Free-agent outfielders give Braves options

The Braves figure to be spenders in the free-agent market this offseason, but it’s too early to tell exactly who they will target to fill their potential needs.

With Chipper Jones retiring, the Braves can either move Martin Prado to third base and pursue a left fielder, or they can keep Prado in left and go after a third baseman. 

Or they can give the job to Juan Francisco, who hit nine home runs in 192 at-bats, but slumped terribly the final two months.

General manager Frank Wren also will have to decide whether to make a huge offer to center fielder Michael Bourn, who is represented by Scott Boras.

If Bourn jumps to another team – the Nationals and Phillies figure to be players in that bidding war – the Braves also will need to find a center fielder and leadoff hitter.

Here’s an early look at the free-agent outfielders (with their 2012 team) who the Braves might pursue this winter.

Josh Hamilton, Rangers

The Braves likely won’t spend the $20-plus million a year it will take to land Hamilton, who hit .285 with a career-high 43 home runs. He also drove in 128, two shy of his career best 130, set in 2008. Hamilton can play all three outfield positions, but he’s also injury-prone – he missed 40 games in 2011 and 30 in 2010 – and he struck out a career-high 162 times this season. The former AL MVP will be 32 years old next May.

Ryan Ludwick, Reds

The Reds either lucked out and knew something no other team did when they signed Ludwick for $2.5 million last year. He promptly hit .275 with 26 home runs and 80 RBIs this season and would provide the right-handed power the Braves need. There is a mutual $5 million option for 2013, and Ludwick, 34, has said he likes playing in Cincinnati, but might turn that down if bigger offers come rolling in for Ludwick, who had the third-highest OPS (.877) among outfielders – behind Hamilton and Melky Cabrera – this season.

Angel Pagan, Giants

He’s not as fast or coveted as Bourn, but had another productive season and would be a better fit for the Braves’ budget. Pagan also doesn’t have the defensive skills of Bourn, but he played in a career-high 154 games in 2012, scored 95 runs, led the NL with 15 triples – a product of playing in AT&T Park – and didn’t fade down the stretch, hitting .308 with 10 triples and 12 steals in August and September. He’s also a switch-hitter and will be 32 next July.

Cody Ross, Red Sox

Ross excelled with 22 home runs and 81 RBIs, but some of that can be attributed to playing in Fenway Park. He played for $3 million this season and likely will be looking for a multi-year deal. He’s hit well with his past teams, which include the Marlins and Giants, but Ross hit .232 with nine homers on the road in 2012, compared to .298 with 13 home runs at home. He’ll be 32 next year and is right-handed.

Nick Swisher, Yankees

He’ll get a lot of attention because he’s a switch-hitter, he has a career OBP of .367, he can play first base and he’s averaged 26 home runs in his eight-year career. Plus, he’s played for the Yankees, driving in an average of 87 runs a year in his four seasons in the Bronx. Swisher, who will be 32 next month, could get upward of $12-$14 million a year, which likely would push him out of the Braves’ budget.

B.J. Upton, Rays

Upton is another player who might be too expensive for the Braves. He just turned 28 and seems like he’s been playing forever, but he might not have reached his full potential. Like Hamilton, he strikes out a lot (169 this season), but he also hit a career-high 28 home runs and has averaged 39 steals a year the past five seasons. He could fill two needs: Playing center and batting leadoff, although his power might be suited for another spot in the lineup.

Shane Victorino, Dodgers

The thoughts of Victorino playing for Atlanta could be problematic for Braves fans who have visions of him tormenting the Braves all those years he played for the Phillies. Victorino hit .255 in 2012, his worst average in his seven years in the majors, but he stole a career-high 39 bases, only three fewer than Bourn. With a career .341 OBP, Victorino, who will be 32 next month, remains a viable leadoff hitter, bats from both sides of the plate and brings plenty of playoff experience.