Braves will head into '11 with plenty of pitching

Braves will head into '11 with plenty of pitching

ATLANTA -- As Braves general manager Frank Wren enters this offseason, he has the luxury of knowing his starting rotation is in place and that his bullpen possesses enviable depth. While many of his peers are searching for pitching, his focus will be on landing at least one solid outfielder.

Coming off a 91-win season in which they won the National League Wild Card, the Braves have reason to optimistically approach Fredi Gonzalez's first year as their skipper.

While taking over for the retired Bobby Cox, Gonzalez finds himself with a lineup that is anchored by five-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann and a rotation that was fortified by the rejuvenated efforts Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe produced in 2010.

Without Chipper Jones (torn left ACL) and Martin Prado (torn left oblique muscle), the Braves offense stumbled down the stretch and proved to be overmatched in the NL Division Series against the Giants. Prado should definitely be at full strength by the start of Spring Training, and Wren has been given no reason to believe that he should be overly concerned about the possibility that Jones wouldn't be his third baseman on Opening Day.

With one year under his belt and the opportunity to rest his sore left thumb over the course of the offseason, 21-year-old right fielder Jason Heyward should be primed to enjoy another strong season and help the initiation phase of his good friend Freddie Freeman, a highly-regarded 21-year-old prospect who is projected to start the year as Atlanta's first baseman.

Wren's plans for the 2011 season include the hope that shortstop Alex Gonzalez will once again provide assistance to a starting rotation that is anchored by the veteran leadership of Hudson and Lowe and strengthened by the youthful talents of Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Mike Minor.

While dependable closer Billy Wagner has become a retiree, the Braves should still find confidence in handing their ninth-inning leads to rookie right-hander Craig Kimbrel or left-hander Jonny Venters, who is coming off a memorable 79-appearance rookie season.

Wren would like to add a dependable bullpen veteran who could serve as a mentor to his young relievers. But his primary focus will be to evaluate both the free-agent and trade markets with the hope that he can land a center fielder or left fielder to strengthen his lineup.

While they might not have the financial resources to compete for free-agent outfielders Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford, the Braves have the kind of pitching depth that could help them land an outfielder via trade.

Contract issues
Free agents: Eric Hinske, UTL; Troy Glaus, 1B/3B; Derrek Lee, 1B; Takashi Saito, RHP; Kyle Farnsworth, RHP; Rick Ankiel, CF

Eligible for arbitration: Melky Cabrera, OF; Matt Diaz, OF; Peter Moylan, RHP; Jair Jurrjens, RHP; Martin Prado, INF; Eric O'Flaherty, LHP; Scott Proctor, RHP

Player options: None.

Club options: Billy Wagner, RHP, $6.5 million (plans to retire); Farnsworth, $5.25 million ($250,000 buyout); Ankiel, $3.25 million ($500,000 buyout); Alex Gonzalez, SS, $2.5 million; Omar Infante, INF, $2.5 million ($250,000 buyout)

Non-tender possibilities: Melky Cabrera

A position-by-position look at where the 2010 roster stands going into 2011. The arrows represent how the player's 2010 season compared to 2009.

Brian McCann: Five-time All-Star is nearing his prime
David Ross: Teammates consider him the game's best backup catcher

McCann's consistency has been hindered by the vision problems that have plagued him at the start of the past two seasons. If he can get off to a good start in 2011, he has the potential to hit .300 with 25-plus homers. Ross has proven to be an invaluable leader in the clubhouse and a solid contributor that provides McCann a chance to receive necessary rest.

First base
Freddie Freeman: Highly-regarded prospect will get his chance to start
Derrek Lee: Still has enough power to be an attractive free agent
Troy Glaus: Limited mobility will minimize attractiveness on free-agent market

Freeman excelled while serving as one of the International League's youngest players this year and then showed his capabilities at the Major League level with a Sept. 21 homer off Roy Halladay. The 21-year-old prospect has greatly improved his defensive skills and provided indication that he's mature enough to handle an everyday role.

