Having just been named general manager of the Braves for a day, I feel a little wistful at first. I wonder what it would have been like to work with Bobby Cox, one of the all-time great managers, who retired at the end of the season. Cox was always a joy to deal with from a media member's standpoint, and I can only imagine how much fun it would have been to join forces with him.
Alas, there is no reason to feel very sad as I sub for Frank Wren. I am inheriting a team that won 91 games last season, as the Braves ended a four-year post-season drought. Furthermore, I am stepping into an organization with a rare surplus of starting pitching, which should allow me to fill enough holes to put together a roster ready to make a serious run at ending the Phillies' four-year stranglehold on the National League East title.
The first order of business is finding a much-needed power bat to pair up with catcher Brian McCann and third baseman Chipper Jones in the middle of the order. Having committed to playing rookie Freddie Freeman at first base, the most logical place to plug in a big hitter is either left field or center field.
I'm going to narrow the position down to left field by making a preemptive move in November that is sure to raise some eyebrows, both with Braves' fans and those around baseball. Because of my history with him going back to his time in Class A, I'm going to thumb my nose at conventional wisdom and name Nate McLouth the Opening Day center fielder.
Now, I am well aware that McLouth was one of baseball's biggest flops in 2010 with his .240 True Average, -0.2 WARP, and a sickly .190/.298/.322 slash line. However, I'm going with intuition here and betting on someone with a good work ethic and plenty of baseball acumen.
Thus, that leaves us looking for a difference-making bat in left field, and we can forget about the free-agent market. Liberty Media, our tight-fisted owner, isn't going to allow me to pursue either Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford in free agency. Frankly, no other corner outfielder on the open market really excites me.
So, with my starting pitching surplus in tow, I decide to dial up Twins GM Bill Smith. Despite being consistent winners, the Twins have lost in the American League Division Series in each of their last five trips to the postseason. The general theme among the Twin Cities media and fans is that the Twins' lack of success in October stems from not having an ace starter, though left-hander Francisco Liriano certainly looks the part to me.
Thus, I'd prey on the Twins' frustration of yet another quick playoff exit by offering Smith the chance to add a proven veteran starting pitcher in Derek Lowe. While Lowe turned things around last season with a big September, he contributed just 4.0 SNLVAR last season, which is not worthy of being considered an ace.
I would offer Lowe for Michael Cuddyer and one of the many prospects the Twins have at the lower levels of their farm system. While Cuddyer's offensive statistics were not depressed by the Twins' move outside from the Metrodome to Target Field, as one would suspect—his home/road splits were pretty even—he is 31 and due for a bounce-back season after his TAv slipped from .290 to .274 and his home-run total plummeted from 32 to 14.
With left-hander Billy Wagner going off into retirement, I'm comfortable using hard-throwing youngsters Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters to pitch the late innings of games. However, it never hurts to have insurance in case the kids struggle, and providing a mentor for them would only be plus.
Thus, I would give Trevor Hoffman a call to see if the all-time saves leader and all-time good guy would consider trying to make one last run at an elusive World Series title while helping in middle relief and serving as a sounding board for Kimbrel and Venters. Once you stop laughing at the 43-year-old Hoffman's -1.976 WXRL from last season with the Brewers, take a moment to consider that he held batters to a .226/.292/.315 line in his last 36 appearances and 139 batters faced. Signing Hoffman to a contract with a low base salary and meaningful roster bonuses would make plenty of sense.
The Braves could use the same kind of veteran help to shadow Freeman at first base, preferably a right-handed hitter who would keep the 21-year-old from having to face the tougher lefties in his first full major-league season. A free agent who would make a lot of sense for this role is Ty Wigginton.
Wigginton is not the prototypical lefty masher, and he tailed off considerably last season after a strong first half with the Orioles. However, he is still an effective player when he isn't overexposed, and his vast experience at third base could prove very handy if Jones were to suffer yet another injury that would cause him to miss a large chunk of time.
Fredi Gonzalez has some huge shoes to fill in 2011 as he takes over for Cox. Hopefully, I've made things a little easier for him by tweaking his roster enough that the Braves should be not only playoff worthy again next season, but even ready to make a run at winning it all.
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