Braves appear to be rebuilding, aiming toward 2017

“We obviously have all options open, and I think a lot of it’s going to be dictated by what we’re able to do in the starting-pitching market,” Hart said Wednesday on the third day of baseball’s general managers meetings, which end Thursday morning.

Their offseason priority is to acquire a couple of pitchers who could step into their rotation, and the Braves are better positioned to do it via trades than free agency. Hart said they wouldn’t pursue top-tier free agent pitchers this winter because of the prices.

Some might have an issue with the Braves trading one or more from a trio of their top hitters — corner outfielders Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, catcher Evan Gattis, all of whom are drawing considerable trade interest — to get the pitching help they want.

One plan is to trade one or both corner outfielders and move Gattis to left field, since rookie Christian Bethancourt is penciled in to catch next and the Braves are pursuing at least one veteran catcher to help. The Braves will likely play Gattis in left or trade him, and Hart prefers to keep him because of Gattis’ power and the four seasons he has remaining under the team’s contractual control.

The Braves ranked 29th in the majors in runs scored, but if they’re aiming to 2017, when they’ll move into their new ballpark, then sacrificing some short-term offense for the longer-term rebuild is a price they’re willing to pay. Plus, they believe new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer will help their returning hitters.

Heyward and Upton are both eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, and Hart said he expected both to explore the open market and that no contract-extension talks are planned with either.

“What we’re able to do in the starting pitching market, that is going to, I think, fully engage us as to what we do in 2015, if we want to come back with a somewhat intact ballclub,” Hart said. “And then obviously if we can’t do that, there’s other options that we’ll certainly examine.”

Those other options would be of the “R” word variety. Rebuild. They could take a step or two back for 2015, but keep enough talent to perhaps have a shot at a .500 record and even wild-card contention, if things fall right. Or, they could go for a more severe overhaul by trading both corner outfielders and Gattis, possibly even getting a team to take center fielder B.J. Upton off their hands by making him a prerequisite in a deal for another player (although that still seems overly optimistic).

The Braves also will listen to trade interest in relievers, including Jordan Walden, David Carpenter and presumably anyone else in the bullpen other than Craig Kimbrel, who led the National League in saves and finished in a three-way tie for ninth in Wednesday’s balloting for the NL Cy Young Award.

Hart took over as president of baseball operations last month, after serving one month as interim general manager following the firing of GM Frank Wren and assistant GM Bruce Manno.

The farm system Hart inherited is in pretty bad shape, ranked among the bottom three in the majors in overall talent, and particularly lacking in major-league-ready players at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. The Braves don’t have any major league-ready starting pitchers in the high minors, and currently have only four on the big-league roster: incumbent starters Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Mike Minor, and swing man David Hale, whom Hart would ideally like to have as a fifth starter or a spot starter. They also signed veteran Chien-Ming Wang to a minor league contract.

That shortage of minor league prospects who are major-league ready is a reason that rebuilding is an attractive option, since trading established players should bring back multiple young players. If the Braves keep Heyward and Justin Upton through the 2015 season, they would get nothing more than a draft pick as compensation if they leave as free agents.

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