Braves need another hitter, but who?

atlanta braves interested in carlos beltran hunter pence ryan ludwick jonny gomes 072011

The Atlanta Braves are going to get a hitter. What kind of hitter, which position he will play, no one yet knows.

The Houston Astros’ Hunter Pence, at least at the moment, is not the Braves’ slugger of choice, two major league sources say.

If the Braves are close to a trade — as some sources and reports suggest — then it’s not for the New York Mets’ Carlos Beltran, who still is in play for a number of clubs.

As always, trade talks are fluid. A single phone call can change everything. But one thing is clear: The Braves fully intend to boost their offense before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Beltran would be an ideal addition for virtually every contender; the Braves for two months could stick him in center field.

Pence, a corner outfielder, would not fit as easily; the Braves want to move Martin Prado back to left and keep Jason Heyward in right once Chipper Jones returns from arthroscopic knee surgery.

The Tampa Bay Rays’ B.J. Upton would be an upgrade in center. The Cincinnati Reds’ Jonny Gomes could make sense as a right-handed-hitting platoon player. The San Diego Padres’ Ryan Ludwick would be something less than Pence and something more than Gomes.

The Braves have expressed interest in all of those outfielders and more, according to major league sources. Which one they acquire will hinge on need and price, and the Braves’ formula for determining the proper solution will be more complicated than it is for most clubs — particularly when they could use a reliever, too.

If anything, it might be too early for the Braves to know exactly which course to pursue.

Heyward, second in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting last season, is batting only .225 with a .319 on-base percentage and .396 slugging average, but the Braves are reluctant to send him to the minors, sources say.

Jordan Schafer, while a defensive asset in center, is hitting only .236/.301/.314. Nate McLouth, the current left fielder, is not much better at .220/.341/.331.

Overall, the combined OPS of the Braves’ outfielders ranks next to last in the National League, ahead of only the putrid Padres.

Prado’s return to left would help, but he might be needed at third again if Jones recovers slowly from right-knee surgery or suffers another injury. In fact, Prado might even be needed at second: Dan Uggla left Wednesday night’s game with a left-calf issue.

The Braves are deep enough in minor-league talent, especially pitching talent, to land almost any hitter they want. But they’re also protective of that talent, reluctant to overpay for a rental such as Beltran and resistant to the price that the Astros will demand for Pence.

Sure, the Braves can dangle one pitching prospect after another — Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, Randall Delgado. But the rate of attrition for such pitchers is high. The Braves, by keeping their top young arms, would stand a better chance of building a powerhouse rotation around Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy and Jair Jurrjens in the future.

For the Braves, more than most teams, the next week to 10 days could decide so much. If Jones recovers well, Prado can return to left. If Heyward starts hitting, the team’s overall urgency will be reduced.

Frankly, what the Braves might need most is a center fielder who can be a dynamic presence at the top of the order, someone like Pence’s teammate, Michael Bourn. But some with the club believe Schafer still can be that player.

Teams can talk themselves out of anything, but the Braves won’t make that mistake. They’re going to get a hitter. They just don’t know who it will be yet, or how he will fit.

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