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Braves looking for depth on free-agent market

Braves looking for depth on free-agent market

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Braves looking for depth on free-agent market
ATLANTA -- Braves general manager Frank Wren will not be grabbing the spotlight by pursuing Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes or any of this offseason's other high-profile free agents. But this should shape up as a busy and interesting offseason for Wren, who is motivated by the forgettable conclusion this past season brought.

Almost all of the same players that helped the Braves produce the Major Leagues' fourth-best record through the end of August are set to return for the 2012 season. But given that this same group also squandered an 8 1/2-game Wild Card lead in September, Wren might make more than just a few minor changes to his roster.

There likely will not be a major overhaul, and there is no guarantee Wren do anything that even matches the magnitude of last offseason's acquisition of Dan Uggla. The most obvious portion of his to-do list centers around the shortstop position. There is some interest in bringing back Alex Gonzalez, but if he proves too expensive as a free agent, the Braves will likely find their next shortstop via the free-agent or trade markets.

It will be more interesting to monitor any potential moves Wren makes in attempt to improve his outfield's offensive potential. Michael Bourn is set to play center field in Atlanta for at least one more season. But there is a little doubt about who will man the corner-outfield positions at the beginning of the season.

Wren has said said there is no guarantee that Jason Heyward will be begin the season as the team's starting right fielder. At the same time, one has to wonder if the Braves will decide not to put Martin Prado back in left.

Someway, somehow, the Braves need to gain an outfield mix that generates more power than they received this past year. Atlanta outfielders ranked last in the National League in OPS (.695) and slugging percentage (.375).

Whether the Braves attempt to land a player like Michael Cuddyer via free agency, or another player via trade, could be influenced by their ability to move Derek Lowe, who has already learned he won't be a part of the Atlanta rotation as he enters the final year of a four-year, $60 million contract. The Braves will almost certainly have to eat a significant portion of the 39-year-old's $15 million salary.

But if the Braves find a club willing to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million for Lowe, that's an extra $5 million Wren could use in his attempt to land a shortstop or an outfielder. There is always the chance Wren could use extra funds to add depth to his bullpen with an experienced middle reliever.

It will also be interesting to see whether Wren opts to exercise the $1.5 million option to bring veteran utility man Eric Hinske back for the 2012 season. Hinske is an experienced pinch-hitter who provides value to the clubhouse, but the Braves have to evaluate whether they want him to serve as first baseman Freddie Freeman's primary backup.

With Hinske and Freeman both left-handed hitters, the Braves might opt to find a right-handed utility man who can play first base. Wren will also likely spend a portion of the winter looking for a utility infielder who can play shortstop.

Contract issues
Free agents: SS Alex Gonzalez; RHP Scott Linebrink; LHP George Sherrill

Eligible for arbitration: RHP Peter Moylan; RHP Jair Jurrjen; IF Martin Prado; LHP Eric O'Flaherty; OF Michael Bourn

Club options: UT Eric Hinske, $1.5 million ($100,000 buyout), OF Nate McLouth, $10.65 million ($1.25 million buyout will be exercised)

Non-tender possibilities: Moylan

Areas of need
Shortstop: The Braves know they have a solid defensive option in Gonzalez. But as they attempt to improve their offense, they will have to evaluate whether it makes more sense to meet the demand for Gonzalez or go another route via free agency or trade. Reyes will not be an option, and it's unlikely that the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins will stand as a serious target.

Outfield: Wren addressed a definite need in July when he acquired Bourn to serve as his center fielder and leadoff hitter through at least the end of the 2012 season. This winter, the GM will seemingly need to evaluate potential opportunities to add power to his outfield mix.

Bench: Along with determining whether they want to bring Hinske back, the Braves will be looking to find a utility infielder with more versatility than Brooks Conrad can provide. Mark DeRosa will likely be mentioned as a candidate. But there might also be a need to find a utility player who can still play shortstop on a regular basis, if necessary.

Bullpen: This is not a pressing need. But with the core of his bullpen still relatively young, Wren may opt to add a veteran reliever like he did last winter with Linebrink.

2012 payroll
Wren has said the payroll will likely be around the same or slightly higher than it was this past year. This should keep it around $90 million. As things currently stand, it appears the Braves will have somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million to spend. They will gain some more flexibility if they are able to move Lowe.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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