A common question I’m getting these days is “what should the Braves do now?” Until recently, I was hesitant to give a concrete answer, but I think my reluctance to comment was more a product of the fear of knowing the answer rather than not knowing. So, today I’ll offer up my plan for the future: the future is rebuilding.
When Tim Hudson went down 2009 was lost completely. The starting rotation next year looks like Jair Jurrjens, Jorge Campillo, Charlie Morton, Jo-Jo Reyes, and Chuck James. Jurrjens looks to be good, Campillo has been surprising and could continue to pitch well (shame on the Mariners for not finding him some more innings), but the latter three are not dependable yet. What about help in the minors? Possibly, there is some help on the way, but I don’t think it’s good policy to count on players who are still in the minors for the following season. In fact, having prospects who are in single and double-A is more of a reason to sacrifice 2009 for 2010 and beyond. If Hudson would be there to anchor the rotation, I might be a bit more optimistic. But for the Braves to contend in 2009 with this pitching line-up, everything is going to have to break for the best. That’s not a good guide for planning.
On the hitting side, Chipper Jones continues to be one of the best sluggers in the majors, despite being injury prone. Brian McCann couldn’t play much better than he has. Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson are above-average hitters for middle-infielders. Casey Kotchman is serviceable, but not spectacular, at first base. The outfield is a complete disaster, and there is no help close on the farm—please, don’t count on Jason Heyward or Jordan Schafer just yet.
The Braves supposedly will have some money to spend on free agents, but even if the Braves could afford three top free agents like CC Sabathia, Pat Burrell, and Adam Dunn, this team still most likely misses the playoffs next year. And Chipper Jones will be a free agent after 2010, who will need to be replaced.
If everything breaks just right, it’s possible that the Braves could make a playoff run. But, it’s more likely that the team falls short, and ends up with a group of good expensive players without the supporting cast to push them over the top. So, what should the Braves do?
I think the Braves should trade the following players.
Chipper Jones: The Braves have an option on Chipper’s contract for next year for between $8–$11 million, that will vest when Chipper gets 450 PAs. Chipper has 10-5 rights, which means he must approve any trade. I think Chipper would be willing to play for another team that has a chance to win (a source has told me that this is the case). And if the Braves are rebuilding, I don’t think he’ll miss being part of the process. Sure, some fans will miss him, but it’s not like the organization heavily promotes him now. Chipper will go into the Hall of Fame as a Brave, that is settled. And the fact that his bat can net prospects that can help the team rebuild is an asset that the Braves shouldn’t waste. for nostalgia. Maybe Chipper doesn’t want to go anywhere, and I would miss seeing him in Atlanta, but I will not be shocked if he is traded. It is the smart move. His contract is affordable, and he should bring some decent prospects in return.
Kelly Johnson: I like KJ. He’s an affordable player who will become arbitration-eligible after this season. The fact that he is controlled for the next three years is what makes him valuable. If the Braves are contenders again in two years, he’s not going to be so cheap. I think the Braves should cash in his value, similar to what the A’s did with Nick Swisher last season. There is nothing flashing about Kelly. He’s an everyday second baseman with average defense and he is an average hitter—he would be an asset on most teams. Plus, if Bobby Cox likes Martin Prado so much, why not let him play some more?
Casey Kotchman: There is nothing special about Kotchman. He’s pretty bland, but he’s the type of player that many teams need to fill a hole. He’s cheap like Kelly Johnson. The Braves don’t need him, so I say move him if you can.
Omar Infante: He’ll be a free agent after next season. I see no reason to hold onto him if another team is willing to take him. He’s coming off his best season, so maybe he can snag an OK prospect.
Here are a few other questions that I’ve heard.
Should the Braves Jeff Francoeur? I don’t subscribe to the notion that bad players should be traded. He is better than his numbers, but that’s not saying much. On nearly every other team in the majors, he would have spent most of this season in the minors. The team rushed him and ruined any chance they had of fixing his obvious deficiencies. The Braves made him a piece of their marketing campaign—and the team should have known better—and that is a difficult thing to take back. If his reputation keeps the turnstiles rolling and a Delta sign over the 755 Club, go with it. At this point, I think the ship has sailed on making improvements that would turn him into a good player. I am curious to see what his arbitration award will be this season, but he’s going to be cheap. No team values Francoeur more than the Braves do, and thus I don’t think there are gains from a trade. He is where is services are valued the most.
Should the Braves sign Mark Kotsay as a free agent? It depends on what he wants. There is nothing spectacular about the guy. And it might make more sense to hold on to Kotsay and trade away Brandon Jones or Gregor Blanco. I suspect he’ll get a better offer from another team and move on. Players always say how much they like playing here before they take the biggest contract. I don’t blame any of them, I just don’t buy cheap talk.
What about preserving excitement? The Braves have missed the playoffs three years in a row. Is there much excitement about this team? The atmosphere surrounding the team is stale, and I think we could all use a change. Fans may prefer some buzz about a group of young players just on the cusp of success…that is, as long as the Braves don’t anoint a particular player as a star prematurely (see Jeff Francoeur).
So, there you have it.