Braves in search of a closer

They can feel spring training hurtling at them now, like an out-of-control tractor-trailer.

Once, there seemed to be plenty of time to do what they needed to do, to sign those free agents, to plug those holes. Once, it was easy to tell those nervous people all around them to be patient. Plenty of time. Plenty.

But now it isn't so easy anymore. It's less than a month till pitchers and catchers report. It's less than 2½ months till (yikes) Opening Day.

Those Holes That Weren't Filled are starting to look more gigantic now than Jerome Bettis. So the general managers who have to fill them keep dialing those cell phones. They keep going back, in the words of Phillies GM Pat Gillick, to that old line: "It's a work in progress."

But if they don't make progress and make it fast, their season could be a work in regress. So here's a look at three of baseball's most gaping holes as the offseason clock ticks down toward zero hour:

Closer, Atlanta Braves
Here's the question, to Braves GM John Schuerholz: "If the season started right now, who would your closer be?"

Here's the answer: "Wait. We don't have one? Oh, [shoot]."

And then Schuerholz lets out an easy chuckle, the kind of chuckle only a GM who has won 14 straight division titles is allowed to make. But the serious answer to this question might be less revealing than the humorous answer.

"The honest answer is, we don't have one ... at the moment," Schuerholz says. "But we will have one Opening Day. I'm confident that we will. I can't tell you who it is. ... But we will have a closer, because it's fairly important to have one."

Yeah, we've heard that someplace. Not that it's so important that the Braves have felt any great need over the years to lock themselves in to one omnipotent arm in that job, you understand.

In the last decade and a half, 42 different pitchers have saved at least one game for Bobby Cox. And nine different relievers have led his team in saves.

Three months ago, the Braves were assuming last summer's late-season pickup, Kyle Farnsworth, was a good bet to become the 10th. Except Farnsworth, who still lives near Atlanta, shocked them by taking $17 million (over three years) to go to New York to set up for Mariano Rivera. And the Braves' offseason hasn't been the same since.

"When Farnsworth left, it caught us by surprise," Schuerholz says, "because we didn't have any inclination he didn't want to remain as our closer. This is his hometown. We thought this was the perfect place for him. So when he left, it was more surprising than when [Rafael] Furcal left, because Furcal got $13 million [a year].

"I know Farnsworth got $17 million," Schuerholz says. "But $17 million in New York is the equivalent of $15.2 million in Atlanta [factoring in taxes and cost of living]. We were prepared to offer him three years at $5 million [a year]. But we never got that chance."

Once Farnsworth bolted, the Braves turned their attention to the rest of the free-agent population. They checked in on Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman and Todd Jones. But they were never interested in overpaying any of them, just so that the GM wouldn't have to answer questions like this anymore.

And that means heading for spring training wondering whether Joey Devine is ready, less than a year after exiting North Carolina State. Or seeing whether Oscar Villarreal (picked up in the Johnny Estrada trade) has recovered from the shoulder and elbow issues that erupted after Bob Brenly waved for him 86 times in Arizona in 2003.

Or taking a shot at six-year free agent Brad Baker, who has led his minor league team in saves two straight years. Or, if necessary, handing the ball to Chris Reitsma, even though his niche seems to be those innings before the ninth.

Did we hear someone ask about John Smoltz heading back to the bullpen? Uh, if you've been paying attention, you know Smoltz has nada interest in that. And neither, says his GM, "do we."

Schuerholz hasn't ruled out trading for a closer, not that there are a whole lot available. But if he does, "it will be something that unfolds toward the end of spring training," he says, "if it does at all."

They would prefer to see somebody -- preferably Devine -- rise up this spring to grab that job before it comes to that. But if not, they'll figure it out.

"One thing we won't do is," Schuerholz says laughing, "we're not going to have a casting call: 'All interested closers sign up here.' It won't come to that."

Ace, Philadelphia Phillies
Five seasons have roared by since a pitcher named Curt Schilling talked his way out of Philadelphia.

Since then, Schilling has won 20 games in a season three times. No Phillies pitcher has done it any times. Schilling also has won seven postseason games since then -- while no Phillie has thrown a postseason inning.

So from the day Pat Gillick arrived in Philadelphia as the new GM, he has made it clear exactly what the Phillies need, and exactly what he'd be shopping for -- an ace. A real ace. A Schilling-esque ace. A guy, he says, "who can strike people out ... who can stop a losing streak."

Now, with just a few weeks left before spring training, he's still rolling his shopping cart up and down those offseason aisles. But Gillick still hasn't found what he's looking for.

Using Bobby Abreu as his prime currency, Gillick has spent the winter chasing an ace collection that included Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt, Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, Javier Vazquez, Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Erik Bedard and, more recently, any and every starter on the White Sox roster.

Well, it's a hell of a shopping list, anyway. But not one pitcher in that crowd went anywhere this winter -- except for Vazquez, who put the Phillies on his no-trade list. In fact, not one starting pitcher who won more than 15 games changed teams anywhere in this entire offseason, either by trade or free agency.

So if you're just going by the principle that it's tough to buy what isn't on the shelves, it's been a rough winter to go ace-hunting.

But that doesn't get the Phillies any closer to ending that 12-year playoff drought. And it's no consolation to a GM who isn't interested in any five-year renovation plans.

Gillick stunned the press corps and fans of Philadelphia the other day by announcing, bluntly, that he's "not satisfied" with the job he's done this winter. Then he topped that lightning bolt by uttering words you almost never hear a GM utter -- that his team, as its pitching staff is constructed right now, isn't good enough to win its division.

