Wren shopping for 2 starting pitchers, 1 ‘big bat’

Published 4:28 pm Monday, September 29, 2008

ATLANTA – The Atlanta Braves’ third straight finish out of the playoffs has forced Frank Wren says the Atlanta Braves need two starting pitchers and “one big bat” in the outfield to return to the playoffs in 2009.

The Braves’ general manager also said Monday he can’t count on John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Tim Hudson being part of the 2009 rotation.

Glavine and Smoltz had season-ending elbow and shoulder surgeries, respectively. Neither is assured of pitching again, and both are free agents.

“If they can pitch, we’d love to have them back, and we’ve told them that,” Wren said.

But Wren said his top offseason priority is to sign or acquire other veteran starting pitchers.

“I’ve talked with both guys and really the way we have to approach it is … we have to fill the spots in our rotation without regard for them,” Wren said.

“We can’t expect them to be in the top of our rotation and say ‘OK, we’re set.’ They have to be add-ons that at the end of the day beat out somebody who’s already in our rotation. That’s the only way we can approach it. We can’t be in a position where we’re counting on those guys and they can’t perform.”

Hudson, the ace of the staff, had elbow ligament-replacement surgery on Aug. 7. The normal recovery period for the procedure is one year, so he may miss the full 2009 season.

“If he bounces back and everything is good, that’d be like adding a guy at the trade deadline,” Wren said. “That’s the way we have to look at it. I think our expectations are that we may not have him in ’09. If we get him, it’s a bonus.”

Wren said the team will try to re-sign left-hander Mike Hampton, who was 3-4 with a 4.85 ERA in 13 starts.

The Braves (72-90) finished a distant fourth in the NL East with their first 90-loss season since 1990. A few key numbers show why the team was not close to contending:

— The Braves’ starting pitchers ranked 27th in innings pitched, forcing their relievers to throw 554 1-3 innings. According to STATS, Inc., only Texas and Pittsburgh placed a heavier load on their relief pitchers.

— The Braves were last in the major leagues with 27 homers from their outfielders, according to STATS, Inc. Jeff Francoeur hit only two homers after the All-Star break to finish with a .239 batting average, 11 homers and 71 RBIs after driving in 100 runs each of the past two years.

— Overall, the Braves were 23rd with 130 homers and 21st with a 4.46 ERA.

Wren says the team must make significant moves if it can expect to contend next season.

“I think we’d have a team would finish somewhere in the middle of the pack if we didn’t make any moves,” Wren said. “That’s where we are talent-wise right now. We need some additional starting pitching.”

Rookie right-hander Jair Jurrjens, who was 13-10 with a 3.68 ERA, pitched like a future ace.

“He’s going to be one of our horses here for a long, long time,” said Braves manager Bobby Cox of Jurrjens, who led the staff in wins, 31 starts and 188 1-3 innings.

Another rookie, Jorge Campillo, was 8-7 with a 3.91 ERA. Before his elbow injury, Hudson was 11-7.

The 42-year-old Glavine returned to Atlanta after five seasons with the New York Mets but was on the disabled list three times.

Wren said his infield, led by NL batting champion Chipper Jones at third base, is set. Jones hit .364 with 22 homers and 75 RBIs but played in only 128 games. He hasn’t reached 500 at-bats since 2003.

The offense’s lack of punch was especially obvious when Jones, who will have a sore right shoulder checked this week, was held out with injuries.

Catcher Brian McCann hit .301 and led the team with 23 homers and 87 RBIs.

Wren traded first baseman Mark Teixeira to the Angels on July 29, but Teixeira still ranked second on the team with 78 RBIs. Teixeira’s replacement, Casey Kotchman, hit only .237 in 43 games in Atlanta, but he hit .305 and drove in 15 runs in September.

Second baseman Kelly Johnson had a 22-game hitting streak late in the season to hit .287. Shortstop Yunel Escobar hit .288. The two middle infielders combined for 22 homers and 129 RBIs, but their production couldn’t make up for the weak-hitting outfielders.

Gregor Blanco, Josh Anderson, Matt Diaz and Omar Infante were given chances, but none hit more than three homers. Brandon Jones is still considered a promising prospect, according to Wren, but he hit only one homer in 116 at-bats in Atlanta after hitting only 8 homers in 356 at-bats at Triple-A Richmond.

“I think one bat would make a significant difference, and then we’re going to have to count on some guys rebounding,” Wren said. “I hate to keep using Jeff’s name all the time, but we need Jeff Francoeur to come back and hit like he has hit in the past. … If he can hit 20 to 25 home runs and drive in 80 to 100, that’s all we need.”

Wren said the free-agent market for outfielders “is not real good.” He said he may have to rely on trades to add pitchers or a power-hitting outfielder.

Minor league center fielder Jordan Schafer, suspended for the first 50 games of the season after a positive test for human growth hormone, hit .303 after the All-Star break at Double-A Mississippi and could win a starting job next spring.

“He put himself back in a top prospect position where he’s better than most of the competition out there in the league he plays in,” Wren said. “That keeps telling you something.”