Now that the Braves have finalized their one-year, $7 million deal with new closer Billy Wagner (the contract also includes a vesting option for 2011), they can move on to addressing their biggest need this off-season — adding a right-handed bat and more pop to their significantly left-handed heavy line-up.
With Major League Baseball’s winter meetings scheduled for December 7-10 in Indianapolis, rumors are buzzing about who the Braves have interest in to fill that role.
Will the team look to pursue a free agent or engage in trade talks to find its new slugger?
Most likely, the Braves will look to upgrade its offense via trade.
Some names that have been linked to Atlanta early this off-season have been most notably Brewers OF Corey Hart and Nationals OF Josh Willingham.
The Corey Hart to the Braves rumors started because of Milwaukee’s desire to add a front-line starting pitcher to its rotation next season and Atlanta’s surplus of starting pitching talent which has the team looking to trade either Derek Lowe or Javier Vazquez for the bat they covet.
The Braves would love to move Lowe and his contract over Vazquez and his name was linked to the Brewers in the Corey Hart chatter.
However, I don’t really believe this rumor actually had any validity to it. I think the report stemmed from speculation of what teams could be potential suitors for Lowe and would match up with the Braves’ need for a young, affordable bat that they would have to part with in return.
The Nationals Josh Willingham rumor seems to hold more weight, as the Braves’ interest has been reported by numerous media outlets steadily this off-season.
Willingham makes sense for a lot of reasons.
He hits both right and left-handed pitching consistently, with a .264 average against righties and a .265 average against lefties. The Braves, who have used a platoon in their outfield the past couple of seasons, wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore with Willingham.
He also has the pop the Braves are seeking to add to their outfield.
Willingham has averaged 22 home runs since 2006 and hit 24 last season with 61 RBI and 70 runs scored for the lowly Washington Nationals.
Most importantly, Willingham’s .863 OPS ranked 13th amongst all outfielders last season.
Considering Atlanta’s collective outfield OPS was next-to-last in the National League last season, this statistic could prove most appealing to the Braves.
Willingham is also just 30 years old and possesses an affordable contract that would be attractive to the Braves.
The biggest downside and an obvious area of concern for Atlanta is Willingham’s notable defensive struggles.
I have my doubts that the Braves, who have always modeled themselves as a pitching and defense franchise first, would take a chance on a guy who hasn’t been reliable with the glove.
Other names that are reportedly on the Braves’ wish list are Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford and Minnesota’s Michael Cuddyer.
You’d have to imagine that Javier Vazquez would need to be included in either deal to net a return of a Crawford or Cuddyer.
And, while the Braves may still be forced to trade arguably their best pitcher last season in Vazquez to get the big bopper they desire, in my opinion, the chances of Atlanta landing either of those bats are slim to none.
When assessing the free agent market of hitters, it is far less enticing for the Braves.
Obviously, Matt Holliday or Jason Bay would be an ideal fit for Atlanta but the Braves don’t even figure to test the waters with the two most sought after free agent bats on the market, as both stand to ink long-term lucrative contracts that will be far out of the club’s price range.
A more realistic option is Georgia native Mike Cameron, who was not offered arbitration from Milwaukee and would fit the need of a right-handed bat for the Braves.
Atlanta has had interest in Cameron for years and while I think it would have been better for the club to pick him up, say two years ago, the 36-year-old veteran still has some pop left in his bat.
Cameron hit .250 with 24 home runs and 70 RBI for the Brewers last season and would serve as a nice one-year stopgap for the Braves until Jason Heyward, one of the game’s best prospects, is ready to take over full-time.
Other free agents the Braves may look at as fall back options are Xavier Nady and Marlon Byrd.
The hot stove figures to keep burning once GM Frank Wren arrives in Indianapolis for the winter meetings on Monday as more names and potential rumors will continue to emerge surrounding his club.
In the meantime, the waiting game — and speculating, continues.