Outfield a question mark for Braves

Outfield a question mark for Braves

ATLANTA -- The Braves are just a little more than three weeks away from holding their first full squad workout, and as they enter January's final week, they still haven't finalized plans for two of their outfield spots.

But this reality doesn't seem to unnerve Braves general manager Frank Wren, who is continuing to evaluate his options in the search to determine who will be joining right fielder Jeff Francoeur in his team's outfield mix for the upcoming season.

"We're still looking at a number of different things," Wren said. "We'll just continue to weigh our options and see what's out there."

With the season drawing closer, Wren finds himself looking at a free-agent outfield market that appears to be more affordable and more attractive than he could have imagined at this point.

This isn't to say the Braves are definitely looking to sign either Adam Dunn or Bobby Abreu. But as the cost for these two unsigned outfielders seemingly drops, there's reason for them to become more intriguing to Wren.

Last week an unnamed agent told The Washington Post that he believed Dunn "will get a max of $5 million per year." Given that Dunn has hit at least 40 homers each of the past five seasons, this initially seemed somewhat ridiculous. But two other baseball sources have since indicated they believe that projection could prove accurate.

As Spring Training approaches, the market may continue to come closer to where the Braves would be comfortable signing either Dunn or Abreu.

The timetable of the upcoming season is currently on Wren's side in relation to both the free-agent market and trade market, where the Yankees have made both Xavier Nady and Nick Swisher available.

While the Braves have talked to the Yankees about both of these players, it appears they're more interested in Swisher, who would come at a cost of $22.5 million over the course of the next three seasons.

In terms of talent from both an offensive and defensive perspective, Nady is undoubtedly the better option. But because he'll be eligible for free agency at the end of the upcoming season, the Braves may not be comfortable providing the Yankees with the compensation that they're seeking.

Nor do the Braves feel that they can responsibly deal for Nady with the mind-set that his exit after one season could be compensated with the arrival of Jason Heyward. While he is considered one of the game's top prospects, the 19-year-old Heyward's natural maturation process likely won't bring him to Atlanta until the latter part of the 2010 season, at the earliest.

Hot Stove
There was a time the Braves were talking about signing Gold Glove second baseman Orlando Hudson with the intention of moving Kelly Johnson back to left field. But because of concerns about Hudson's recent defensive decline, those discussions died more than a month ago.

Hudson, who won three consecutive Gold Gloves from 2005-07, posted a career-worst .982 fielding percentage this past season. More alarming is the fact that the 31-year-old veteran's range factor has annually decreased over the past four seasons. The career-worst 4.61 mark he posted this past season was trumped by Johnson's mark of 4.77.

While the Braves will continue their search for at least one more outfielder, they are encouraged by the fact that Matt Diaz's surgically repaired right knee appears to completely healed. The right-handed-hitting Diaz, who has dropped nearly 20 pounds this offseason, batted .333, while serving in a left-field platoon during the 2006 and '07 seasons.

As for the center-field job, the Braves are still discussing the possibility of bringing Andruw Jones back to their organization. But it still appears they wouldn't offer him more than a Minor League contract.

While Jones could certainly prove to be a defensive asset, the Braves are worried about the liability he could prove to be in their lineup.

Considering that they still have to keep their fingers crossed with the hope that Francoeur's altered batting stance brings improved production, the Braves have reason to be reluctant about adding another question mark to their outfield mix.

With Jordan Schafer, Josh Anderson and Gregor Blanco, they have three sound defensive center fielders who have the potential to provide more from an offensive standpoint than Jones.

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