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For a franchise that won 14 consecutive division titles, fourth place does not suffice. So Frank Wren has a plan.
He's going to remake the Atlanta Braves. Preferably by taking a major first step in the next few days.
"The later it goes, the more frenetic it becomes," said Wren, who took control as Braves general manager from John Schuerholz a little more than a year ago and presided over the franchise's worst finish since 1990. "Markets get out of control. At this point, you can go with your top choices across the board."
Which is Wren's way of saying it's getting close to now-or-never time with Jake Peavy.
While San Diego weighs the best offer from the Braves, Chicago Cubs and perhaps a mystery team of which the 2007 Cy Young Award winner approves, the question begins to settle over Atlanta: Do the Braves need Peavy enough to give up that extra chip San Diego is trying to wrangle?
"We're not going to make a deal just to make a deal and make a big splash," Wren said. "If you surround that quality player with less talent, you're doing yourself a disservice."
In other words, San Diego is definitely not getting either of Atlanta's top two prospects: starting pitcher Tommy Hanson and outfielder Jason Heyward. The Braves' package – believed to be shortstop Yunel Escobar and some combination of center fielders Gorkys Hernandez and Jordan Schafer, burly up-and-coming catcher Tyler Flowers, and young pitchers Charlie Morton and Jo-Jo Reyes – is a good one, probably better than the Cubs' current offer.
Which is why it appears Chicago has engaged a third team in its discussions. Creativity is paramount in acquiring a pitcher of Peavy's caliber. The proof: One source intimated that the New York Yankees would like to get involved in the Peavy sweepstakes by centering a deal around second baseman Robinson Cano and center fielder Melky Cabrera. Peavy has made it clear he wants to remain in the National League, although a source close to the pitcher said Wednesday the Yankees are intriguing enough to consider.
The motivation is the same for every suitor. Peavy signed a club-friendly contract extension that locks him up for the next five years at $78 million (including a $22 million option for 2013). Five years for the only starting pitcher of his caliber on the free-agent market, CC Sabathia, will cost between $100 million and $125 million.
While the Yankees can afford that and the Cubs could dip into their deep pockets to subsidize Peavy and free agent Ryan Dempster, the Braves must utilize a more conservative approach. Though not verboten, free agents are "an inefficient market," Wren said, echoing the sentiment of so many burned by bad contracts.
To avoid that by acquiring Peavy – or another young pitcher with at least three or four years of club control before free agency – is paramount for what the Braves hope to accomplish before 2009. Remember, this is a franchise that played into October year after year on the arms of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz.
"We want to get back to dominant starting pitching," Wren said. "That's not easy to do. Twenty-nine other teams feel the same way. Only a handful of guys fit that bill and are available."
Already the Braves have offered a major-league deal to Junichi Tazawa, the 22-year-old wunderkind from Japan. With ace Tim Hudson out through 2009 following Tommy John surgery, the Braves' rotation consists of Jair Jurrjens, Jorge Campillo, Reyes and Morton, who have a combined 633 2/3 innings of major-league experience – less than one-third of Hudson alone.
The fifth spot could go to Hanson, who threw a 15-strikeout no-hitter at Double-A last season and has left scouts spewing praise by striking out 30 and allowing six hits over 18 2/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League.
"I don't want to put a timetable on it, but he's not far away," Wren said. "I'm not sure when that's going to happen. I don't want to put undue pressure on him."
Instead, Wren is happy to swallow the pressure himself. He realizes the maneuvers of this offseason will shape a franchise that must compete against the World Series-champion Philadelphia Phillies and high-payroll New York Mets in the National League East. With some of the highest-end talent in the minor leagues – even after giving up Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus, among others, in the trade-deadline acquisition of Mark Teixeira last year – the Braves hope to become a smaller-scale Boston, a team that supports a few large salaries and supplements them with young, cheap talent.
So Wren juggles the names and the gravity of losing them. Escobar is a brilliant shortstop who won't hit arbitration for two years. Kelly Johnson is a power-hitting, walk-drawing, slick-fielding second baseman. Even right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who struggled mightily last season, has drawn interest, though the Braves aren't biting yet.
"We haven't talked about him at all," Wren said. "It's not to say that we wouldn't."
Because Wren is considering anything and everything. The right price on Peavy. Just how much he likes Tazawa. Whether Hanson is ready. Who else can bring the most in return. Fluidity is imperative. If one move doesn't work, it's on to the next.
Now or never.