Now that the Braves are officially removed from the playoff picture, it's time to get down to business and start piecing together the 2013 version of the squad hailing from Atlanta.
In all likelihood, the team Atlanta runs out on Opening Day next spring should have a very similar composition to the team that finished 2012 a brilliant 94-68, six games above the Wild Card-winning St. Louis Cardinals (as you can see, I'm not bitter in the least).
You've probably heard by now that the legendary Chipper Jones is retiring, but unless Dan Uggla gets moved (and unless the Dodgers decide they want to pursue him, I don't see Atlanta getting relieved of his contract just yet), most of the familiar faces in Atlanta will return next season.
I expect the contract options of Brian McCann ($13 million) and Tim Hudson ($9 million) to be picked up and free agents David Ross, Reed Johnson and Chad Durbin to be re-signed at a relatively low cost (these veterans required a mere $3.675 million in total for the 2012 campaign).
And with Brandon Beachy likely sidelined until the All-Star break, questions regarding Tommy Hanson's health and effectiveness and Braves pitching prospects (Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Sean Gilmartin, JR Graham and Zeke Spruill) not quite ready to hold down a spot in the rotation, Paul Maholm's $6.5 million option will most likely be picked up as well.
Because the expiring contracts of Chipper Jones ($14 million), Derek Lowe ($10 million) and Michael Bourn ($6.845 million) are coming off the books this winter, Atlanta fans have begun to excitedly spend this seemingly large amount of money the Braves front office has to burn.
The consensus recipients of this money? Michael Bourn and Zack Greinke.
Not so fast.
Perhaps Atlanta has a little money to dole out, but there is absolutely no earthly way that Atlanta can afford Greinke, who will demand around $125 million over five years with financial giants Texas and Los Angeles (AL) setting the price.
With that crippling contract out of the way, let's address Michael Bourn. He has been an absolutely wonderful piece at the top of the lineup over the past year and a half, catalyzing a formerly sluggish Braves offense with his on-base skills and tremendous base-running ability and anchoring the defense with Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field.
But his agent is Scott Boras.
It feels silly to write this, but Bourn's career year could not be more ill-timed. Now, Boras can leverage Bourn's apparent power surge, consistent on-base ability and Gold Glove defense into a major deal.
CBS Sports thinks that it will take about $11 to $12 million per year to acquire Michael Bourn, but I'm thinking he will cost upwards of $80 million over six years. And it very well may be worth it to purchase the services of Michael Bourn, especially to keep him away from the division-rival Washington Nationals, but Bourn is entering his age-30 season, and players of his ilk don't typically age well.
For every Brett Butler and Kenny Lofton, there are dozens of Dave Roberts and Roger Cedeños that burn out. Perhaps Bourn is an exception, but can Atlanta afford to take an $80 million risk?
While Liberty Media has been notoriously tight-pocketed, Atlanta has in fact freed up enough funds to go after Bourn. Unfortunately, going after Bourn could very well cripple the Braves when it is time to sign Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman—not to mention the pitching staff—to long-term deals.
It is because of this fact that I believe that Atlanta should only pursue Bourn to the point that they can. If they can re-sign Michael Bourn to a contract that won't cripple them in the long run, Bourn should be brought back. Unfortunately, I think that Boras will inflate Bourn's asking price to the point where a re-signing is no longer possible.
So at this point, who becomes Bourn's replacement? One thing is for certain: General manager Frank Wren would like to see his center fielder bat leadoff, saying that what the team does in center field couples with what they will do at the leadoff position. So while the team could conceivably (and I would be a definite advocate of this) sign Cody Ross or Torii Hunter to play left field, neither of these two could hit leadoff, thereby eliminating them from consideration in center field
Here are a few directions I could see Atlanta going in center field.
Making just $4.85 million in 2012, Pagan is not only the first potential signing to be mentioned, but also perhaps the most likely and best all-around option for the Braves. An extremely underrated player, Pagan has pop (slugging .487, .425 and .440 in three of the last four years), on-base ability (getting on at clips of .350, .340 and .338 in three of the last four years), speed (37, 32 and 29 stolen bases the last three years) and above-average defense in center field.
The advanced metrics like him, too. He's accumulated 11.1 WAR (according to Fangraphs) over the past three years—that's an average of 3.7 WAR a year. He's a switch-hitter who produces from both sides of the plate (a major addition to a formerly left-handed heavy lineup), and while he's not a flashy signing, he could be an excellent stop-gap center fielder for a few years.
Sizemore makes this list purely as a low-risk, high-reward option. When he was healthy, Sizemore was an on-base machine with lots of pop, speed to burn and excellent defense to boot.
He hasn't been healthy since 2009, though.
Also of concern here is the fact that he may not be a leadoff hitter anymore. In 71 games during the 2011 season, Sizemore failed to steal a bag. This may be due to his questionable health, but the question must be posed: Can Sizemore still steal bases?
Sizemore is a tantalizing option. He can be bought at a very cheap price, and if he's healthy, he could supply Atlanta with a 20-20 season and a .350 OBP from the leadoff position. But if he isn't healthy, where does that leave the Braves in center field? Food for thought.
I promise, I'm not contradicting myself here. BJ Upton could indeed cost more than Michael Bourn, due to youth and an incredibly high upside. Still, I need to at least mention Upton's name here.
What if all Upton needs to excel is a change of scenery? As far as counting stats go, his upside teases fans with numbers close to 30 home runs and 45 steals. It's his rate stats that simply kills his value: batting averages in the .240s, declining walk rates, climbing strikeout rates, paltry OBPs and the like.
