But, on to brighter things: the 2011 Braves. Having left all of you salivating for an answer to the question “What is the one truly important roster decision for the 2011 Braves”, let’s wait no more!
When last we “spoke”, I said that one player was listed as the primary backup at three positions for the Braves by most services. While this would be concerning in most instances, it takes on added importance for the Braves for two reasons: 1) The Braves no longer have the “jack of all trades” Omar Infante to plug into any hole, anywhere and 2) This player who is listed as the backup at three positions is also a starter for the Braves at a fourth position. Yikes!
By now, many of you have probably guessed that the player in question is Martin Prado. Prado is obviously penciled in as the starter in left field. He is also the primary backup at first base, second base, and third base. When you consider that the Braves have a rookie first baseman who bats left-handed, a soon to be 39 year old injury-prone third baseman coming off a major injury, and a second baseman who seems to still be learning what the glove is used for, is seems very likely that the backup(s) for these infielders are likely to see a good bit of action. While we have all been focusing on Prado being likely to see time at third base, how many of us have been thinking about the probability or possibility of Prado being the Braves best option at the other positions as well? I haven’t.
Given this scenario, it means to me that the Braves are either going to have to play a sub-optimal substitute a lot in the infield (even Brooks Conrad has been seen with a first baseman’s mitt, perish the thought!), or else Prado might have to play a third to a half of the time in the infield. If this is the case, then that means the Braves fourth outfielder is going to have to play a third to a half of the games. And that’s in the unlikely scenario of no nagging injuries for Heyward in conjunction with the simultaneous resurrection of McLouth. I’d say there is a pretty good chance that the fourth outfielder appears in over half of the games. And, if that is the case, then we have unraveled the mystery of what is the one truly important roster decision facing the Braves.
I think, coming into the pre-season, the Braves thought they had this one figured out. They signed Mather with the intent of him being the fourth outfielder, spending his time in left and center field. But I submit that Mather has accomplished that rare feat of playing himself out of a job in spring training. Keep in mind that he has repeatedly said that he was injury-free in 2010, yet he hit only .217 with a .525 OPS for St. Louis and .275 with a .790 OPS for Memphis. And he’s followed that up this spring with a .125 BA with a .355 OPS in 40 AB’s. At what point does a slump devolve into a lack of talent? I truly hope that Mather is not on the team March 31. Although he is out of options, I think there is a high probability that he would clear waivers. Let him go to Gwinnett and prove that he’s just been in a multi-year slump!
If Mather is not the fourth outfielder, I think you have to accept that the Braves do not have a proven option for the fourth outfielder (heck, it’s obvious that even Mather is not proven). Hinske has shown that he is best used in small doses at this stage of his career. Schafer has yet to regain his swing. Matt Young is having trouble hitting his weight. Then there is Wilkin Ramirez. A career minor leaguer for the Tigers, he has always struggled hitting breaking pitches and has shown almost Francoeur-esque patience at the plate. He started off strong this spring following a stint in winter ball where he showed significant improvement on his shortcomings. Yet he has cooled off of late to a more pedestrian .294 BA/.785 OPS line. He has shown good speed and aggressiveness on the base paths, both in short supply on the team.
So, if you’re Frank Wren, what do you do? You could just downplay the issue, instead talking about how improved the team is as currently constructed (which is what he has done to date). Or you could be burning up the phone lines working a trade for Kawakami, who is showing every sign that he is a quite capable number four or number five starter, maybe even a little better. Or you could include one of our second-tier pitching prospects in a trade. Or both. The Braves could even take on a little salary, unless of course the part about there being money available for that sort of thing wasn’t exactly the case. Shoot, if the Braves got someone to take on half of Kawakami’s salary, $3 million plus would pay for a talented fourth outfielder. I’ll even throw out a trade that won’t happen, for a lot of reasons: Kawakami for Andruw Jones. Check out Andruw’s recent stats against left-handed pitching and imagine him in a platoon with Hinske if need be. That works too well: Andruw gets to feast on his desired pitching and Hinske only has to play enough to stay fresh.
OK, enough from me. I think it’s clear that I’d prefer a trade of some quantity of surplus pitching for a fourth outfielder. If we can’t swing a trade, I’d give Ramirez a chance, not based on this spring but on the tools he brings to the table, the improvements he’s made to his approach, and the potential upside that he represents. What would you do if you were Frank Wren?