The Atlanta Braves have largely remained dormant this winter, aside from signing BJ Upton to replace Michael Bourn as the team's center fielder. Aside from filling that hole in center field, the Braves really didn't need to do much this winter. They still haven't replaced Chipper Jones' bat in their lineup, but aside from that, Atlanta largely stood pat. But now, with money to burn, the Braves are looking into contract extensions for some of their building blocks, and Martin Prado is one of those players.
As of right now, Prado will be splitting time between third base and left field for the Braves, while Juan Francisco and Reed Johnson split the other half of the playing time. Prado is an every day player, but he doesn't have a full-time position (yet, at least). Heading into his final year of arbitration, Atlanta is reportedly considering trying to get Prado locked up to a multi-year contract extension. But is a contract extension of several years for the 29-year old something that should be a priority for the Braves?
While Atlanta didn't need to do a lot this winter, next winter will probably be a completely different story. In addition to Prado hitting free agency, starting pitchers Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm will be free agents, along with reliever Eric O'Flaherty and most importantly, long-time catcher Brian McCann. The Braves will also be heading to arbitration for the first time with closer Craig Kimbrel, starter Brandon Beachy, and first baseman Freddie Freeman, while outfielder Jason Heyward, starter Kris Medlen, and reliever Jonny Venters head to arbitration for the second time. The Braves have under $30 million committed to payroll for the 2014 season (with the majority of that going to Upton and second baseman Dan Uggla), but the team is definitely going to be paying through the nose to their young, arbitration-eligible stars.
Filling their holes next winter will be a difficult proposition for Atlanta. If the team lets McCann walk after an injury-ravaged, disappointing 2012 campaign, the Braves will be forced to look at another free agent on the market, or hope and pray that prospect Christian Bethancourt learns to hit in 2013 and is able to make the jump to the majors. The rotation losses of Hudson and Maholm might not be such a big deal due to Atlanta's glut of young pitching, which includes not only Beachy (recovering from Tommy John surgery) and Medlen, but also Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and Sean Gilmartin, along with prospects a bit further away like Zeke Spruill and JR Graham.
And that brings me back to Prado. Of all of Atlanta's impending free agents after the 2013 season, Prado was far and away the most valuable in 2012, contributing 5.9 fWAR to the team. If the Braves weren't able to lock Prado up long-term and needed to replace him in their lineup with a free agent, the pickings are once again slim at third base, with Prado as the most capable player on the market at that position. The class of players in left field is also rather weak, with Prado, Michael Morse, and Jason Kubel (who has a club option for 2014) being the highlights. Atlanta's farm system doesn't have an immediate answer for either position, unless you're a big fan of Joey Terdoslavich taking a step forward after a disappointing 2012 that was a result of heightened expectations.
Essentially, while locking up Prado might not seem like a priority for the Braves, he should probably be second on their list of priorities to ink long-term behind franchise right fielder Jason Heyward. When it comes to the type of contract Prado should get, I think Atlanta should try to model something around the four year, $37.5 million deal that Alex Gordon got from the Royals last spring. Gordon and Prado are similar players, defensive-minded left fielders with solid bats. Gordon was a Super Two, and signed his extension to buy out his third and fourth years of arbitration. Prado would just have one year of arbitration bought out, and that would likely push the value of his deal to higher than that of Gordon's.
Atlanta is is an interesting position with Prado. They need him back, but there haven't been many comparable contracts signed by players of Prado's skillset in recent years. Four years would probably be ideal, and while $37.5 million is probably not enough, I think something like the $56 million that Nick Swisher got from the Indians this winter is too much. So split the difference and say four years and $48 million? Who knows. The Braves are faced with an unenviable task with their left field/third base hybrid, and if they're able to get something done now, it'll be one less think for Frank Wren and Atlanta's front office to worry about in ten months when there are other matters to attend to.