Andruw, LaRoche drawing interest

Braves play it close to vest at Winter Meetings

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If Braves general manager John Schuerholz found himself going head-to-head against a blind individual at a poker tournament, there's a good chance he'd still opt to continue wearing his sunglasses.

Such is the feeling one gets after spending many years attempting to read the mind of Schuerholz, who undoubtedly has proven to have the best poker face in all of baseball.

But as hard as Schuerholz may attempt to keep all of his business intentions a secret, he finds himself in a media-crazed world within which it's impossible for his every thought to remain private.

Thus, as Schuerholz held legitimate trade discussions within his suite at Walt Disney World's Swan and Dolphin Resort on Monday morning, the lobby below him was full of trade rumors, some of which included Andruw Jones and even more that signified there's a strong chance that Adam LaRoche will have a new employer.

"I think we're all used to it now," Schuerholz said. "I think everybody is a little numbed and calloused by [the abundance of rumors]. We just do what we do."

Obviously, Schuerholz isn't specifically stating a desire to trade Jones, LaRoche or Tim Hudson. Nor is he giving any indication of what he'll do with Marcus Giles or Horacio Ramirez, both of whom could be moved in the coming days or weeks.

But it's quite safe to assume Jones' name came up when the Red Sox visited Schuerholz's suite on Sunday evening. Since July's trade deadline, they have been very interested in acquiring the services of the Gold Glove center fielder, who will be a free agent at the end of the 2007 season.

With Jones' strong dislike for cold weather, it may be impossible for the Red Sox to keep him from vetoing a move to Boston. He earned this veto right when he became a 10-and-5 player (10 years of Major League service with five consecutive seasons with the present team) in August.

Even if Schuerholz is stating the truth when he contends that 98 percent of the rumors created at this week's Winter Meetings will prove false, there's obviously at least two percent that will prove true. And the ones pertaining to LaRoche seemingly have plenty of merit.

Coming off a career-best season, in which he hit .285 with 32 homers and 90 RBIs, LaRoche's value is as high as it's ever been. Thus it wasn't surprising to hear a Braves source reveal that there are a number of teams interested in acquiring the 27-year-old first baseman, who as an arbitration-eligible player could see his salary rise from $420,000 to the $3.5 million neighborhood.

The Pirates appear to be the team most interested in LaRoche. But two different sources indicated that Pittsburgh declined a deal that would have sent highly-sought left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez to Atlanta. It's believed these talks broke down during the General Manager Meetings that were held in November.

With one top Braves official professing his belief that Scott Thorman is capable of being the team's everyday first baseman, the club may be more than willing to trade LaRoche and reap the benefits of the nearly $3 million it would save. If Thorman wouldn't prove to be the answer, the club seems ready to convert catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia into a first baseman.

Even if Gonzalez is out of the picture, the Pirates still may be able to work a deal for LaRoche. They are shopping second baseman Jose Castillo and, with the great likelihood that Giles will be traded, the Braves have a need for a second baseman.

Because he was attending Pirates manager Jim Tracy's father's funeral, Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield didn't arrive at the meetings until Monday afternoon. Thus the two clubs haven't had any talks this week.

But it's believed they will talk about LaRoche again before leaving Disney on Thursday.

"We knew when we got down here there were going to be nine to 10 teams that we had good reason to talk to based on our earlier conversations and matchups," Schuerholz said. "Some of those [conversations] need to go forward. Some of those have stopped."

Having missed their opportunity to potentially lure Tom Glavine back to Atlanta, the Braves may be likely to trade Hudson. But the veteran right-hander's name is still floating around in a few rumors.

Hudson, who has been sticking to a strict weightlifting program this offseason, is well aware that these rumors are a result of what he terms have been "two mediocre seasons with the Braves." But it doesn't appear that he's lost any of his confidence.

"All I know is that whatever team has me next year is going to be happy," Hudson said during a phone conversation last week.

While Hudson's back-loaded contract could prove to be a burden when he makes $13 million during both the 2008 and 2009 seasons, a Braves official said the team would need to wowed to move the veteran right-hander, who with a rebound could prove to be the team's ace for each of the next three seasons.

With John Smoltz, Mike Hampton and Hudson in place, the Braves have the base for what could prove to be a strong starting rotation. But because of Smoltz's age (he'll turn 40 in May) and Hampton's health concerns (coming back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery), the 31-year-old Hudson should be viewed as the one to build around for the future.

"We like our club," Schuerholz said. "[Braves manager] Bobby [Cox] has told us all along that this is a strong team. We need to do a couple of things, but nothing dramatic."

Obviously trading either Jones or Hudson would be viewed as a dramatic move. But with Jones heading into the final year of his contract, the Braves will have to at least evaluate any potential trade that would strengthen them both immediately and for the future.

If the Braves were to trade Jones, they'd erase his $13.5 million salary and get something of substantial value in return. If he plays this upcoming season and then bolts via free agency, the only potential return would come through draft picks.

Although the Dodgers have already signed Juan Pierre, there's still reason for them to be interested in Jones. Jones' defensive skills could make him a better fit than Boston's Manny Ramirez, who has also been rumored in Dodgers trade talks.

One thing that may lure Jones to Los Angeles is the opportunity to reunite with his good friend Rafael Furcal, who left the Braves via free agency last December.

But when approached about the possibility of the Dodgers sending top outfield prospect Matt Kemp and hard-throwing right-handed reliever Jonathan Broxton to the Braves in exchange for Jones, multiple Braves sources have said that Los Angeles will not give up Chad Billingsley or Broxton.

Because Billingsley's name wasn't previously brought up in the conversation, there's indication the Braves have at least talked about the potential of trading Jones to the Dodgers. Billingsley is a 22-year-old right-hander who was 6-4 with a 3.34 ERA in the 16 starts he made for the Dodgers this year.

If the Braves obtained Kemp, there's a chance they would play him in right field and make Jeff Francoeur their center fielder.

With their $80 million payroll strictly in place, the Braves are closely evaluating each of their arbitration-eligible players. The only one who doesn't appear to be expendable is right-handed reliever Oscar Villarreal, who could see his salary rise from $460,250 to the $2 million neighborhood.

As for Ramirez and Giles, the potential raises they could realize through arbitration, combined with the depth at their respective positions, makes them prime trade candidates. But as of Monday evening, there wasn't much indication that either was drawing much interest on the trade market.

Schuerholz doesn't believe that Yunel Escobar is ready to play second base at the Major League level and he's indicated that he wants to continue using Willy Aybar in a utility role. But with Kelly Johnson and Martin Prado, it appears he has two viable options to serve as Giles' replacement at second base.

"We're not conferring upon anybody anything," Schuerholz said. "We don't know how our roster is going to look when we get out of here. But we feel confident that no matter how it looks we're going to have a roster to compete. If we can make our pitching stronger, as I've said time and time and time again, we're going to be in good shape."

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