So we either need to pack it in and start focusing on 2010 as sellers, or make a run at a difference maker and try to compete this year. I think at this point we would be justified in going in either direction. Here is a look at both options.
We need a big bat. I love Nate McLouth: he's a very solid player who has talent, works hard, and makes a positive impact. But we need a big bat. If we are going to make a run for it, then we have to land a guy who will hit at least 30 home runs and can play LF, RF or 2B. A cleanup hitter who can win games with one swing. And, really, that narrows it down to two guys.
Matt Holliday. He's really the only outfield bat that would make the Braves much better. The A's are in a weird place with him, because they have to decide whether or not they can even offer him arbitration after the year. They have to offer it if they want compensation, but with the down economy and his deflated numbers, he may not get any offers beating out his $17 million or so he would get in arbitration. In other words, he could cripple the A's by accepting arbitration, and the safe move is for them to trade him now and get something in return. That would suggest they would take the best deal offered to them, and have no real leverage to turn down a good deal.
There will be a lot of interest in him from around the league, but given his salary and down numbers, perhaps interest would not be as high as everyone originally though. The Braves would never part ways with Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, or Tommy Hanson to get him. Perhaps instead the Braves would look to deal Kelly Johnson to the A's. I'm not sure we would do it, but he does seem to fit the A's style more so than, say, Cody Johnson. Kelly is moving into his second year of arbitration, and his performance so far this season has legitimately made me wonder whether he is worth the $3.5 million or so he is going to get next year. We have a decent internal replacement in Martin Prado, so this isn't totally out of the question.
Maybe we could even look to sign Holliday to a long-term deal, and clear payroll by not picking up Hudson's option (or trading Vazquez). If we did trade for Holliday we would be way over payroll for this season, as he is still owed some $7 million this year. That means we would have to either increase payroll, which is unlikely, or trade someone, which sort of defeats the purpose of making this move in the first place.
Adam Dunn. Few things are certain in baseball except Francoeur sucking and Adam Dunn hitting 40 homers. And, sure enough, he's on pace to do just that for the 6th straight season. The guy we should have signed in the first place is sitting there wasting away in Capital City, and he would be perfect as our cleanup hitter. He would not cost as much as Holliday, and he's under contract for another season. Again, it would be about finding the cash to take on his salary, and I am not at all sure we could do it. He isn't the same kind of difference maker as Holliday, and he plays bad defense, but he's a huge improvement over what we have.
There is no one else really worth trading for. Mark DeRosa is a really nice player, but he doesn't put us over the edge, and I would rather save the prospects. If we decide to go for it this year, then we need to trade for one of those two guys. (Unless there's someone really random I haven't thought of.) Otherwise, we're just extending our stay in perpetual mediocrity.
If we choose to sell, these are some of the guys we should look to move, where we could send them, and what we could get.
Relievers. We face the same problem with Soriano and Gonzalez that Oakland does with Holliday. They are both probably going to be type A free agents at the end of the season, which means other clubs will only have tepid interest in signing them. Add in the fact that there is a surplus of able-bodied relievers hitting the free agent market, and there is a legitimate chance that both players would accept arbitration. Of course, that wouldn't be the end of the world for the Braves, who have the financial resources to pay them. But if we could get a good return for either of them, then we should seriously consider making a move.
If we have to pick, I think most people agree that Soriano is the guy we want to keep. The Cubs and Yankees come to mind as contenders looking to sure up their bullpens. The Yankees farm system is pretty barren in general, but maybe we could snag Austin Jackson for Gonzo. The Cubs seem like a better fit, in that they have a couple of highly touted middle infield prospects. We could try to get them to part with one of them, particularly Hak-ju Lee, who is an 18 year old in low-A ball this year. The other interesting possibility is the Rays. They need a lot of bullpen help, and certainly have the prospects to make this deal happen.
The market for relievers over the last few years has shown that no one is going to trade an elite player for half a season of a closer, so in all likelihood we would be looking at more middle-tier prospects for Gonzalez or Soriano.
