Braves’ focus shifts to roster at GM meetings

 

It’s been a hectic and productive six weeks for new Braves president of baseball operations John Hart and assistant GM John Coppolella, who  made a slew of major personnel changes in overhauling the team’s scouting and baseball ops departments. Now it’s time to shift the focus to the Braves’ roster, as Hart and Coppy try to get creative and improve the team as much as possible while staying within a middle-of-the-pack payroll that might not have much flexibility to add salary unless a trade or two is made.

Might they move their freshly minted Silver Slugger, Justin Upton? Would they really consider trading homegrown Gold Glove winner Jason Heyward? Could they actually ship out El Oso Blanco, Evan Gattis?

The Braves could entertain offers for Silver Slugger outfielder Justin Upton, who's entering the final year of his contract.

The Braves could entertain offers for Silver Slugger outfielder Justin Upton, who’s entering the final year of his contract.

Stay tuned.

Rumors are likely to start flying as trade talks and free-agent discussions begin in earnest across baseball at the GM meetings that run Monday through Thursday at the posh Arizona Biltmore in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The Braves are expected to keep their payroll near the same level as last year’s approximate $112 million – CEO Terry McGuirk told me Thursday that it wouldn’t be reduced – and they already have more than $77 million committed to nine players. That includes second baseman Dan Uggla’s $13 million salary, of which the Braves must pay all except perhaps a prorated portion of the major league minimum $500,000 salary if Uggla signs with another team.

That $77 million doesn’t include a $15.3 million qualifying offer the Braves made last week to free-agent pitcher Ervin Santana, who’s expected to decline that offer by Monday’s deadline. The Braves made that offer to assure they would get a compensatory draft pick if Santana declined it and signed with another team.

Replacing more than 400 innings pitched by free-agent starters Santana and Aaron Harang figure to be at the top of Hart’s to-do list, along with improving the bullpen — they need a good left-hander — and bolstering the bench and possibly the lineup, although the Braves don’t have any current positions open except possibly second base, where rookies Tommy La Stella and Phil Gosselin handled most of the duties after Uggla was dropped.

The Braves said they’d be OK paying Santana that amount if he accepted the offer. However, in the unlikely event that he did, it would surely increase the likelihood of the Braves trading away a significant salary this winter, with Justin Upton’s $14.5 million salary perhaps the most logical one given that he is eligible for free agency after the 2015 season and could command a long-term deal worth well over $100 million.

Uggla was released in July with nearly $20 million still owed by the Braves from the five-year, $62 million extension they gave him after being traded from the Marlins at the 2010 GM meetings (one of the few major trades made during the GM meetings in recent years).

The eight returning Braves included in that $77 million: Freddie Freeman, Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran, Andrelton Simmons and Chris Johnson, who signed multi-year contract extensions last year; and the Upton brothers. Justin Upton enters the final season of a six-year, $51.5 million contract he signed with Arizona.

Because J-Hey and J-Up can be free agents after the 2015 season, the two outfielders along with Gattis could be the Braves most likely discussed in trade talks or at least connected to trade rumors in coming weeks.

Gattis has 43 homers in 783 plate appearances in two major league seasons, and is still a year away from arbitration eligibility, which is why he’s very attractive to many teams looking for a catcher and/or designated hitter.

But that light-tower power and low salary are also reasons it’s not going to be an easy decision for the Braves to trade him, especially given the dearth of power in their minor league system and the fact that they tied for 22nd in the majors in homers last season. Justin Upton (29) and Gattis (22) accounted for 51 of the team’s 123 homers, and Freeman (18) was the only other Brave with more than 12.

J-Up has 56 homers and 172 RBIs in two seasons with the Braves and has averaged 24.5 homers over the past six seasons. And while the defense, baserunning and all-around abilities like those possessed by  Heyward are appreciated more and more in today’s game, most teams still save the biggest contracts for starting pitchers and power hitters. Justin’s next contract will be huge.

Light-tower power and a low salary make Evan Gattis a tough decision for the Braves, who are expected to hear plenty of trade interest in the catcher this winter.

Light-tower power and a low salary make Evan Gattis a tough decision for the Braves, who are expected to hear plenty of trade interest in the catcher this winter.

