The Braves find themselves with no major free agent questions for this offseason. Baez can not be offered arbitration and wants to close, so he will be gone. John Thomson and Chris Reitsma probably will not be offered arbitration either after their disastrous seasons; the other potential free agents are fringe players.
For whatever reason, the current incarnation of the Braves feature several players who will (barring extensions) be free agents after next season. Nothing is going to happen with John Smoltz until next season gets underway (unless he signs an extension), but two other key contributors are also in their last years under contract.
Andruw Jones is in the last year of what was considered a below-market extension signed after the 2001 season. He cut agent Scott Boras out of those negotiations, but that isn’t going to happen this time. However, I don’t think that will matter. Boras does what his clients want; if he didn’t, he would lose his license and probably get sued.
Andruw really wants to stay in Atlanta, where he has put down deep roots; on this, everyone agrees. At the same time, next season he’ll turn 30 and this is probably going to be his last big payday, so he has to look out for his long-term interests. I think he would probably take slightly less or defer some money, but he wants to get paid.
As a 10-and-5 man, Andruw can reject any trade, but has said he’d be open to one. Now, he might block a trade to certain teams, but I don’t think that will be a problem, because those teams won’t be able to afford him. The team that keeps coming up (and where a rumored trade just before his 10-and-5 rights began fell through) is the Red Sox, but the Braves won’t trade him for scrap.
I have no inside knowledge, but here are my guesses as to the chances of the various potential outcomes:
20 percent: Extension signed this offseason
10 percent: Trade this offseason (probably to the Red Sox or Yankees)
30 percent: Traded during the season
30 percent: Plays through the season, then leaves as a free agent
10 percent: Re-signs as a free agent or accepts arbitration
10 percent may be too high; it’s been years since the Braves re-signed one of their own free agents. But maybe the 20 is a little low; Andruw really wants to stay in Atlanta and may decide that the difference between $70 million and $80 million isn’t worth it (especially considering taxes and cost of living).
Marcus Giles doesn’t seem to have roots quite as deep, though he too has a family and has been in Atlanta off and on since 2001. He’s also more replaceable than Andruw; the Braves don’t have a centerfield candidate who’s really worth anything while some combination of Orr, Prado, and Aybar could be at least league-average. (And Kelly Johnson, if he could hold up defensively, could probably be one of the better 2B in the league.) Moreover, Marcus had a terrible year, while Andruw was pretty much what he always is. (As I’ve said before, Andruw is extremely consistent from year to year, it’s only during the season that he’s streaky.) Giles saw his batting average and on-base percentage drop by about twenty points each while his slugging percentage dropped by more than sixty.
JC thinks that the slugging drop is largely due to Marcus being lucky the last couple of years and falling back to his true range. I am not so sure. Second basemen are notorious for their tendency to stall out after promising starts to their careers (the Brent Gates Effect). The reasons seem to be that:
1. It’s probably the second-most grueling position on the field after catcher;
2. They’re the smallest players on most teams and lose out in collisions;
3. Most second basemen are players who failed at other positions and usually have a fine line before they can’t play any more.
Marcus seems to be having the sort of wear-and-tear injuries common to second basemen. His previous injuries have been catastrophic; this year he missed a few games at a time due to relatively minor issues.
He is also going into his last arbitration year, one in which he will probably make more than $5 million. And there are usually teams looking for second basemen. Finally, nobody expects him to be back with the team in 2007 or the team to make much of an issue of re-signing him. The Braves can show his .287/.345/.412 line after the break and say that he’s what he always was, and is just more comfortable in the 2-spot, and see if someone will give up a pitching prospect or a reliever for him.
40 percent: Traded this offseason
30 percent: Plays out the season, leaves as free agent
25 percent: Traded during the season
5 percent: Re-signs/accepts arbitration after 2007