Frank Wren calls it his "new hit list."
When Wren, the Atlanta Braves' general manager, arrived at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville Sunday afternoon, his plan for this week's Winter Meetings was already outlined. There were clear targets on his mind. By the time he and his staff met Monday morning, the hit list was finalized: Atlanta needs a left fielder, and there's never a better time to hone in on available (or potentially available) players than at baseball's annual frenzy of free agent pickups, trades and executive bartering.
"I think this morning, more than anything, we strategized as to who we liked the most to fill out our club," Wren said on a Monday radio interview in Nashville.
With the signing of free agent center fielder B.J. Upton the highest-paid Braves player in team history, no less Wren addressed his franchise's biggest question mark entering the offseason. Would the team re-sign speedy leadoff hitter Michael Bourn or let him walk and find a replacement? Upton, obviously, stepped in.
However, perhaps the trickier question still remains on the table for the Braves. Chipper Jones' retirement has further jumbled last season's dominant Atlanta outfield, as the ever-so-useful Martin Prado will likely fill in at third base. Finding one quality outfielder in a rather underwhelming free agent market is one thing, finding two requires a hit list.
A pickup at third base would allow Prado to stay out in the grass, but that list of names is thought to be even shorter.
"(Left field) is the focus, but it's just so hard. Really, there's a limited number of guys that fit that description that are available," Wren said of a left fielder who can hit in Bourn's lead-off spot. "We met, like I said, this morning just going through all the clubs re-hashing it, and we've done it several times this offseason. But, you know, there's certain guys get traded, certain guys sign, so it changes the marketplace a little bit."
Wren's options are not of the big-name variety.
The popular suspects are thought to be free agents Ryan Ludwick,Shane Victorinoand Cody Ross, each of which incites his own share of pros and cons for Braves' supporters to discuss. Angel Pagan was thought to be on the radar before he re-signed for four years with the Giants.
A problem the team ran into with Pagan and could run into again with Victorino and others is that the free agent market has dictated three-year contracts or longer for such outfielders, which is reportedly more than the Braves are willing to pay out. Also, with a limited supply, the demand has forced prices to go up as well.
Trade options are always on the table, but the most-desirable trade avenue Upton's younger brother, Justin, an All-Star on the Diamondbacks likely comes with a steep asking price. It's possible, though. It depends on how much the team is willing to send Arizona's way. Josh Willingham, a .260 hitter with the Twins, has also garnered buzz but is not believed to be available. Rockies' speedster Dexter Fowler is another name that's been thrown into mix.
Of course, all of that could change at the Winter Meetings, where, seemingly every season, a surprise deal is struck.
"I think there's fewer big names," Wren said, "and that's the reason, quite frankly, why we were so aggressive going out early. We knew once a couple of these guys went off the board you might be left with nothing."
The general consensus, as Wren addressed, is that the Braves are pursuing an outfielder to not only pair with Jason Heyward and Upton, but also a guy who can step into a lead-off role. With Bourn gone (or, still pursuing a big-time contract on the open market), the Braves would like to find someone to set the table for what looks to be a young, dynamic middle of the lineup with Heyward, Upton, Prado and first baseman Freddie Freeman.
Along those same lines, some have floated the name of free agent Ichiro Suzuki, a veteran contact hitter and future Hall of Famer as a possible table-setter. Victorino might also fit this role, but is reported to have numerous multi-year offers on the table.
If the Braves go in a different direction than a lead-off hitter, Prado or incumbent shortstop Andrelton Simmons are also candidates to fill Bourn's role.