<
>

No time for moping in Atlanta

11/4/2011

The misery of the Braves’ 2011 meltdown demands a certain resiliency and response. However, from the wreckage of the banged-up ballclub that would have been hard-pressed to replicate the Cardinals’ postseason success, there’s plenty of material to work with. The Phillies are far from invincible, the wild card’s in play every year, and the chances of retooling and winning 90 games or more in 2012 are good.

Dealing away Derek Lowe took back $5 million for the 2012 payroll -- which the arbitration cases of Michael Bourn, Jair Jurrjens, Martin Prado, and Eric O’Flaherty will gobble up in no time flat -- but the Braves’ overall payroll picture shouldn’t be cause for concern. Which leaves a question: What do the Braves need?

Not starting pitching, certainly. With Tommy Hanson due back from shoulder surgery and with Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado already looking good, with Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and J.J. Hoover not far behind, the Braves can avoid repeating the Lowe mistake -- overpaying for a veteran mediocrity in the rotation. The bullpen’s also stocked with top-shelf arms. And because Freddie Freeman’s already set at first base, Atlanta also doesn’t have to play in the most expensive sweepstakes of all this winter.

The Braves’ needs are simple: They need a thumper for left field, and they need a better all-around player than Alex Gonzalez at shortstop. And fortunately for Atlanta, the market has both things on offer.

Whether or not the Braves could renew their relationship with Rafael Furcal to provide the answer at short may well prove to be the key decision of their offseason. In part, there’s the possibility that Furcal will cost less than the alternatives: Jose Reyes would be perfect, but Liberty Media’s purse strings open only so far. And convince Jimmy Rollins to abandon Philly’s evil empire? It’s possible, but a deal longer than three years for a thirtysomething shortstop might be too rich for their blood as well.

Which is why Furcal would make for an ideal solution. Between a markdown for his injury history, his age (already 34), and his willingness to take a three-year deal during his previous free agency after the 2008 season, he might be a tidy fit into Atlanta’s infield and budget. Paired up with Bourn atop Fredi Gonzalez’s lineup would also give Atlanta some nice potential for basepaths havoc and good OBPs in front of their boppers. Admittedly, Furcal’s coming off a season where he produced his lowest walk rate (7.6 percent) since 2002. And Bourn’s 2011 walk rate similarly plummeted from just shy of 10 to 7.3 percent. But both hitters have done better, and Furcal’s .240 BABIP was the real OBP-sapping development, and that shouldn’t last.

If anything of this starts getting the Liberty execs squawking over the expense, all’s not lost. GM Frank Wren’s roster arms him with considerable freedom of action. Because of that depth in young pitching talent, he can afford to dangle Jurrjens in front of teams disenchanted by a free-agent market overstocked on recently injured thirtysomethings. The Braves don’t have to deal Jurrjens, but they can see what the market for him might be.

Similarly, because Martin Prado’s a moving part who can be wedged into a lineup at second, third or left, he’s also someone Wren can afford to shop around, because he can be taken as a short-term fix for so many teams at several different positions (as handy as it might be to have him around as an insurance policy against Chipper Jones’ next disabling injury or the failure to find a left fielder).

But having both available to peddle plus the bounty of the farm system gives Wren a hand with which he might do more than dump arb-eligibles to control payroll -- he could use them in a package to get an outfield bat for left. The White Sox’s rumored shopping of Carlos Quentin might a great place to start, giving the Braves’ lineup a second right-handed slugger to balance out their attack. Quentin’s also arb-eligible and just a year from free agency, but the potential for a salary-neutral exchange for 2012 is there.

The alternatives on the market aren’t great, but they are interested. Along the lines suggested yesterday, a creative deal for Grady Sizemore could work, but so too might J.D. Drew in a short-term agreement. The problem for both would be that they’d exacerbate the left-wards lean to the lineup. Renewing their acquaintance with Andruw Jones might be part of a cheap platoon arrangement with the ubiquitous Eric Hinske.

Whatever solutions Wren and company land upon, there’s plenty to work with, and perhaps even more to look forward to. But with Chipper Jones’ career winding down and commitments to Brian McCann and Tim Hudson (though there are options for both for 2013), as well as Bourn ending soon, angling for win-now solutions ought to be under consideration.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.