It’s got to be an interesting time for a baseball general manager this time of year. He sits around playing with different roster combinations and writes down lineups. He battles that annual debate of gauging need versus determining the value of cost.
And for Atlanta general manager Frank Wren, he undoubtedly does something that we, the fans, all do. He wonders about trade possibilities.
“I wonder if Hunter Pence is available. Can we get B.J. Upton? What if the Phillies get Carlos Beltran before we do? Which prospect do we feel comfortable giving up?”
I’m sure those have been the topics and questions in the front office the last few weeks. These are the decisions that can make or break a team’s season. These are the decisions that can shape a franchise for years to come.
For the Braves, the most interesting player that is a possibility is New York outfielder Carlos Beltran. He’s healthy again, having a great season, and the Mets have him available.
Let’s look at the questions that Wren must be asking as he determines whether Beltran can help the Braves get to and win the World Series.
1) Can the Braves win without a big trade?
The offense is showing signs of doing better. Dan Uggla has a long hitting streak and is hitting home runs again. Jason Heyward had home runs in consecutive games this week. They’ll get Chipper Jones and Jordan Schafer back from injuries sometime this week, and manager Fredi Gonzalez might have all his players healthy for the first time in a while.
If everyone is healthy, and if everyone is performing as the can, Atlanta’s offense might be good enough to be dangerous. But we’ve seen a tremendous amount of inconsistency all season, which scares you if the Braves make the playoffs.
They would probably play the Giants in the first round - if the standings today remain the same - and if they win that series would face the Phillies for the pennant. Can they beat Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and make it to the World Series with this lineup?
It may be a huge gamble to try and not bring in another bat and to rely on what they have now. You’d hate to not be successful in October and look back and ask, “Well, could we have done better if we had made a trade for a big bat before the deadline?”
2) How would Beltran fit in?
Beltran has played only in right field this year, but he’s been a center fielder for most of his career. There is some debate whether he could still play center field, since he’s battled injuries and is a bit older now. But that probably wouldn’t keep Beltran from playing left field if he had to for Atlanta.
As long as Heyward does well, Beltran would not be needed in right - unless Atlanta wanted Beltran to face a tough left-hander and sit Heyward. Beltran could play in left when Martin Prado would be needed to fill in at third base for Chipper Jones.
And if he can still play center, Beltran could be an upgrade over Jordan Schafer and Nate McLouth.
Here is what the lineups could look like with Beltran on the Atlanta roster.
Beltran playing left field, Prado playing third base:
Schafer - Prado - Beltran - McCann - Freeman - Uggla - Heyward - Gonzalez
Beltran playing center field:
Prado - Beltran - Jones - McCann - Freeman - Uggla - Heyward - Gonzalez
Beltran playing right field:
Schafer - Prado - Jones - McCann - Beltran - Freeman - Uggla - Gonzalez
There is little doubt that having Beltran in the lineup makes it better and makes Atlanta a much more dangerous offense.
Acquiring Beltran would also undoubtedly push Nate McLouth to the bench, which would strengthen a group led by Eric Hinske and David Ross.
3) What if the Phillies or Giants get Beltran?
It’s unusual for the top three teams in one league to have the same need, and for that matter target the same player. That’s what makes the Beltran sweepstakes even more interesting.
The Phillies have gotten poor production from left field, where Raul Ibanez has 13 home runs but a .241 average and a .285 on base percentage. Right field has been an issue too, as Domonic Brown has missed a big chunk of the season. Brown and Ben Francisco have been OK, but not great.
There is no doubt that those two spots could be upgraded, and Beltran would add another big bat to Philadelphia’s lineup. With the Phillies already having a great pitching staff, they will be tempted to make sure the offense is as good as it can be for the stretch drive.
From a need perspective, you could argue San Francisco needs Beltran even more than Philadelphia and Atlanta. The Giants outfield has been OK, but nothing special. Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand are now on the bench, and last year’s late season acquisition Cody Ross has been less than stellar.
And with Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez both gone for the season, Aubrey Huff hitting only .235, and the lineup not having one player with more than nine home runs, the Giants could use more offense.
We saw what the additions of Ross did for them last year, and with their pitching still very good, an improved offense could make them a serious candidate to repeat as World Series champions.
Since the three top teams in the National League all covet and have scouted Beltran, you have to wonder which team blinks first and needs him the most.
