Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson’s play this spring will decide which man holds the third base job or if the Braves use a platoon. For different reasons the loser this could be the last chance to be an everyday player. Declaring 2013 as pivotal in the career of Francisco and Johnson may be an overstatement, after all Francisco’s just 25 (turns 26 in June) and Johnson’s only 28. But the former is out of options and may not have a spot on the bench while Johnson’s been in the majors for three years and should at 28 be at the top of his game. It should make for an interesting duel at third base this spring.
Francisco’s never had a real chance at a starting spot after waiting in the minors behind Scott Rolen with the Reds and Chipper Jones last year. Roadrunner – a name given to him by his Braves teammates last year – comes to camp this spring having convince manager Fredi Gonzalez and his staff that the change in his approach at the plate they saw during his play in the Dominican Winter league will continue to succeed against major league pitching.
If you ask the average fan what they think about Francisco they may well tell you he strikes out too much and they aren’t sure he can play third base well. There’s no doubt strikeout numbers will be high but he won’t be alone in that category and probably not the highest in the infield much less the team. Besides these days strikeouts don’t mean he won’t hit so lets look at this history. The majority of that so far has been in the minors but as Bill James has pointed out, when you get a large enough sample size minor league numbers are relevant. He considers 300 at bats a large enough sample and we have that for Roadrunner. In 700 AAA at bats his slash was .304/.337/.559 giving him an OPS of .895 and a .254 ISO. In the one chance he had to play relatively consistently (Sep 2011) he played 22 games with 77 at bats finishing with a slash of .270/.299/.514 including seven doubles a triple, three home runs and 13 RBI and a .233 ISO.
Last year he reported to the Reds spring training over weight and didn’t play well. As a result he was passed in their depth charts by Todd Frazier and because he was out of options the Reds traded him to the Braves for J.J. Hoover. After a first half where his slash was .220/.256/.424 and the Braves told him that he needed to adopt the changes in his approach at the plate recommended by Greg Walker or they would release him. His second half while not outstanding was better; .257/.313/.446. Following the season he hired a personal trainer and continued to show improvement as he pummeled Dominican Winter League pitching with a .369/.575/.944 including seven doubles and nine home runs. After watching him play GM Frank Wren and Fredi Gonzalez said they were pleased with his progress.
Bill James projects a .272/.308/.502 slash and a wOBA of .342 with an ISO of .230 for Francisco in 2013. He only projects 12 home runs but I have a hunch he could get as many as 20.
The 28 year old Johnson came over from Arizona along with Justin Upton. Drafted by Houston in 2006 he played 308 games for the Astros over three years before being traded to Arizona last season. Johnson has 528 at bats for Houston and Arizona combined in 2012 finishing with a 286/.321/503 slash including 15 homers 28 doubles and five triples. Since everyone is interested in Roadrunner’s strikeouts I should add that Johnson struck out 132 times and walked only 31. Bill James projects a .280/.324/.440 and wOBA of .328 and an ISO of .160.
Last year the NL average for a third baseman was .270/.333/.433 with a .766 OPS with a .163 ISO so both projected lines would be at or above average. I know James is considered an optimistic prognosticator but his projection for both players would be equally optimistic. There are some differences in the players however.
While Johnson was rated the best arm in the Texas League in 2008 Francisco’s arm is much stronger and though it has been erratic in the past, working with Terry Pendleton and Chipper last year improved his accuracy. Johnson isn’t the most mobile third baseman and scouts say his lateral movement is below average. Francisco isn’t going to win a gold glove but he’s at least as good as Johnson and probably more mobile.
Ordinarily we might expect a platoon at third with Johnson facing lefties and Francisco facing righties. Johnson however actually hit right handers better although his numbers against lefties are 50 points or so better than Francisco’s but his power numbers fall well short.
That’s A Wrap
At the end of the day third base will be decided by their spring training performances. Francisco comes in after a two month break while Johnson didn’t play winter ball. He is also one of the players Wren always wanted and has a year on the roster so there’s a loyalty factor as well. Johnson is probably what he’s going to be barring a late career epiphany while at 26 Roadrunner hasn’t yet peaked. I believe his age and his power give him edge and that the job is his to lose. While spring training numbers mean little I think we’ll have a good idea by the middle of March what the starting third base plan will be. Right now I’d bet on Francisco.