As the National League Championship Series plays out, one thought keeps recurring. If not for one pitch, that could be the Atlanta Braves playing the St. Louis Cardinals. Instead, because Juan Uribe blasted David Carpenter's hanging breaking ball over the left field fence, it's the Los Angeles Dodgers playing the Cardinals.
Sure, getting Uribe out would not have guaranteed anything. They still had to get two more outs with Yasiel Puig on third. There's no guarantee that Craig Kimbrel would have slammed the door. And even if he had, the Braves still would had to have beaten Zack Greinke again in Game 5.
Still, winning one game at home would have been entirely plausible. And they would have started the NLCS at home. That's how close the Braves are to being a World Series contender.
Whether they can close the gap will depend largely on the decisions they make this offseason. Some questions involve big money -- what to do with Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Dan Uggla and BJ Upton? Some are more subtle -- should they keep Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters?
None of the answers are easy. Let's start with the needs and the limitations. They need to cut down on strikeouts and increase their offensive efficiency. They must reduce payroll so they can pay to upgrade the lineup.
They will save $6.5 million by letting Paul Maholm leave through free agency. But that's not nearly enough. They also need to cut ties with O'Flaherty and Venters. Two years ago, they were the backbone of the bullpen. Now, they are two guys coming off Tommy John surgery eating up $6 million in payroll. The Braves won 96 games without them.
That frees up about $12.5 million. Unfortunately, that's still not enough. So they have no choice but to let McCann sign elsewhere. McCann made $12 million this year and will not likely have to take a pay cut on the open market even after hitting only .220 after the All-Star break. But letting him go would not be simply a financial decision. He's just not the hitter he once was. He certainly didn't make a strong case for himself, going 0-for-13 with six strikeouts in the playoffs. He never has been above average defensively.
They need to platoon Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird -- that is, if Laird's agent, Scott Boras, doesn't demand a ridiculous increase from his $1.5 million -- and promote Christian Bethancourt, a defensive phenom who is improving as a hitter.
Now we're up to $24.5 million trimmed from the payroll. Some of that will go toward raises to Jason Heyward, Kris Medlen and Chris Johnson. They would be wise to sign Freddie Freeman to a long-term deal now before he becomes arbitration eligible.
That leaves them room to keep Hudson, who is due a $4 million raise. He was pitching well before breaking his ankle against the New York Mets. He's not the staff ace that they need. But he has the leadership and experience the rotation sorely needs.
What they don't need to do is sacrifice their future -- be it Medlen, Julio Teheran, Alex Wood or David Hale -- to get David Price for one year. Watching Adam Wainwright, whom they dealt to the Cardinals to get J.D. Drew, should serve as a reminder and a caution.
That leaves us with the two albatross contracts -- $26 million owed Uggla over two years, $62 million owed BJ Upton over four years. Trading Upton is not a possibility, for any deals conducted under the influence of alcohol would be voided in the morning. So Upton is just going to have to be an expensive fourth (or fifth) outfielder if he doesn't improve.
Uggla is a different story. This was his third season with the Braves. Each season, he got progressively worse. As hard as it is to eat $13 million a year, that would be better than putting him in the lineup and watching him flail at breaking balls in the dirt or staring at called strike three right at the belt.
Meanwhile, the organization needs to adjust its hitting philosophy. Home runs are nice. But strikeouts kill rallies. That looms even larger in the postseason. One of their biggest hits in Game 4 was a single by Jose Constanza, who was pinch-hitting. Whose spot did Constanza take on the postseason roster? None other than Uggla's.
So, what should they do with the payroll savings? Omar Infante and Rafael Furcal could be available. The rest could be pocketed. It could come in handy in case they need to buy out BJ next year.