Still, he hasn't turned 28 yet, and there is still the chance that he turns his career around. He has shown flashes of brilliance in center field, very good sabermetric value (4.1, 4.1 and 3.7 WAR in the past three years respectively), and still has the potential to explode and become a dynamo at the plate.
But if he goes for five years and $80 million, will it be worth it for Atlanta to take a shot at a player who put up a .298 OBP this year?
Victorino is a fascinating free agent to me. I get the sense that he will either be an incredible short-term bargain as he tries to redeem himself from a year in which he posted a .321 OBP, or he will be incredibly overpaid. On the possibility that he is a bargain, I would definitely try to sign Victorino to plug the hole in center field for a few years.
Braves fans: You don't need me to explain Victorino to you. Another switch-hitter, he's got pop, he's got speed, he can get on base, he doesn't strike out a lot and he's a very good fielder. He's also turning 32 later this year, which lends credence to the possibility he could be a veteran bargain. If so, I would not have any hesitation to signing Victorino to a two- or three-year deal worth around $7-8 million a year.
But will he come that cheaply?
I don't think this is going to happen. Clarification: I really don't think this is going to happen.
Nevertheless, it is a complete shot in the dark that allows me to cover all of my bases here.
I also kind of really want it to happen.
In his age-38 season, Ichiro began the year with a .288 OBP in his first 95 games. He's never possessed a high walk rate, but his speed has always allowed him to run out infield singles. I was among those who thought this might be the end for Ichiro.
Then he was traded to New York and put up a .340 OBP with a .454 SLG. He's totaled 29 stolen bases this year—another sign that his legs aren't finished just yet.
As for the position: Ichiro is very capable of playing center field. He's too smart, too experienced and still too fast to not have the ability. If he would accept an incentive-laden one-year contract to come to Turner Field, Atlanta should seriously consider signing the reinvigorated Ichiro.
Atlanta's top minor league center fielder, Cunningham would probably be the fallback if Atlanta failed to sign or trade for anyone to fill Bourn's shoes. I see Cunningham as more of a fourth outfielder if Reed Johnson were to sign somewhere else, but that doesn't mean Cunningham wouldn't be capable of starting in center field.
Yet another switch hitter, Cunningham put together a very nice season at Double-A Mississippi, getting on base at a very nice .364 clip, stealing 24 bases and only striking out 51 times in 466 at bats. He doesn't currently possess much power, but his 6'0", 200-pound athletic frame should mature gap power into home-run power.
Cunningham will see major playing time as an Atlanta Brave someday, and if the Front Office cannot find someone better to replace Bourn, that day could come sooner than thought.
Wheeling and Dealing
Revere is young and talented but is being played in right field in deference to Denard Span, and suddenly has the immense ceilings of Byron Buxton and Aaron Hicks hot on his tail. Minnesota needs to rebuild, and Revere could fetch a decent Braves pitching prospect—something the Twins could definitely use.
He'll never have any power, but as the 24-year-old matures, he'll get on base at a better clip (a rate that rose to .333 this season). He is already an excellent fielder and a terror on the basepaths, stealing 74 bases in the last two seasons. Also of note: He strikes out less than 10 percent of the time already, and as his walk rate goes up, his strikeouts should come down even further.
Revere might be the most underrated pickup here, as he won't demand a high return in a trade with Minnesota, and Atlanta will get a chance to lock him up for a while, possessing him through his prime years.
On the other end of the spectrum is Denard Span, the more experienced and slightly better-rounded player. At 28 years old, Span is a lock to get on base at a very good rate (his career OBP is .357), and he also has healthy walk and strikeout rates.
He isn't a speed demon, but he can steal about 20 bases a year and will flaunt great defense in center field. He might require a higher price than Revere due to his experience and advantage in power, but he should still come at a reasonable price.
Fowler is a very, very intriguing option. The 6'4" switch-hitting 26-year-old Atlanta native simply oozes athleticism, and after years of waiting for a breakout season, he finally put it all together. In 2012, he got on base at a .389 clip and hit 13 home runs to pair with his 12 steals (which is a little low for someone with Fowler's speed, but given the green light, he should be able to push his yearly total over 20).
Fangraphs doesn't like his defense in center field, but I have to think that with time, his routes will catch up with his athleticism. He also strikes out a lot, but makes up for it with a great walk rate.
Colorado might require a healthy return for Fowler, but I do know two things—Colorado needs pitching, and Atlanta has plenty of it.
Trading for Fowler is an option that could have Atlanta reaping benefits for a decade to come, granted he continues to improve.
As you can see, losing Michael Bourn would not mean the end of the world. Each of these players (save for BJ Upton) would allow Atlanta a not only serviceable, but rather very good major league center fielder for the near future, and in some cases the long run as well.
I see the most likely options as being Angel Pagan, Shane Victorino and Ben Revere. I'm concerned with Sizemore's health, Ichiro's age and Fowler's trade cost, and therefore see these three as the proverbial cream of the crop once all costs and benefits are considered.
Pagan and Victorino would be similar pickups—smart, crafty veterans with a little bit of pop, some speed, great defense and a high OBP. Pagan would cost a fair amount less than Victorino, but Victorino would provide a lot more value than Pagan.
Revere is a different case: young, powerless, but with all of his prime years squarely ahead of him. In the end, while I could make a case for everyone on the list and would advocate picking up most of them, my first option would probably be Victorino, pending the size of his contract. Following would probably be Revere, and then Pagan.