Javier Vazquez. He has been awesome. Really awesome. And for teams looking for a top of the rotation starter who is under contract for a full season and a half, he should be at the top of the list. If Vazquez hits the trade market, he is the number one pitcher out there. He has no injury problems like Bedard and Peavy, and he has legitimate top of the rotation stuff. I think we could get more for him today than we gave up over the offseason. (Speaking of which, Tyler Flowers is putting a very solid season together in AA for the White Sox, easily his best minor league season so far.)
I think the Rangers could be a good fit for Vazquez, but they won't like him enough to give up Neftali Feliz or Justin Smoak. Maybe they would part with a top talent to get Vazquez, if they think this is the year for them to make a run, but my hunch says they would avoid sending us a haul for a fly ball pitcher like him. Arlington is not a forgiving place for fly ball pitchers. If they agreed to a deal, I would love to get 18 year-old Martin Perez for him, who is striking everyone out in A-ball, along with some lower-end prospect. But making a deal like that would really be committing to a long-term rebuilding plan.
Perhaps the Angels or Phillies would be an option, and maybe the Cardinals will decide they actually do want another starter. We could look to do a swap with the A's for Matt Holliday, but they would have to package a prospect in there with him since we would be giving up a year and a half of Vazquez for just a year of Holliday.
Yunel Escobar. I am not going to recap the pros and cons of Yunel Escobar -- Alex did an excellent job of that last week -- but if we decide to rebuild he is definitely trade bait. Sending him to Boston is the deal that interests me most. Boston is in need of a SS, and no matter what they say, it's a long-term need and not a short-term need. Jed Lowrie hasn't impressed in his short stint in Boston, nor did he do anything that special in the minors. Boston could use a long term, cheap replacement at SS. And the Braves have one who has endless talent, and seemingly endless problems.
If we could tap into Boston's elite pitching depth and get someone like Clay Buchholz, then I would be all for this deal. Even a prospect like Michael Bowden, if coupled with a replacement SS, would make sense from the Braves standpoint. I even like 21 year-old 1B prospect Lars Anderson, and he sort of fits a need for us as well. I don't see us moving Escobar without getting one of Buchholz, Anderson, or Lowrie, and I am not sure Boston would give any of them up, but it's an interesting thought. Maybe they would be willing to trade Jed Lowrie and another mid level prospect, which plugs our hole at SS and adds some depth to our farm system, while ridding us of Yunel's negative qualities.
The two hardest things to find in baseball these days are elite starting pitchers and productive middle infielders, so it is a big risk to trade Escobar. But in my mind we have to trade him soon or risk his value plummeting. Attitude problems are recognized internally first, then they begin to spread to the rest of the league, and eventually get so well known that no one will touch the player (except the Dallas Cowboys, and last I checked Escobar plays the wrong sport). If Yunel doesn't learn to control himself, he may become untradeable. It is certainly something to think about.
Jeff Francoeur. If we move him anywhere, I think it should be to... Gwinnett. Seriously, we would get more value out of sending him to AAA then to another major league club for some C- prospect with no projectability. We should send him down to AAA for 2 months, call him back up in September and see if he is worth offering arbitration to. If not, we can DFA him and close that chapter in all our lives.
We run the risk of getting nothing for him, but honestly, if we could get anything of value for him in the trade market I am sure Frank Wren would have done it by now. We have invested significantly in Jeff Francoeur, and if he can re-learn how to play in the minors then we would reap some benefit from him, if he cannot then we can be rid of him.
Chipper Jones? No. Absolutely not. Furman Bisher, who suggested we trade him in the AJC last week, needs to retire. You don't trade your only marketable player, who has done everything you've ever asked for. And you definitely do not trade him unless you are committed to long term rebuilding. Trading Chipper means giving up on 2009 and 2010, and we are not there yet.
Other possibilities: Kenshin Kawakami has begun to make himself valuable, but I doubt we could get enough in return to make it worth losing out on a decent pitcher and our in to the Asian market. Nate McLouth would certainly draw interest, but he is signed to an under market contract, and seems to be the right kind of baseball player. I see him in Atlanta for a long time.