The Braves would only consider trading Gattis because they have promising catching prospect Christian Bethancourt waiting in the wings after two Triple-A seasons and a couple of mostly assuring major-league stints last season. But rather than accept a less-than-stellar return in a trade for Gattis, the Braves could opt to trade J-Up or Heyward and move Gattis to left  field at least part of the time.

Meanwhile, B.J. Upton is owed about $46 million over the final three seasons of his Braves franchise-record five-year, $75.25 million contract. That amount coupled with his poor performance in two seasons with the Braves — .198 batting average, 21 homers, .279 OBP, 324 strikeouts in 910 at-bats – makes him seemingly untradeable for anything other than an equally bad contract — of which there are very, very few. The Braves will not eat the rest of what he’s owed by releasing him at this point.

Hart recently spent much of a day with B.J. Upton in Florida, playing golf together and then meeting for about three hours to discuss where Upton was at mentally and what he and the team felt he needed to do to improve offensively and defensively in 2015. Both sides said the meeting was productive.

Heyward will make at least $8.3 million in the final season of his two-year contract, including $500,000 or more in bonus money for winning a Gold Glove and surpassing 502 plate appearances in 2014. Heyward, who had additional potential bonus money for MVP votes, and Justin Upton will both be eligible for free agency after the 2015 season.

Pencil in at least another $5 million in the arbitration salary for starting pitcher Mike Minor, and more than $5 million combined for the projected arbitration salaries of relievers Jordan Walden and James Russell, assuming both are retained, and that’s about $88 million for 11 players on the 25-man roster.

The Braves have decisions to make on arbitration-eligible pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, each recovering from a second Tommy John elbow surgery after blowing out in consecutive days last spring training. Neither can be counted on to be ready to begin the season and both are non-tender candidates because of health and projected arbitration salaries — $5.8 million for Medlen and $1.5 million for Beachy.

It’s believed the Braves are leaning toward bringing back Medlen, perhaps on a reduced contract with incentives. He was one of their top two starting pitchers in 2013 and won three National League Pitcher of the Month awards from August 2012 through September 2013.

Medlen’s recovery has gone smoothly so far, and if the Braves think he could be back strong at some point early in the season then it could lessen the need to add more than one other proven starter to replace Santana and Harang, who had more than 400 innings between them in 2014, as well as veteran Gavin Floyd, who was impressive in nine starts before fracturing his pitching elbow. The Braves might consider making an offer to Harang, who can probably command a two-year deal after his improbable resurgence in 2014.

• Let’s close with this one from Charleston duo Shovels & Rope off their great first album (their new album is also Grade-A stuff). By the way, there’s a really cool biker-oriented movie, Road to Paloma, with several Shovels & Rope songs used in it.

“HAIL, HAIL” by Shovels & Rope

Shovels & Rope

Shovels & Rope

Hail, hail Rock and Roll.Well, hail, hail Rock and Roll!
Well, hail, hail Rock and Roll!
I love you till you slit my throat and swallow me whole.
You’re a bad, bad boy
with a selfish little soul,
Rock and Roll.Can’t put my finger on exactly what it is that you stole.
You like it low, lower than I thought that I could ever go.
You took my deep, red heart
to a deep, dark hole,
Rock and Roll.

Bop, bop, bop! [x2]
Oh, oh, oh!

Hail, hail, thirty-three.

Well, hail, hail thirty-three!
Well, hail, hail thirty-three!
Your violent hiss sounds so sweet to me.
You got a copperhead kiss
hidden up your sleeve,
thirty-three.

You’d burn me down like an old oak tree.
You wanna turn my love into an enemy.
You mighta fooled everybody
but you won’t fool me,
thirty-three.

Bop, bop, bop! [x2]
Oh, oh, oh!

Bop, bop, bop! [x4]

de da de da de da de,
de da de da de da de,
de da de da de da de da!

Hail, hail wrecking ball.

Well, hail, hail wrecking ball!
Well, hail, hail wrecking ball!
When it gets out of control I’m gonna give you a call,
have you come down here,
make some sense of it all,
wrecking ball.

It woulda got filled up, it woulda got too tall.
It’s breathin’ up your neck and burnin’ down you hall.
It took years in the makin’,
just a second to fall,
wrecking ball.

Bop, bop, bop! [x4]

de da de da de da de,
de da de da de da de,
de da de da de da de da!

 

 

 

 

 


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