The Supporting Cast
The Braves search our next left fielder is, at least in theory, still in progress. At the same time GM Frank Wren started to assemble a bench when brought back Reed Johnson , avoided arbitration with Paul Janish, claimed OF Jordan Schafer off of waivers then signed INF Ramiro Pena, INF Blake DeWitt and C Matt Pagnozzi to battle with holdovers from the 2012 squad for a spot on the bench. Pagnozzi is odd man out when Brian McCann is healthy again with Laird assured on the backup catcher slot. Assuming that Wren favorite Juan Francisco also has a spot locked up unless traded elsewhere which I consider unlikely at this point, that leaves two spots open.
The utility infielder spot seems to be between these three and perhaps Tyler Pastornicky. Janish has the inside track in spite of the rumors when Pena was signed. Pena is likely to be a backup plan for Janish should his shoulder not be ready for the start of the season following his shoulder surgery. Pastornicky seemed to fall a bit out of favor and may well start in the minors. He proved unsuccessful at SS and doesn’t hit well enough for the Martin Prado super utility role so he might find himself in the minors trying to become an outfielder. DeWitt like Pena is an experienced utility infielder having spent time with the Dodgers and Cubs. He has more pop than Pena or Janish though in no sense could he be called a slugger. The skill Janish displayed on defense last season means he has a spot barring something unforeseen next spring. That leaves one seat.
Who Replaces Hinske?
The final spot on the bench is the one once held by Eric Hinske. Hinske’s bat vanished without a trace or he’d still be a Brave but his original skillset (1B/OF) could be the one the GM looks for. Internal options are Schafer, Jose Constanza and Evan Gattis. If Ernesto Mejia could play outfield he’d be in the mix as well but he hasn’t shown that ability so I suspect he stays in the minors in case Freddie Freeman gets hurt.
Johnson is capable of playing all three outfield positions though as a CF he’s past his prime. Schafer who can be brilliant with the glove is significantly better in CF than Constanza and could play a corner spot. He’s also younger than Georgie and if he’s finally got his off the field act together has a slight edge because of that. Neither Schafer, Constanza or Johnson are power bats meaning that Evan Gattis becomes a real option.
Gattis is nominally a catcher but played half his games in left and his manager says he’s okay out there. The big thing he brings to the table is power. He slugged over 600 last year in the low minors and at Pearl. The Braves would love to see him become the hitter they need. Whether that will happen is yet to be seen.
Thinking Outside the Box
In the past the GM has hired at least one “veteran presence” for the bench. There aren’t many candidates I’d consider this year but one worthy of a look is Lance Berkman, as I noted last week he played a lot of outfield in Houston before moving to first and did the same for the Cards. After a couple of knee surgeries his legs aren’t what they were and would hamper his outfield play some. The Big Puma was never a speedster though so how much it would slow him is the question.
Berkman’s said he if he plays in 2013 he wants to play every day and prefers not to be a DH. He’s also said he wants to be paid like the hitter he is and that’s a pretty dang good hitter. Though not talked about a lot, he ranks near the top of all time list of great switch hitters. His 296/.409/.544 career line puts him second only to Mickey Mantle in OBP and slugging, fourth in home runs with 360, ninth in batting average, 12th in doubles, 14th in runs scored and his 49.0 rWAR (61.0 fWAR) puts him tenth on the list. In 2011 his slash was .301/.412/.547 in 2011 and there’s no reason to suggest that at 36 he come close to his career line again. Along with his bat he brings experience, leadership and a positive, upbeat clubhouse presence with many of th equalities of Chipper Jones and David Ross. All of that says he wouldn’t be cheap- probably near the $10M range – and he’s worth every penny.
The choice for me comes down to whether Lance Berkman wants to play in 2013 or coach baseball at Rice. If he wants to play the Braves should get on the horn and use every too they used to bring Billy Wagner and B.J. Upton to Atlanta. The Big Puma is a difference maker, ask the Texas Rangers or just look at his record against the Braves. In 77 against us games his line is .300/.398/.523 (that’s a .919 OPS in case your math’s fuzzy) with 12 homers, 48 RBI while playing for the mostly bad Houston Astros. If he doesn’t play everything will be decided in spring training.
If there’s no left field signing and Francisco stays hot through spring training. you could well see Prado in left and Francisco at third with Evan Gattis or Ernesto Mejia filling that last bench spot. Francisco’s not a bad third sacker while Prado was the best left fielder in the NL last year so the defense should be solid. Upton’s bat adds RH balance and without the pressure to be the man who carries his team he could (please make it so) return to a better hitting profile. Consider a lineup like this.
- Simmons SS
- Prado LF
- Freeman 1B
- Upton CF
- Heyward RF
- Uggla 2B
- Francisco 3B
- Laird C
That looks pretty good on paper. Before all you Heyward fans scream and have a panic attack, Freeman was just better with RISP in 2012. He struck out less, walked more and had three times as many sac flies as Heyward while producing 16 more RBI. Had he not been injured those numbers would have been better. Chipper was right, Freeman’s the best three hole hitter. Fredi Gonzalezwill however start the golden boy in that slot so don’t don’t get your knickers in a twist. Whatever the order, if Francisco hits anywhere near his .286/.317/.502 minor league career line that’s a potent lineup
That’s a Wrap
I’ve said a couple of times in comments and discussions that I believe the lineup and assumptions above are exactly what the GM expects to see out of spring training. That’s why we don’t have a Cody Ross type signing and aren’t likely to see a trade of one of our pitching prospects for a left fielder. That would make his bench bats Laird, Johnson, Janish, Schafer/Constanza and Gattis with the latter three places decided in the spring. That might be a great setup but I’d love to see Berkman in a Braves uniform next year.