11/30/07 8:25 PM ET
Braves looking for lefty, center fielder
GM Wren cautiously optimistic heading to Winter Meetings
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
Still, when Braves general manager Frank Wren arrives at Nashville's Gaylord Opryland Resort on Sunday evening, he'll prepare for the four-day event with the hope he might at least move closer to filling his desires to gain a left-handed reliever and a center fielder with more experience than Josh Anderson and Jordan Schafer.
While the Braves have said they'd be comfortable with either Anderson or Schafer in center, there's no doubt they feel a need to add a left-handed reliever to a bullpen mix that will not include Mike Gonzalez until he makes his return from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, which is expected in June.
Initially, Wren crossed his fingers and hoped he'd be able to re-sign Ron Mahay to fill this need. But his early worry that the left-handed reliever would prove to be too expensive was confirmed over the course of the past couple weeks, when relievers J.C. Romero and Scott Linebrink both profited from the free-agent market with three-year deals that include annual salaries of at least $4 million.
"I think there will be an interest [in Mahay]," Wren said. "But I think the market has already grown to a point where we'd probably be uncomfortable."
With Mahay seemingly out of the picture, the Braves' best opportunity to gain a left-handed reliever likely will come via the trade market. A trade also may be the most suitable option to find a short-term center fielder, who would hold the position until it's deemed the 21-year-old Schafer definitely is ready for the Major Leagues.
"It's not going to be easy," Wren said. "I don't think there's a lot of guys available at this point. But there's always things that pop up when we get to the Winter Meetings. ... You just keep talking, thinking and looking."
At least as it pertains to these Meetings, what happens in Nashville won't necessarily have to stay in Nashville. Many of the conversations that will take place in the spacious Opryland Hotel's multiple lobbies will lay the groundwork for moves that could be made in the next few weeks or months.
When the Meetings were last held in Nashville, in 2002, the Braves' only move was to acquire Ray King from the Brewers. But the afternoon after the event concluded they announced they'd signed free agent Paul Byrd and acquired Russ Ortiz from the Giants.
As the 2004 Meetings concluded in Anaheim, former Braves general manager John Schuerholz formalized the Tim Hudson trade that would be completed a few days after he returned to Atlanta.
This year, Wren's discussions with other Major League general managers and scouts actually may provide a spark for a trade or trades that might not be completed until Spring Training, when another team's needs might make it more willing to part ways with a left-handed reliever or center fielder.
There are some teams that have expressed some interest in Matt Diaz, who has hit .333 while platooning in left field with the Braves over the past two seasons. While Wren isn't shopping Diaz, he is a piece that other teams could deem desirable enough to formulate a trade that would help the Braves fill one of their needs.
Because there is a growing belief that Schafer, who has never played above the Class A level, might be ready for the Majors by June or July, the Braves don't feel a pressing need to gain another center fielder. Their depth at the position gained some experience with the November acquisition of Anderson, who also is known as an athletic defensive asset.
Although Anderson hit .358 in 21 September games with the Astros this year, he's still not a proven offensive threat. But the 24-year-old outfielder, who was successful in 40 of 48 stolen-base attempts at the Minor League level this past year, certainly would bring the Braves a speed option their lineup has lacked since Rafael Furcal's departure.
Schafer, who combined to hit .312 with 15 homers with Class A Rome and advanced Class A Myrtle Beach this past summer, took advantage of an opportunity to impress when Wren and Braves manager Bobby Cox came to see him play in mid-November.
"Defensively, they both can [play in the Majors]," Wren said. "Offensively is where there is a question. But Bobby has said the emphasis will be placed on defense because we believe we have enough offense on the rest of our club."
While finding a center fielder and left-handed reliever are at the top of Wren's shopping list, he also is looking for a utility infielder who could serve as a backup for Yunel Escobar, who became the starting shortstop when Edgar Renteria was traded to the Tigers for right-handed pitcher Jair Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez, a top Minor League outfield prospect, on Oct. 29.
If Wren doesn't leave the four-day Winter Meetings with an additional center fielder or left-handed reliever, he'll still return to Atlanta feeling pretty good about the work he and his staff have done this offseason.
His primary offseason objective was to strengthen the starting rotation, and with the acquisition of Tom Glavine, he is excited about the fact he was able to do so with his primary target.
"The priority was starting pitching, and we knew if we could get what we considered to be a top-flight starting pitcher that we'd be well on our way this offseason," Wren said. "To get Tom really fit the bill."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.