Have Braves lost ground in ever-improving NL East?
by David O'Brien
5:40 pm December 22, 2011
The perception of many frustrated Braves fans is this: Their team went down in flames in September and hasn’t made any roster additions so far this winter, while the rest of the NL East has improved.
The first part is correct – the September collapse was epic, a 10-20 meltdown by the Braves that allowed St. Louis to erase a 10-1/2-game deficit and overtake Atlanta on the last day and win the wild card. And they’ve made no additions of note since.
But how many NL East teams have actually gotten better? Let’s examine.
Miami and Washington look significantly improved over last season. The Marlins went on a spending spree and the youthful Nationals get back ace Stephen Strasburg for a full season, recovered from elbow surgery. They traded on Thursday for starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez from Oakland, upping the ante.
The Braves’ only moves so far were the salary-dump trade of pitcher Derek Lowe to Cleveland; picking up a reliever in the Rule 5 draft; and not offering arbitration to free agent shortstop Alex Gonzalez or tendering contracts to arbitration-eligible reliever Peter Moylan and utility infielder Brooks Conrad. They might later try to re-sign Moylan, recovering from shoulder surgery.
The budget-conscious Braves continue to search for a left fielder or fourth outfielder and a backup shortstop, searches that general manager Frank Wren said could carry over into the spring.
The Braves haven’t said how much room they have left in their payroll, but it’s believed less than $10 million. They couldn’t or wouldn’t spend the money to pursue the likes of free agent outfielders Michael Cuddyer, Josh Willingham and Carlos Beltran, and a trade inquiry into Baltimore’s Adam Jones didn’t go far.
The Orioles asked for – according to differing reports – either Jair Jurrjens, Martin Prado AND a prospect, or any two of the Braves’ top young pitchers or prospects (Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, Randall Delgado).
“We continue to have some conversations,” said Wren, declining to discuss specifics about any possible targets or anything concerning trade rumors. “We’d have liked to have gotten something done in November in some areas, but just weren’t the matches. …
“We’re continuing to work different options. This was not a good free-agent year, not a lot of players that impacted teams, especially in the areas we would like to get better in.”
Wren has noted more than once that the Braves had baseball’s fourth-best record on Aug. 26, and said that leads the team’s front office to be careful not to make a trade just to satisfy those anxious to see them make a move. They think that with bounce-back seasons from Jason Heyward and others slowed by injuries in 2011, the Braves will be better. Brian McCann slumped badly in the second half after returning from an oblique strain.
What they want to be careful about is not making a trade that ends up hurting the team. For instance, if the Braves trade Martin Prado, their left fielder and backup third baseman, and he ends up having a season like those he had prior to 2011, while the Braves struggle to replace what he does moving from the outfield to fill in frequently for aging third baseman Chipper Jones.
Multiple teams have expressed trade interest in Prado and starting pitcher Jair Jurrjens. The Braves have entertained offers for each, but so far their asking price has been too high in the view of interested teams.
Jurrjens was a 2011 All-Star who missed about one-third of the past two seasons due to injuries, and Prado was a 2010 All-Star second baseman who moved to left field last season after the Braves got Dan Uggla. Prado missed five weeks with a lower-leg staph infection.
Prado might make about $4.5 million in arbitration, and Jurrjens could see his salary climb to more than $5 million.
The Braves have had a lot of conversations with Colorado involving Prado and Rockies corner outfiielder Seth Smith, but so far Colorado has refused to include a young center fielder in the deal. The Braves want one in case they can’t re-sign center fielder Michael Bourn, who is eligible for free agency after the 2012 season and represented by hard-driving agent Scott Boras.
. “The fact is we like our team,” said Wren, who said the Braves might be better off going to spring training and seeing how some of their own players do before addressing their priority needs and seeing who might become available to fill them.
The best of the free-agent shortstop/utility infielders have been signed, and the Braves might wait to see if others become available during spring training when teams decide that some aren’t good fits for their rosters and deem them expendable. The Braves want a strong defensive shortstop who can fill in for Tyler Pastornicky if the rookie struggles or needs some days off.
As things stand now, the Braves would likely still be picked by many or most prognosticators to finish second behind Philadelphia. The Phillies have back their elite trio of starting pitchers and added veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon, infielder Ty Wigginton and veteran first baseman/pinch-hitter Jim Thome. Slugger Ryan Howard will miss at least the early part of the season after surgery for a torn Achilles tendon, which he hurt while making the final out of the division-series loss.
“That’s a blow to them not having Howard from Day 1,” Wren said. “But they dealt with that last year with [second baseman Chase] Utley out.”
The Nationals, after finishing nine games behind second-place Atlanta in 2011, could be a legitimate threat to compete for a playoff spot. They just added Gonzalez, 25, who was 16-12 with a 3.12 ERA for Oakland and had 197 strikeouts in 202 innings.
“I think our division was very competitive last year,” Wren said. “The Marlins have gotten better. The Nationals – they haven’t done a lot, but just by some of their young guys getting better and Strasburg getting healthy — that’s huge.”
Wren made that assessment Wednesday, before the Nationals got Gonzalez. Washington had the fourth- and sixth-place finishers in the NL Rookie of the Year ballot, while the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman were first and second.
The last-place Marlins finished 30 games behind Philadelphia and 17 behind Atlanta. They committed $191 million to free agents Jose Reyes and pitchers Mark Buerhle and closer Heath Bell, but the Marlins still have question marks.
They were 11th in the NL in runs scored, and it remains to be seen how mercurial star Hanley Ramirez will rebound from his injury-diminished season and after being switched – not happily — to third base to accommodate Reyes’ arrival.
There is a big dropoff after Buerhle and Josh Johnson in a rotation that ranked 12th in the league in ERA. Johnson is coming back from shoulder problems that limited him to just nine starts in 2011, and there are concerns about his durability.
Bell was an All-Star who converted 43 of 48 save opportunities for San Diego. But Leo Nunez was a good closer last season for the Marlins, converting 36 of 42 saves and slightly higher strikeout rate than Bell, albeit with an ERA that was 1-1/2 runs higher.
The fourth-place Mets shed payroll when their best player, Reyes, went to the Marlins. The Mets swapped center fielders with San Francisco, getting Andres Torres and reliever Ramon Martinez from the Giants in a trade for leadoff man Angel Pagan. They improved their bullpen further by signing free agents Frank Francisco (two years, $12 million) and Jon Rauch (one year, $3.5 million).
By the way, the Mets committed less to those two free agents than Reyes’ average salary in his six-year, $106 million deal with Florida.