If you were Braves general manager Frank Wren, which free-agent closer would you sign, Mike Gonzalez or Rafael Soriano? If you couldn't sign either, who would be tops on your radar this offseason?
-- Mike B. Napa, Calif.
Given the choice between signing either Gonzalez or Soriano to a multiyear contract, there's no doubt that I would go after Gonzo. If we're talking about a one-year deal, there would be more reason to at least entertain bringing Soriano back.
Despite the fact that his performance declined after his dominant first half, Soriano still finished the season with impressive stats -- 27 saves in 31 opportunities, 2.97 ERA in 77 appearances, 1.06 WHIP, .194 opponents' batting average, 12.13 strikeouts per nine innings.
But fair or unfair, I've got to look at Soriano's history and wonder if I would receive similar results during those seasons when he wasn't pitching for a new contract. After he signed his just-completed two-year deal with the Braves, he made only 14 appearances during the 2008 season and then managed to enter this year's free-agent market having made a career-high 77 appearances.
It's certainly not fair to judge him on this one season or call him injury-plagued because he underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and got hit in the head with a line drive during his days in Seattle. But my apprehension is more a product of the sense I gained during the 2008 season, when it felt like some of the members of the Braves clubhouse questioned whether Soriano truly needed to undergo the ulnar nerve transposition surgical procedure that he underwent in August of that year.
My view of Gonzalez is that he is the consummate team player. The veteran left-hander never complained when Soriano earned the opportunity to replace him as the primary closer, and while it might not have been the smartest thing to do, he overlooked fatigue and elbow discomfort when he pitched three consecutive days twice during the first nine days of July.
Five of the 20 earned runs Gonzalez surrendered this season were scored while pitching on the third consecutive day during that span in early July. Still, the veteran left-hander finished the season with a 2.42 ERA and limited opponents to a .209 batting average.
Despite the fact that he became more of a gamble because he was asked to make 80 appearances (26 more than his previous career high) this past season, it appears that the demand for Gonzalez will lead him to be deemed too expensive by the Braves.
While looking for a new closer, I'd put Billy Wagner at the top of my list. A Major League scout who saw him during the season's final weekend told me that the veteran reliever can still serve as a top-notch closer. The fact that Wagner is a Type-A free agent shouldn't be a great concern. Yes, the Braves would lose a first-round pick if they were to sign him, but they can comfortably pursue him knowing they are going to be doubly compensated when Soriano and Gonzalez (both Type-A free agents) sign elsewhere.
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Do you think there is really a place for Jordan Schafer in the Braves' long-term plans? With Nate McClouth, Jason Heyward and Matt Diaz, where would he fit in?
-- Asa P. Statesboro, Ga.
Let me start by saying that I like Schafer and believe that he has an extremely bright future. I know that you can be easily fooled by a player's performance during Spring Training, but I don't think this applies to the young outfielder.
Instead, based on what I saw from Schafer during the Grapefruit League season, I'm even more confident that his left wrist played a large role in the mighty struggles he encountered in Atlanta.
Still, it wouldn't surprise me if Atlanta was to deal him. This belief might have been further strengthened this past weekend when an American League scout asked, "What's going on with Schafer?" This scout had just returned from the Dominican Republic where he'd heard other scouts talking about the possibility that the Braves might trade the 22-year-old outfielder.
Two years ago, it was easy to classify Schafer as being arrogant. But having had the opportunity to spend more time with him this year, I'd say it's more appropriate to call him a highly-confident young kid who is still going through the process of learning how to handle himself in the clubhouse and in the spotlight.
Because he's combined for approximately 400 at-bats the past two seasons, Schafer needs to spend some time in the Minors during the 2010 season. But I would think once he finds his timing and reacquaints himself to the game's daily requirements, he'll once again display the same great promise that surrounded him two years ago.
What do you think about the Braves making a move for Adrian Gonzalez?
-- David S. Dublin, Ga.
My initial thought is that I'm glad that Jake Peavy, Sandy Alderson, Kevin Towers, Paul DePodesta and the usher that handles section 316 at Petco Park wouldn't all have to agree to approve this trade.
If the Padres' new GM Jed Hoyer opts to move Gonzalez, he's obviously going to be looking for a significant return. In other words, to get this All-Star first baseman for two seasons, my guess is that the Braves would have to provide a return package that includes Schafer, Freddie Freeman, Mike Minor or Randall Delgado and a least one other above-average prospect.
If this package or a similar one were to be deemed suitable by the Padres, then I'd have say you pull the trigger and gain the benefit of having Gonzalez around for at least two years at a combined cost of $10.5 million.
When talking about this kind of deal, my only untouchables on the Braves roster would be Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson.
Do you think Adam LaRoche will be back next season?
-- George R. Tuscon, Ariz.
Right now, I don't anticipate seeing LaRoche back in Atlanta next year. I don't think the Braves are willing to provide him more than a one-year offer (likely $7 million or less). I believe that the Giants, Mets or D-backs will provide him an attractive multiyear deal that he'll sign before reaching a point where he gets into serious negotiations with the Braves.
Will this be the year that the Braves finally turn the corner and get back to the postseason?
-- Chad P. Woodstock, Ga.
Over the past few weeks I've seen some Executive of the Year awards handed out and been shocked that Wren hasn't received more attention. It would be difficult to find a club that made more strides than Atlanta did from the end of the 2008 season through the end of this past season.
There's no doubt that Wren quickly provided himself the base for success with his offseason and in-season acquisitions. But in order to gain the dividends provided by a return to the postseason, he's got a lot of work to do this offseason, and, in my opinion, he has to keep his bullpen-reconstruction process a top priority.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.