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Inside Baseball | Mike DiGiovanna / SUNDAY REPORT

Teixeira may hit spot for Braves

July 29, 2007|Mike DiGiovanna

On July 18, 1993, Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz acquired San Diego's Fred McGriff, a power-hitting first baseman in his prime, for three players of virtually no acclaim, outfielder Melvin Nieves, pitcher Donnie Elliott and minor league outfielder Vince Moore.

McGriff finished out a monster 1993 season -- .291 average, 37 home runs, 101 runs batted in -- with the Braves, who went 104-58 to win the National League West, and went on to average 28 homers and 98 RBIs over the next four seasons to help Atlanta win three NL East titles and the 1995 World Series championship.

Fourteen years later, could history repeat?

The Braves have emerged as the clear-cut front-runners to land Texas first baseman Mark Teixeira, the most prominent player being shopped before Tuesday's non-waiver trading deadline, and if they can pry the slugger away from the Rangers, it could change the complexion of the NL East race and, possibly, the playoffs.

"Getting a guy like him, a switch-hitter, middle-of-the-lineup guy, a Gold-Glover, would give us as formidable an NL lineup as you can get," Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones said in San Francisco this past week.

The Braves, whose run of 14 consecutive division titles was ended by the New York Mets last season, are 54-51, 4 1/2 games behind the Mets in the NL East and 3 1/2 games behind wild-card leader Arizona.

They're getting solid production at the top of the order with Willie Harris, Edgar Renteria and Chipper Jones, decent power (19 homers, 66 RBIs), if not average (.215), from cleanup batter Andruw Jones, and significant contributions from 5-6-7 hitters Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson.

But look over at first base, and it's either an eyesore or a dinosaur.

Second-year player Scott Thorman held the job for much of the season but struggled so much offensively (.214, nine homers, 33 RBIs) the Braves claimed 48-year-old Julio Franco off waivers from the Mets on July 18 and have been playing him almost regularly at first base since.

Franco is a marvel, a testament to durability and longevity, but he's not the power threat he was during the Bush Administration -- the first one -- and, considering he's the oldest player in the major leagues, he's not exactly a long-term solution at first.

Atlanta ranks last in the majors with a collective .207 average, 40 RBIs, a .266 on-base percentage and a .362 slugging percentage from the first-base position.

But insert the 27-year-old Teixeira, who averaged 35 homers and 112 RBIs in his first four seasons and would still be under team control through 2008, at first, and the lineup is comparable, if not better, than a deep and talented Mets lineup.

In addition, if the Braves could lock up Teixeira, a former Georgia Tech standout, to a long-term deal, it would ease the potential loss of Andruw Jones to free agency after this season.

"We feel pretty good about things," Chipper Jones said. "We're close, but as it stands right now, we're going to have to play awfully well the last two months of the season to catch the Mets."

A deal with the Rangers could address both of the Braves' most pressing needs, a big bat and a left-handed reliever to replace the injured Mike Gonzalez, whose left elbow strain in May "killed us," Jones said. "To have power arms from both sides of the rubber gave us an advantage over a lot of people."

That's why the Braves are trying to expand the Teixeira deal to include left-hander C.J. Wilson, a 26-year-old who is 2-1 with a 2.58 earned-run average in 43 games for the Rangers, or left-hander Ron Mahay. This, of course, will cost Schuerholz quite a bit more than what he paid for McGriff in 1993.

But what makes Atlanta such an attractive trade partner is it appears willing to part with 22-year-old catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a strapping 6-foot-4, 200-pound switch-hitter with a cannon of an arm. Long considered the Braves' top prospect, he is batting .284 with four homers and 12 RBIs in 47 games since his May 2 call-up.

The Braves have also reportedly offered double-A left-hander Matt Harrison and highly regarded Class-A shortstop Elvis Andrus for Teixeira, but if they want Wilson or Mahay they probably have to sweeten the offer.

The Angels were willing to part with first baseman Casey Kotchman and left-hander Joe Saunders but backed off Friday when the list the Rangers submitted for the third player in the deal consisted of pitcher Ervin Santana, second baseman Howie Kendrick, top pitching prospect Nick Adenhart and top position-playing prospect Brandon Wood.

With injuries to Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Randy Wolf and Jason Schmidt, as well as closer Takashi Saito, Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti, who has pursued Teixeira, seems more focused on pitching. And the Boston Red Sox have found the asking price for Teixeira too high.

The Braves seem to be in the best position to trade for Teixeira and absorb the loss of the players they deal -- they have one of baseball's best young catchers in McCann, a 23-year-old who has already made two All-Star teams and was secured to a six-year, $27-million deal in March.

If Atlanta can land Teixeira, there's a good chance Chipper Jones, who was idle last October for the first time in his 13-year career, and the Braves will return to what they consider their rightful October home, the postseason.

"Maybe sometimes guys around here take for granted that we're going to make the playoffs," Jones said. "The law of averages was bound to catch up to us, but we're right back in the hunt. We're really one or two players away from being a legitimate contender."

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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