4) What price do the Braves pay for Beltran?
This is Atlanta’s biggest question. With one of the best farm systems in the game, it’s easy to believe making a trade for a player like Beltran would be easy. But on the contrary, it really makes it more difficult.
Let’s take Beltran out of the picture for a minute and look at another situation that has been on the front-burner for a while. Houston’s Hunter Pence really fits what the Braves need even better than Beltran: he’s a right-handed power hitter and, unlike Beltran, he’s under contract for two more years after 2013.
But if you’re Houston, a team that must get more talent and premium talent in return for its best player, you would be foolish not to ask Atlanta for Julio Teheran, who is one of the best pitching prospects in the game.
Atlanta is not going to do that. So when on Wednesday we heard that Pence might, in fact, be on the market, and then the next day we heard that the Braves were not going to be in on him, you have to wonder if the Astros asked for Teheran and the talks died pretty quickly.
Sure, the Braves probably tried to talk with Houston about other prospects, ones that are not considered off limits, but if you are trading a player that you know might help that team win a World Series, you are going to want their best prospects.
And that brings up back to Beltran. The Mets have been rumored to be interested in left-hander Mike Minor, who has made 14 starts in the big leagues but is stuck in Triple-A. Minor is considered one of Atlanta’s big four prospects - Minor, Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado - who are either untouchable or would have to be involved in a blockbuster deal for the Braves to let one of them go.
So in other words, it’s doubtful the Braves would want to give up Minor for a rental, which is exactly what Beltran would be since he can become a free agent this winter. Atlanta would not even be allowed to get compensation picks for Beltran, as that is prohibited with a clause in his contract.
The Braves know they are going to have to trade some pitchers for everyone to fit in the next few years. And that’s where the dilemma over Minor gets complicated. Atlanta’s current rotation can stay in place through next year if they choose to keep the five pitchers now on the roster.
So a sub-question, if you will, that Wren has to ask himself in debating whether or not to include Minor in a deal for Beltran is: How is Minor going to get into the Atlanta rotation? He could conceivably be stuck in Triple-A Gwinnett for another season.
Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson could both leave after 2012, although the Braves will likely keep the veteran Hudson around for another season by picking up a very affordable option. And while there have been rumors about Lowe being on the block, there is no guarantee any team is going to pick up his very expensive salary before he leaves Atlanta after next season.
And even if Lowe were traded today, it’s likely that Minor might not even be his replacement. The Braves would probably be tempted to instead promote Teheran, who has won 10 games in Triple-A as a 20-year-old.
Plus, you have to believe that the Braves are going to want Teheran in the 2012 rotation. It would really be a waste to have him in Triple-A again next year. So Teheran, not Minor, is probably first in line if one of the current five starters were to be traded before next year’s opening day.
So do you keep Minor around for a better trade - for someone who is under contract longer than two and a half months? Possibly. But again, other teams may prefer someone else than Minor if a major trade is made.
But if Wren is hell-bent on not giving up one of the top four pitching prospects for Beltran, might he try to entice the Mets with some other prospects? A pitcher like Brett Oberholtzer, for example, would be rated much higher if not for the presence of ‘the big four.” The same could be said for Zeke Spruill or Carlos Perez. So those names might be floated at Mets’ general manager Sandy Alderson instead of Minor.
If Wren knew that acquiring Beltran would guarantee the Braves a World Series title, he’d give up Minor in a heartbeat. But nothing is ever guaranteed in trades. And the stinger is that whether Beltran would help you be better in October or not, it would not change the fact that Minor would be in a division rival’s rotation for the next several years.
It might be a bit earlier if Beltran was playing with Houston, or the Dodgers - a team out of contention that is not in your division. But Beltran is with the Mets, and that makes a GM think harder about giving them a piece of a rotation.
So the price of what Beltran would cost is he biggest debate that Wren is having when discussing this deal with his lieutenants. Beltran is tempting, and there’s little doubt he would make Atlanta’s lineup very impressive. But at what cost?
It’s easy for baseball fans to talk about potential trades, but these questions prove that when you’re in the GM’s chair, there’s really nothing easy about it. These are difficult decisions, and Wren will be have to make the tough calls before next Sunday’s trade deadline.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WPLA Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, GA and WCOH Fox Sports 1400 in Newnan, GA. Shanks is a columnist for The Macon Telegraph. Email Bill at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.