Second base
Martin Prado: Club's MVP should be healthy by start of Spring Training
Brooks Conrad: Valuable role player whose defense is a concern

The 2010 season was essentially wrecked on Sept. 27, when Prado tore his left oblique muscle and suffered a hip pointer. The All-Star had spent the previous six months proving to be the club's most valuable player. He has shown he can hit for both power and average. Conrad was enjoying a storybook season filled with clutch hits until he was forced into an everyday role and spent the season's final weeks enduring a defensive nightmare.

Alex Gonzalez: Still searching for power he had in Toronto
Diory Hernandez: Decent defender who is still developing offensively
Brandon Hicks: Offensive woes will continue to block his path to Majors

When the Braves traded Yunel Escobar to the Blue Jays during the All-Star break, they did so with the confidence that Gonzalez would prove every bit as productive. Defensively, the veteran shortstop lived up to those expectations, and at times he proved to be clutch at the plate. The Major League-ready depth at this position is a concern. The ever-versatile Omar Infante appears to be the best backup for Gonzalez.

Third base
Chipper Jones: Former MVP attempting to return from ACL surgery
Omar Infante: Will be looking to improve on his career-best season

If Jones isn't ready by the start of the season, the Braves could confidently hand the position to Infante. But all expectations are that their 38-year-old former MVP will be fully recovered from major knee surgery and ready to resume the success he enjoyed over a two-month stretch that began in the middle of June. It will be interesting to see how much the knee affects Jones' lateral movements.

Jason Heyward: Heralded rookie has already shown flashes of greatness
Nate McLouth: Former All-Star ready to overcome 2010 nightmare
Matt Diaz: Coming off his most inconsistent season in Atlanta
Rick Ankiel: Defense and occasional power will benefit another club
Melky Cabrera: One of 2010's biggest disappointments
Eric Hinske: Great leader and valuable role player
Jordan Schafer: Three straight wasted seasons cloud a once-bright future

Heading into the offseason, the Braves know that Heyward will be back in right field. They only wish they could be as confident about what the future holds for McLouth, who spent most of August with Triple-A Gwinnett, then showed some reason for optimism during September's first two weeks. Diaz has always proven to be a solid bat against left-handed pitching. But the Braves may limit his playing time if they land an everyday left fielder.

Tim Hudson: Once again ranks among the game's elite
Derek Lowe: Stellar September raised his stock and confidence
Tommy Hanson: Looked like a future ace down the stretch
Jair Jurrjens: Injuries wrecked his bid for third straight solid season
Mike Minor: Fatigue clouded optimism he created in August
Brandon Beachy: Undrafted hurler has plenty of potential
Kenshin Kawakami: Looking for a chance to stay in Majors
Kris Medlen: Won't be available before August

Hudson was a legit NL Cy Young Award candidate through the season's first five months, and Lowe looked like one in September. Truth be told, Hanson might be the most likely member of this group to win this award in the future. With Hanson and Jurrjens both just 24 years old, the Braves have a solid rotation nucleus that was strengthened when Minor impressed in August. The Braves will make every attempt to move Kawakami with the confidence that either Minor or Beachy could serve as their fifth starter.

Billy Wagner: Career-best season didn't alter his retirement plans
Takashi Saito: Troublesome shoulder may lead to Minor League deal
Craig Kimbrel: Legit closer of the future
Jonny Venters: Will attempt to better his impressive rookie season
Peter Moylan: Still struggles against left-handed hitters
Scott Proctor: Potential remains to be a solid middle man
Mike Dunn: Looks like a legit left-handed specialist
Eric O'Flaherty: Bout with mono wrecked his 2010 season
Kyle Farnsworth: Free-agent middle man will prove serviceable elsewhere
Stephen Marek: Surprised with his solid season at Triple-A
Cristhian Martinez: Dependable long reliever

It might be tough to imagine anybody proving more dependable than Wagner was this year. But as he compiled strikeouts throughout September and into the postseason, Kimbrel showed why he was considered the closer of the future long before he arrived in the Majors. With his heavy sinker, Venters could close or team with Moylan or Proctor to serve as reliable setup men. Eric O'Flaherty has enjoyed success in the past. But Mike Dunn might prove to be the club's best left-handed specialist.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.