Braves determined to return to playoffs in '12
Prado, McCann, Heyward need to bounce back offensively
ATLANTA -- Still bothered by the abrupt collapse that ended the 2011 season much earlier than he and every other member of his organization could have ever expected, Braves general manager Frank Wren has already started evaluating the changes that must be made before the start of the 2012 season.
With some money to burn after the 2008 season, Wren spent the winter rebuilding his rotation with the additions of Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami. Needing to shed some money one year later, he was forced to trade Vazquez. Then last winter, he filled the need for a right-handed power hitter with the acquisition of Dan Uggla from the Marlins.
Fueled by the bitterness that he tasted as his team squandered an 8 1/2-game Wild Card lead in September, there is certainly a chance that Wren will once again make a significant offseason transaction. But he also enters this winter knowing that many of the pieces are already in place for his club to get back to the playoffs next year.
The Braves' rotation is loaded with young talent, and the back end of their bullpen will once again be solid with a healthy Kris Medlen set to join Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters and closer Craig Kimbrel. The lineup already has its catalyst in Michael Bourn, and the offense could be deemed formidable if Martin Prado, Brian McCann and Jason Heyward all bounce back from the struggles they encountered last year.
As Wren looks toward the 2012 season, he needs to determine who will play shortstop and who will serve as a backup infielder. There is also a chance that he will scour the free agent and trade markets looking for an outfielder. It appears that he could have somewhere in the neighborhood of about $10 million to spend this winter.
The club has some interest in keeping veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez, a defensive wizard who proved to be a bargain with his $2.5 million salary this past year. But the Braves also understand that they will find some competition on the free agent market from clubs who are willing to pay him for his defensive contributions and live with his offensive inconsistencies.
Two days after his team concluded this year's season in disappointing fashion, Wren was not shy about some of his plans for 2012. He said that he did not see Lowe in his team's starting rotation at the start of next year and gained even more attention by saying Heyward is not guaranteed a starting role in 2012.
In reference to Heyward, Wren might have simply been trying to light a fire under a 22-year-old outfielder who was humbled as he struggled to show even a glimpse of the promise that was present during his memorable rookie season.
With Lowe, Wren was seemingly just speaking the truth. Yes, the veteran pitcher is still owed $15 million as he enters the final season of his contract in 2012. But as Lowe posted a 5-plus ERA and young pitchers like Mike Minor continued to impress, the club may be left with no other choice but to ignore the financial part of this equation.
It seems quite difficult to believe that the Braves could trade Lowe without eating a significant portion of his salary. But they may at least attempt to find a pitching-hungry team that is also looking to unload a bad contract. Or they may simply make Lowe one of the game's top paid middle relievers.
Free agents: Alex Gonzalez, SS; Scott Linebrink, RHP; George Sherrill, LHP
Eligible for arbitration: Peter Moylan, RHP; Jair Jurrjens, RHP; Martin Prado, INF; Eric O'Flaherty, LHP; Michael Bourn, OF
Club options: Eric Hinske -- $1.5 million ($100,000 buyout), Nate McLouth -- $10.65 million (Will not be exercised -- $1.25 million buyout)
Non-tender possibilities: Moylan
Position-by-position look at where the 2011 roster stands going into 2012:
David Ross will return in 2012 to spend his fourth consecutive season as McCann's backup. With Ross widely considered the game's best backup and McCann standing as the game's top offensive catcher, the Braves are quite strong behind the plate. The club can only hope that the struggles McCann endured during this past season's final six weeks were not a sign of things to come.
Freddie Freeman introduced himself to the Major League level in an impressive manner and proved to be one of the game's best rookies in 2011. The big 22-year-old first baseman proved to be a great defensive asset while showing both consistency and power potential at the plate. Meanwhile, the Braves have not decided whether to exercise Hinske's option. If they do, he'll once again serve as Freeman's backup. The primary problem with this arrangement is that they are both left-handed hitters.
After hitting below .200 through the season's first three months, Uggla spent the season's second half showing his usual power and proving to be the guy that the Braves envisioned when they gave him a five-year, $62 million contract in January. Uggla also proved to be better than advertised from a defensive perspective. Brooks Conrad's bat may allow him to once again serve as a backup option at second base, but the Braves may be looking to find some more versatile infielders who can play both middle infield positions.
This position will likely draw the most attention from Wren and his aides over the next few weeks and months. There will likely be an attempt to re-sign Gonzalez, but if he proves to be a little too expensive on the free-agent market, they'll likely look for his replacement on the free agent or trade market. There is little reason to believe that free agent Jose Reyes will draw much interest from the Braves. With prospect Tyler Pastornicky showing signs that he might be ready for the Majors soon, the Braves likely will not begin a long-term relationship with a shortstop.
Chipper Jones will return for at least one more season to serve as Atlanta's starting third baseman. One of the key reasons he proved productive down the stretch this past year was the fact that he received regular rest throughout the season. Prado will be around again next year to serve as a backup at third base. But as long as Prado is projected to serve as the regular left fielder, the Braves will need another option via a player like Conrad.
The Braves know that Bourn will serve as their leadoff hitter and starting center fielder for at least one more season. They also are expecting Prado to spend at least one more season as their starting left fielder. Across the outfield, Heyward is quite capable of regaining his everyday role in right field. But Wren has made it known that he will evaluate his options without guaranteeing Heyward a spot in the lineup.
The Braves are hoping that Jurrjens (right knee) and Tommy Hanson (right shoulder) will both return healthy enough to team with Tim Hudson and provide strength at the front end of the rotation. Brandon Beachy and Minor should approach 2012 with the confidence that they gained courtesy of the experience they were privy to this past season in Atlanta. Medlen, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado will be ready if necessary.
Kimbrel will return to the closer's role with the determination to prove that he will not be affected by the disastrous appearance he made in attempting to protect a ninth-inning lead in the regular season's final game. His setup men will once again be All-Star Venters and O'Flaherty, who posted a 0.98 ERA this past year. Medlen will provide valuable depth to the bullpen mix as he is capable of serving as a setup man or long reliever. Cristhian Martinez and Anthony Varvaro impressed enough this past season to earn a chance to begin next year in Atlanta's bullpen.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.