Patience a free-agent virtue for Braves
Club could look to open market to fill holes in 'pen, first base
ATLANTA -- Last year, the Braves aggressively attacked the free-agent market in search of top-flight starting pitchers. As this year's free-agent season begins, it appears they could be one of a number of teams that show patience before attempting to attempting to fill their specific needs.
Some clarity will begin to enter the free-agent picture on Friday at 12:01 a.m. ET, when clubs will be allowed to begin staging financial negotiations with all available free agents. But there seems to be a widespread belief that the economy and the reduced talent pool available in this year free-agent class will lead many clubs to show early patience in an attempt to keep their costs in check.
"I think it's too early to say, because the market hasn't started yet," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "There are a limited number of impact players in all categories. It will be interesting to see how it goes. I do know there are a lot of trade conversations going on."
The fact that there is a limited amount of talent on this year's free-agent market could help Atlanta in its attempt to trade Lowe, who is owed $45 million over the next three seasons.
While Lowe's cost seems even greater because he posted a 4.67 ERA in 34 starts for the Braves this year, many talent evaluators still believe he could be the best available pitcher not named John Lackey, the Angels right-hander who headlines this year's list of available free-agent pitchers.
The fact that the Braves are searching for a closer, a setup man and a first baseman stems from the possibility that they could lose right-handed reliever Rafael Soriano, left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez and first baseman Adam LaRoche via free agency.
The Braves may also spend the next couple weeks and months searching for an outfielder. But because it seems likely they will be willing to give Jason Heyward a chance to begin the 2010 season in their outfield, this doesn't seem to be as great of a concern.
Matt Diaz and Nate McLouth are in place to fill the other outfield spots. To provide some insurance in the event that Heyward isn't able to make the successful jump to the Majors, Atlanta may at least attempt to find an affordable veteran outfielder.
While there is a chance that LaRoche could return if he doesn't prove to be too expensive, there's a growing belief that Soriano and Gonzalez will be pitching elsewhere next year. These two veteran relievers have both served as closers in Atlanta over the course of the past two seasons.
If the Braves are going to make an early transaction via free agency, they will likely do so in the bullpen department. They are among the clubs interested in veteran closer Billy Wagner, whose status as a Type A free agent would cause the signing team to lose a draft pick.
Gonzalez and Soriano, who will draw attention from a number of clubs seeking a closer, are also Type A free agents. It now appears the Braves may be comfortable offering arbitration to both of these veteran relievers. By doing so, they would put themselves in position to gain the draft-pick compensation that would come if they were to sign elsewhere.
LaRoche's future appears to be harder to predict. With highly-regarded prospect Freddie Freeman potentially ready to serve as Atlanta's first baseman as early as the 2011 season, the Braves may be reluctant to offer LaRoche anything more than a one-year deal.
While hitting .325 with 12 homers in the 57 games he played for the Braves, LaRoche seemed to enhance his interest on the free-agent market. It appears that he'll draw most of his interest from the Giants, Mets and D-backs.
If these clubs aren't willing to make an attractive multiyear offer, the Braves may find themselves willing to wait to sign LaRoche with the hope that he could prove to be the kind of bargain the Angels gained this year, when the waited until February to sign Bobby Abreu at a cost of just $5 million.
While there currently seems to be more action across the league on the trade front, Wren said that he will show just as much attention to the options he possesses via free agency.
"I think you have to let it play out," Wren said. "We have interesting possibilities in both markets. I don't think we can say we're going to be involved in this one or that one."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.