We totaled eight burning questions for the Braves this offseason. There's more, of course, but these are ones, by and large, that the Bravos must ponder as they prepare for the '06 season:
1. What's next for Andy Marte?
Do you use him in a deal for pitching help, platoon him at 1B (thus not re-signing Juley) or keep him at 3B, moving Chipper to 1B and trading Adam LaRoche? CD
says: Try Marte at first during spring training, and see how that works. If he's competent defensively and doesn't flail at the plate, start the season with a Marte-LaRoche platoon, then play it by ear. As we know, the first couple months are for figuring out what you have. Depending on the results, maybe you tinker in June. I would definitely not move Chipper again. What does the guy have to do? He's been the franchise's best everyday player for a decade and played a solid third base last season. Leave him be.CB's
take: Sir Charles is right on here, although I'm a little more open to trading Marte, if necessary, to acquire above-average bullpen reinforcements. But keeping him requires a cold-blooded move: bye-bye Julio. I hope he proves me wrong and remains productive through age 50, but signs of erosion began creeping up late in the season. The odds of nature are stacked high against him, but "Jesus Juice" can be a powerful force.
2. Are you satisfied with a rotation of Smoltz, Hudson, Thomson, Sosa and Horacio?
What about Kyle Davies? Where do Chuck James and Anthony Lerew fit (here or back in the minors)? CD
: That's a solid rotation, if Smoltz can hold up for the whole season. As much as I hate to say it, I'm not sure that's realistic. Somehow, I think Bobby has to limit his innings during the season, even if it means losing a game here or there. The pen blew several Smoltzie wins last year, anyway. I'm also not absolutely sold on Sosa. Yes, he was terrific last year. But I need to see more before he's completely out of Juan Cruz territory in my mind. I give Davies and James every shot to make the big club at Disney World. If either or both outpitches Horacio, then so be it. If not, send them to Richmond and they'll be ready when needed -- either in Atlanta or as trade bait, though I'd hesitate to trade both, for veteran bullpen help or a bat. Let Lerew try to make the club out of the pen. CB
: The first two spots in the rotation are as good as it gets. Yeah, injury is a concern with Smoltzie, and that plays into my other concern about the rotation. While there's plenty of depth, there's not much dominance. Horacio once looked capable, and Sosa seemed ready to inherit that role last year. James and Davies both seem prepared to emerge as solid number three starters. With starters at such a premium, I go into the season with these arms, then, if needed, I'd package them with other prospects for a more dominant, top-of-the rotation type. That wouldn't likely be necessary unless our fears of a Smoltz injury are realized.
3. Happy with the lineup? Who hits lead-off, assuming Fukey is gone?
Do we need to import a new lead-off hitter? CD
: We don't need a starting outfielder. I think we're set there. It won't be the '27 Yankees, but I suspect the lineup is more or less set, with Betemit at short hitting toward the bottom of the order, and Giles leading off. Bobby is a master at fine tuning as the season progresses. If Betemit's hitting .200 in June, JS might well go get a reasonably priced veteran. Or, if Elvis or Yunel roars out of the gate, maybe JS calls one of them up in mid-season. Who knows? One name that might be a nice bench pickup, a right-handed outfield bat, sort of a new, younger Jordan, is Rondell White. He had a decent 2005 -- .313, 12, 53 -- he's from Georgia and would probably come reasonably cheap. CB
: I like White, but I've got another idea (see question 7). I do believe we need another OF option, but the lineup is the least of our worries. Most observers seem to think the lead-off position will be a giant hole that current personnel can't fill. Perhaps they're unfamiliar with Marcus Giles' career .366 OBP (.365 last year). That's .16 points higher than Raffy's lifetime OBP. And he could easily steal 25 to 30 bases. Where's the problem?
4. What's to be done with Johnny Estrada?
Are you convinced McCann is ready to play every day, or would you rather keep Johnny E for insurance? CD
: I'm completely sold on McCann. I don't give Johnny away, to be sure. But if we could land a top-level bullpen arm, not a retread, or a solid starting pitcher, I'd move him. JS, as we know, is creative. So he could spin Johnny into who knows what. But, clearly, the pitching staff is where we need the most help going into the spring. If the lineup is anemic the first couple of months, then maybe he makes moves to bolster it. That'd at least be my guess about an overall approach. Then again, that could change depending on what sort of deals are available this offseason. You don't move Estrada for some middling middle reliever just to move him this offseason. CB
: It wouldn't surprise me if McCann had a better sophomore season than his roommate, Jeff Francoeur. Johnny E. is a nice luxury: a former All-Star backstop who's still affordable. A lot of teams could use him, and my guess is that JS will spin him in a deal that nets a quality arm. I suspect we'll see Braya Pena on the roster next season. Maybe even a return engagement for the estimable Paul Bako?