In some towns, remarks like that would get the GM fired. In Philadelphia, it actually won Gillick rave reviews from a fan base tired of hearing their favorite mutt was a threat to run off with the gold medal at the Westminster Dog Show.

But that isn't the kind of winning this GM is interested in. So he hasn't torn up that shopping list. And he won't.

The latest buzz is that Gillick has been talking to the White Sox about swapping Abreu for one of their "excess" starters. But the White Sox don't want to take on money. They're not interested in moving Mark Buehrle or Freddy Garcia. And Jon Garland and Jose Contreras don't quite fit the mold of pitcher the Phillies want back for Abreu.

So the Phillies turned their attention to moving Jason Michaels for an eighth-inning setup man. And they appear to be on the verge of sending Michaels to Cleveland for veteran Arthur Rhodes. Those two teams also have talked about Rafael Betancourt and David Riske. And the Phillies have talked to Boston numerous times about Guillermo Mota, who would wind up in Cleveland as part of a deal that would point outfielder Coco Crisp toward New England.

Adding a setup arm would free Ryan Madson to head for the rotation, where he went 59-34 in the minor leagues and started both the Double-A and Triple-A All-Star games. But as good as Madson could be, he's closer to Steve Trachsel than Pedro Martinez.

So Gillick now talks about making a deal in March. Or even July. For now, there are worse Opening Day options than starting Jon Lieber -- a pitcher who won more games last year (17) than any other 2004-'05 free agent. But Pat Gillick wants to get him help.

And his tenure in his new town might well be judged by whether he succeeds.

Center field, Boston Red Sox
The guy with the hair down to the top of his strike zone doesn't work here anymore.

Johnny Damon took George Steinbrenner's money and ran. And filling his spikes hasn't proven easy for the postidiocy Red Sox.

They aren't looking for a cult hero, an author, a team-nickname expert or a guy who can lead the league in hair follicles. They're just looking for a guy to hold down center field behind a fly-ball pitching staff -- and hopefully outhit Dwayne Hosey.

Amazingly, co-GM Jed Hoyer still sounds as unflappable as ever about this vacancy.

"We've been patient," he says. "What we're trying to do is find the right fit, not fill the hole as quickly as possible."

Ah, but what's the right fit? By the time you arrive on the cusp of February, you can't find it on the free-agent auction mart. So the Red Sox almost have to make a deal. The candidates, barring an outbreak of something surprising, look like this:

Coco Crisp: There have been almost as many rumors this winter about Crisp heading for Boston as there have been about Manny Ramirez leaving. But after expressing repeated reluctance to trade Crisp, the Indians softened that stance over the last few days when the Red Sox offered to include hot-shot third-base prospect Andy Marte in the deal. The Red Sox had no other choice, though, because the Indians are trying to win, too. And Crisp works awfully cheap. He also had an .810 OPS, 42 doubles and 15 steals last year. And Hardball Times ranked him as the best defensive leftfielder in baseball. So the Indians couldn't trade Crisp unless they found someone to replace him. And that's why they've stepped up their efforts to deal for Phillies outfielder Jason Michales. Once that deal comes together, Crisp is free to head for Fenway, and the Red Sox can rip up that center-field shopping list for the first time since Damon bailed for the Bronx.

Jay Payton: It's still a little hard to believe that after the Red Sox traded Payton to Oakland last year, he turned into a guy who outhomered the likes of Morgan Ensberg, Cliff Floyd and Aramis Ramirez. So he won't even be available unless the A's sign Frank Thomas. But if (or when) they do, that pushes Nick Swisher back into an Oakland outfield that becomes so overcrowded, the A's would have to move either Payton or Bobby Kielty. So for a while there, before the Coco Crisp action heated up, Payton looked as if he might be Boston's best option.

Jeremy Reed: This is another rumor that hasn't gone away. But if it hasn't happened by now, it probably never will, because (A) the Mariners have priced Reed like a guy they have no urge to deal and (B) Seattle would need a replacement center fielder (Joey Gathright?) if it moves him. So the price tag for the Red Sox almost certainly wouldn't be worth the return.

Jason Michaels: The Red Sox and Phillies have talked about all sorts of potential swaps this winter. But since Manny Ramirez-for-Bobby Abreu has no shot of happening, Michaels for a pitcher is about the most feasible option left. Except Michaels is viewed by most teams as a guy who would need a left-handed hitting complement. And the Red Sox pitching excess doesn't quite match the Phillies' needs. There was some Michaels-for-Guillermo Mota talk, but that seems to have cooled.

Adam Stern: Stern is the best in-house option. But in a perfect world, the Red Sox would prefer to let him experience the joys of Triple-A. So the Red Sox wouldn't be, in the words of one AL executive, "burning the phones down" if they thought this was the right time and place for Stern.

Other options: The Orioles could still deal Luis Matos. The Padres could still trade Dave Roberts. Gathright is going somewhere. And Darin Erstad isn't totally out of the question. We're assuming the Reds won't ever trade an outfielder in our lifetime, but you never know.

For all the talk this winter about Manny, David Wells and that little opening at shortstop, center field is actually this team's biggest crisis. They don't have to trade Manny (and probably won't). They don't have to deal Wells. And there are still free-agent shortstop options out there (i.e., Alex Gonzalez and Royce Clayton).

But finding that "right fit" in center field has turned out to be a whole lot trickier. So the only certainty is that the next Red Sox center fielder will have about a foot less of hair than the old one.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.