence in 53 games—a mark that extrapolates to about 45 over the course of a full season.
He'll likely start the season in Triple-A, but there is a decent chance that he could be an extra catcher, outfielder or pinch hitter off the bench for the Braves. There's even an outside shot that he could work his way into a few hundred at-bats this season.
When Do the Extensions Begin?
With the future of the center field position in Atlanta solved and the production of Michael Bourn replaced, Frank Wren will not be making any more sizable monetary commitments to free agents or other acquisitions any time soon.
However, if Andrew Friedman of the Tampa Bay Rays has taught the rest of baseball anything at all, it's that front offices should lock up their stars to long-term deals before they become suffocatingly expensive.
For the Braves, this means making sure that Martin Prado and Jason Heyward stay Braves for a very long time.
Yes, pitchers Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy will eventually have to get paid, but Prado and Heyward will most likely be the first to collect their extensions.
Fortunately, the Upton contract won't financially cripple Atlanta if the front office is prudent with its upcoming free agents. The $27.5 million between Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm and Brian McCann will all come off the books, and Dan Uggla is under contract until after the 2015 season, making him an affordable trade asset (or at least a salary dump) in the near future.
Prado is in line for a pay raise first, but it's much more imperative to keep Heyward in Atlanta for the long haul. If the Atlanta brass plays its cards right, it could lock up both players while keeping the financial integrity of the team intact.
What Becomes of Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado?
With Brandon Beachy still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Atlanta will enter the 2013 season with four pitchers locked into the starting rotation—Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson, Mike Minor and Paul Maholm, in no particular order.
That leaves one spot open for the Spring Training battle between Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran.
This competition will be intense, fascinating and probably a little painful to watch, as neither pitcher has truly proved himself "ready" for the big leagues.
Delgado has more big league experience and is more refined, but Teheran still retains top-of-the-rotation potential with his repertoire. He began to come on late in a disappointing 2012 campaign and continued his success in the Winter Leagues, raising the possibility of breaking camp with Atlanta for good this time.
There is only one opening in the Braves rotation, but if either one of these starters is sent down to Triple-A again, they will lose trade value. Delgado is definitely the pitcher to trade; Atlanta cannot miss out on Teheran's immense potential.
The only question is when Delgado will get traded. Does he get flipped for prospects? What about a bat for left field? Should Atlanta start the year with Delgado in the rotation and Teheran in the bullpen (or Triple-A) in order to boost Delgado's value?
This one is an absolute doozy.
Who Plays Left Field?
I actually think this is less of an issue than the Teheran/Delgado saga, but nonetheless, it's still fun to play around with the possibilities.
Juan Francisco's conditioning and Winter League production makes him a valid option to play third base full-time for Atlanta, keeping the incredible glove of Martin Prado in left field. In all likelihood, this is the option that the Braves will break camp with, as it is a cheap and prudent low-risk/high-reward scenario. Francisco could hit 30 home runs given 500 at bats, and if he can put up a .320 OBP, it would be very worth it.
In a variation of this scenario, the Braves could platoon someone with Francisco in left field, bouncing Prado back and forth between left field and third base. Reed Johnson would be the leading candidate for this, but should Jordan Schafer pull himself together, that would be an option as well.
Our final in-house options come from the farm—switch-hitting outfielder Todd Cunningham and slugger Evan Gattis. Both are lacking in big-league experience, but they are both talented enough to break through and produce at a high level, given the chance. Cunningham could hit leadoff, while Gattis is more equipped to hit lower in the order to capitalize on his power. Either one could be used in a platoon.
Dexter Fowler is the big fish that the Braves are chasing, and he would certainly be a good fit on his hometown's club. He's young, athletic, gets on base at a great rate and is still improving. However, he might be a little expensive (in terms of the prospects Colorado would require) for Frank Wren's liking.
Grady Sizemore is my favorite option to fantasize, as the immensely talented outfielder is looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued stretch of seasons. He'll sign for a low-cost and could potentially be an excellent source of power and OBP if not speed as well, but he is going to miss at least the opening portion of the 2013 season, if not close to half of it.
David DeJesus is the least flashy of outside hires, but could be acquired from Chicago for very little. He wouldn't provide much speed, but his excellent defense and a good OBP would be a great fit in Atlanta.
There are other options of course, but the last one I'll mention is Coco Crisp of the Oakland Athletics. The Athletics have about 38 too many outfielders, and Crisp is the best fit in Atlanta. If Randall Delgado and others were to be dangled, Atlanta could grab its leadoff hitter and another prospect such as Grant Green.
That said, things are looking as if the Braves will head into the 2013 campaign with an in-house option as the solution.