5. Langerhans or Johnson in LF?
They're similar playes in most every respect. Which one is your future, and should the other be used in a trade? CD
: Langerhans was obviously the better player late last season. But Johnson showed considerable promise, and Bobby seems to like him. Whomever has the best spring starts the season in left. If you can land a decent reliever for the other one, do it. But doesn't it seem like every team has outfielders like this hovering between Triple A and the bigs? CB
: KJ probably has a higher ceiling, and thus more trade value. I don't see much use in keeping both, particularly when one can help get what you need (again, yet again, and one more time ... pitching). I suspect we'll see Johnson in a different uniform next spring.
6. The bullpen. Who do you keep, who do you get?
What about Reitsma (not much question Kolb will be released)? But should Reitsma also be non-tendered, or keep him in hopes of a trade?CD
: Unless you have a trade already in place, non-tender Reitsma. He's a tad too pricey, at $3 to $4 million, to get stuck with. I'd go after B.J. Ryan and, if affordable, one solid veteran to start the season and hope Boyer, McBride and Devine progress. If they do, we're in good shape. If they don't, Bobby will still find a way to win 88 games. And with the abundance of prospects, I'd think we could deal for help in mid-season. But relief help has been scarce the past couple seasons. I wouldn't mind seeing the Braves pursue Tom Gordon. He might be in our price range, and he's mentally tough, especially after his years with the Yankees. He might be a steady veteran influence with the young relievers. Among the few remotely intriguing names that might be bargains are Hector Carrasco and Rudy Seanez, who are old but had good seasons last year. Seanez, who seems to be about 60, actually had more strikeouts than innings pitched for the Padres. Then there's Octavio Dotel, who had arm surgery in June and therefore could be cheap. After that, there's a heap of pedestrian types: Cal Eldred, Julian Tavarez, who's not bad but always seems to collapse in big moments, Chris Hammond, Tim Worrell, Doug Brocail and a lot of other guys like Doug Brocail who are lucky to be making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year mostly for watching baseball games. CB
: You don't want to go into next season with questions in your bullpen, particularly if one of those questions regards your closer. The Braves have to do whatever is necessary to get a stopper. On the free agent market, I'd pursue B.J. Ryan heartily. If he can't be had, I'd make a pitch for Trevor Hoffman. Yeah, he's 38, but so is Smoltzie ... and so is Tom Gordon. CD must have forgotten Flash's performances the past few Octobers (Kolb-esque ... or is that, Kolb-ian). Gordon should be a last resort. As for Reitsma, apparently the Rockies are interested in him (don't ask). They also need a catcher. I've already made my Reitsma/Estrada for Brian Fuentes pitch in an earlier post. If the Rocks wise up, then I non-tender Reitsma. Either way, I don't want him anywhere near my bullpen. Importing Fuentes and Hoffman seems particularly doable, financially and otherwise, and would provide a solid back end this bullpen currently lacks. The young guys can fill out the middle roles. Watch out for Anthony Lerew.
7. John Thomson has, when healthy, been a solid fourth starter for the Braves, and would be a solid third starter for many other teams.
Considering his contract status makes him a relative bargain, do you use him as a trading chip or is he a necessary component to the '06 rotation? CD
: Keep him. There's so little pitching out there that I doubt you'd upgrade much. CB
: Trade him. Davies is ready, and James seems to be. One could fill Thomson's spot, and the other could keep Horacio from getting too comfortable. I recommend calling up the Devil Rays and seeing if we can help them with their surplus of young, speedy outfielders. Joey Gathright is a particularly intriguing option. He's reputed to be the fastest guy in the majors, and he'd make an nice compliment to Langerhans in LF.
8. What do you expect from Jeff Francoeur in '06?
Will his free-swinging ways result in a sophomore slump? CD
: Optimistically, based on sheer athleticism and flair for the dramatic, I'd say he'll hit .285 with 25 bombs and 85-100 RBI and 20-25 steals. That wouldn't shock me. Then again, neither would .265, 15, 70 and 15 steals. I think we can count on super defense and a lot of energy, which is always a plus on this club. Stick him out there every day, and he will be a star, just maybe not this season. CB
: One thing we know for sure: he'll be better than Raul Mondesi. He's often been compared to Dale Murphy, and I think that comparison will bear out in his sophomore campaign. Lots of slumps, lots of streaks. Murph hit .276 with 21 HR and 57 RBI in his second full season (restricted to 104 games, due to injury). I suspect you'll see 30-plus homers for Frenchy, but an average in the .260 range. I'll take that.