Andruw Jones has put himself in a precarious situation for someone who said he wants to remain a Brave for the rest of his career. On one hand, if he continues his .208/.307/.400 line and reaches the 167 strikeouts he is on pace for, he won't be worth an even discounted price tag that Scott Boras will be asking. If he surges late, he'll be out of the Braves price range. This situation is going to lead to a lot of speculation as to who will be patrolling center field in Atlanta next year.
The free agent market is as strong for center fielders as I have ever seen. There are quite a few but take away players that will demand too much money (Ichiro), players with attitudes that clash with a Bobby Cox clubhouse (Milton Bradley), and players that just aren't good enough (Kenny Lofton and Corey Patterson), and you come out with a list of Aaron Rowand, Mike Cameron, Torri Hunter, and Eric Byrnes. Cameron has come up a lot since he is a Georgia native who makes his home in Atlanta. The 34-year old centerfielder has seen both his defense and offense slip to the point where the 3 years and $30 million it might take to lock him up wouldn't be worth it. Move on to Torii Hunter, who is enjoying a career year in 2007. While he probably won't keep his average above .300, the 31-year old Hunter is the best all-around option but may be driving himself right out of the Braves price-range. Aaron Rowand isn't appealing to me at all. For a player that lives off sub-par offense and "great defense", he misplays way too many balls for me. Eric Byrnes is my bet to land with Atlanta. Even though he has similar numbers to Hunter and good defense, he doesn't have the name that will garner Hunter the mega bucks. Byrnes isn't excellent in any area but is good all around.
Replacing from within is another possibility as John Schuerholz has shown almost an unwillingness recently to sign a starter in free agency. Brandon Jones and Gregor Blanco seem to be the most mentioned options. I'm going to knock off Jones here. While he has the ability to cover center, he has been playing in left field for Mississippi, which is probably where he'll stay. Gregor Blanco is an interesting option. They'd have to add power elsewhere, which could be done with Salty and maybe Brandon Jones in left. I never saw him as a regular because of a complete and total lack of anything resembling power. If you hit him in the eighth spot though, he provides speed and on base ability before the pitcher as well as very good defense out in centerfield. I think the eventual replacement still will be Brent Lillibridge, who has the speed, arm, enough power, and plate discipline to be a real force on both sides of the ball. The absolute minimum I think will be mid-way through '08 though as he is struggling at the higher levels. No incredibly appealing options here, so I still think that Eric Byrnes is destined for Atlanta in '08.