Wagner's arrival is only the start for Braves

BY Ken Rosenthal • December 14, 2009

First Tim Hudson, now Billy Wagner. The Braves are off to a nice start this offseason, but it is only a start.

General manager Frank Wren, facing the possible losses of both free-agent left-hander Mike Gonzalez and righty Rafael Soriano, needs to keep working on his bullpen.

But mostly, Wren needs to fix his offense.

The Braves not only had the best rotation in the National League last season, but they also had a better bullpen than the eventual league champion Phillies.

The biggest difference between the teams was their offenses -- the Phillies scored 85 more runs than the Braves, ranking first in the NL.

The Phillies' offense will not get any worse this offseason. In fact, it might even get better if the team finds a better hitter at third base than Pedro Feliz.

The Braves? It's too early to judge.

The re-signing of Hudson gave Wren enough rotation depth to trade either right-hander Derek Lowe or righty Javier Vazquez for a hitter.

But the Braves actually took a step back offensively on Tuesday, declining to offer salary arbitration to first baseman Adam LaRoche, who hit a combined 25 home runs with an .843 OPS for the Pirates, Red Sox and Braves last season.

Not to worry; the Braves can get a comparable first baseman -- or perhaps LaRoche himself -- at a more reasonable price than his projected $8 million number in arbitration. The true area of concern is the outfield, where the Braves' combined OPS ranked next-to-last in the NL last season.

Know who would be perfect for this team? Matt Holliday or Jason Bay.

The Braves seemingly lack the payroll flexibility to sign either free agent, but their biggest need is a right-handed slugger. In a perfect world, they would at least get in the game.

Center fielder Nate McLouth is the only proven regular in their outfield. Matt Diaz has never had more than 371 at-bats in a season.

Ryan Church, who struggles against lefties, could be traded or non-tendered.

Jason Heyward, one of the game's top prospects, should not be expected to make an impact at the start of the season, or even in the second half. The Braves dream of trading for someone like Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer. Realistically, they could end up with someone like the Nationals' Josh Willingham.

Club officials believe that some offensive improvement will come from within. Third baseman Chipper Jones should recover from one of his worst offensive seasons. Catcher Brian McCann no longer will be dealing with eye issues. Shortstop Yunel Escobar and second baseman Martin Prado figure to just keep getting better.

Yet however you look at it, the Braves are still one bat short.

The Phillies are dealing with their own issues, trying to find not only a third baseman but also a late-inning reliever (Fernando Rodney? Brandon Lyon?) who could serve as a fill-in closer if Brad Lidge stumbles again. But the Phillies are the Phillies, the two-time defending National League champions.

Wren had a trying offseason a year ago, failing on a trade for right-hander Jake Peavy and free-agent bids for shortstop Rafael Furcal and outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., parting unceremoniously with John Smoltz.

But the GM recovered nicely, trading for Vazquez and signing right-handers Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami, albeit at inflated prices.

The Braves are in a stronger position now, but Wren faces a difficult challenge in his search for a hitter. Lowe, with three years and $45 million remaining on his contract, is too expensive to bring a significant return. My hunch is that the Braves will need to trade Vazquez, who finished sixth in the NL in ERA last season and is signed for one more year at $11.5 million.

Only Vazquez could bring the bopper the Braves need.

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