I’m going to break this down into a series of posts, starting with what stares the Braves clearly in the face: What does the team do about its big-ticket free agents? There are four main cogs of the 2002-03 Braves who are eligible for free agency, Gary Sheffield, Greg Maddux, Javy Lopez, and Vinny Castilla.

Sheffield should, by all rights, be the one who commands the most on the open market. He had a tremendous year and has been one of the best players in the league for a decade now. He’s also 34 years old and will be 35 in November, so this will be his last big payday. He made $11 million last year on a long contract that began in his Florida days; despite the slowdown of the market for veteran players I don’t expect that he’ll take less. My guess is that the Braves would like to keep him but if they do will have to pay a pretty hefty amount over at least three seasons, probably four, a deal that will keep them from spending on any other free agents of note. That might not be such a bad thing. Other likely suitors would be the Yankees (who do have a hole in right field), the Devil Rays (if he just wants money and/or to stay close to home), maybe the Orioles? He’s burned a lot of bridges in the NL.

Maddux is the sentimental choice, having been on the team the longest (Javy was up in 1992 but didn’t stick until ’94) and heading into a season in which he’s likely to win his 300th game. He also made the most money of the four last year ($14,750,000) and the Braves would certainly want him to take a paycut after a (for him) poor season, and I can’t imagine them giving him more than two years. Moreover, after the problems of last year, when the Braves thought he would refuse arbitration and then accepted it, and since everyone always gets raises in arbitration, I don’t think they’ll offer. Given that, they have until December to reach an agreement or he will be gone for certain. Other likely suitors are the Padres and the Diamondbacks, all agree. I don’t see why he fits the D’Backs’ plans, but they do nutty things out there all the time.

Javy Lopez, of course, had an amazing year after he’d been written off for dead by everyone. Paid $7,000,000 on a player option everyone thought was a disaster for the Braves, he set the ML record for homers by a catcher in a single season and put up all around numbers that in an ordinary year, or in the AL, would have won the MVP. And I don’t see how in the world the Braves will bring him back. He’s going to want multiple years and a raise, while the Braves have a replacement (Johnny Estrada) on tap. People keep saying he could move to first base, but this is the first year he’s hit like a first baseman and anyway the Braves should be covered at first base between LaRoche and the Francos. The one thing that might hold his price down is that Pudge Rodriguez is also a free agent and he’s turned the NL playoffs into his personal playpen. Likely suitors: I don’t know. The Cubs need a catcher, the Dodgers probably would like to move Paul LoDuca to first base. He’d be interesting in a Giants uniform if Benito Santiago retires or moves on.

Vinny Castilla didn’t stink up the joint, the highest praise I can muster for the $5 million man. If he’s willing to take a steep pay cut and a one-year contract, he’s as good of a choice as anyone to hold down third base until Andy Marte arrives. If not, Mark DeRosa can do the job as well for 1/10th the price. Possible suitors: any mediocre team with a weakness, real or perceived, at third base and delusions of contention. A return to Colorado seems a possibility.

There are a bunch of other guys who are possible free agents after this season. Most of them are pretty weak players and won’t be missed. Darren Holmes made $7 million! The Braves could easily shave $10 million from the payroll just by dumping nonperforming members of the bullpen and bench and replacing them with discount free agents or minor leaguers.