Each year baseball fans everywhere mark a random day in mid-February down on their calendars as one of the best days of the year: the day pitchers and catchers report, aka, the unofficial start of the Major League season. For many players, particularly veterans and All-Stars, Spring Training offers a chance to reconnect with old teammates while meeting new ones and to work the body into shape for the long grind of 162 games. But for many other players, rookies, guys on the fringe, or the 40-year-old looking for one last shot at glory, the start of spring represents the start of the season. These players are fighting for their big league lives, the last spot on the roster, or maybe even a starting position.
Let’s face it, nobody really wants to replace a legend like Chipper Jones. I mean c’mon, the guy’s as big a part of Atlanta baseball as Hank Aaron and the tomahawk chop. He made 8 All-Star games, won an MVP award and a World Series, and was universally respected throughout the league as one of it’s most honest and honorable players. Even in his final season Chipper was still pushing the Braves toward victory in one dramatic way or another. As Chris Johnson, one of the candidates for the 3rd base job said “”Chipper was a god here. People are not used to looking out there and seeing somebody else at third base on opening day, so there’s definitely a lot of pressure.”
But regardless of his legendary status, he’s retired now and it’s time for somebody else to take over the hot corner in Atlanta and it’s left the Braves brass asking who’s on third? The franchise has a couple of candidates for the job, so let’s take a run through them:
Braves fans should have a solid understanding of what Francisco can bring to the table after watching him make just over 40 starts at the hot corner a year ago. Francisco is a left-handed hitter with pretty good power and a very poor batting eye. He’s drawn just 22 total walks in nearly 400 career big league at-bats and his walk rate in the minors isn’t any better. That will likely limit his offensive potential because pitchers will be able to throw outside the strike zone against the impatient Francisco, who’s more than happy to swing himself into outs. He does have the ability to knock the ball way out of the yard, something he’s demonstrated at every level of professional play. Francisco is also fairly solid on defense at 3rd and he has the ability to play a little bit of 1st and corner outfield as well, which is a plus, especially if manager Fredi Gonzalez wants to use him off the bench.
Francisco has appeared in two games this Spring and is 0 for 5 with 1 strikeout.
Johnson is the more experienced of the two competitors and that’s something that could work to his advantage in this contest. He’s a right-handed hitter and a fairly solid one at that with a career .276/.315/.430 triple slash. Johnson is a bit strikeout prone as well, but his ability to hit the gap for doubles alleviated most of those issues. Instead, what held him back during his previous stops in Arizona and Houston was his abilities (or lack thereof) in the field. The former Astro has ranked among the league leaders in errors committed at 3rd base in each of the past 3 seasons despite the fact that he’s been a part-time player each year. He struggles mightily at charging in on slow rollers and his arm strength is adequate at best.
Johnson is 2 for 7 after his first three Spring games, with 1 RBI and 1 run scored.
I’m of the opinion that rather than choose one player or the other, the Braves should platoon both. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has at least addressed the idea, which is a big step for him, saying “You want someone to win the job. But with a platoon, which is the worst-case scenario, you still have 30 home runs and the possibility of 80 RBIs.”
Francisco has never and probably will never demonstrate an adequate ability to hit left-handed pitching. Thus far in his career he’s gone 12 for 63 against lefties with 1 measly walk, 2 doubles, and no homers. That’s the equivalent of an automatic out, one no team can afford, which means that Johnson should be getting every single start against left-handed pitching. Francisco’s the better of the two on defense and he offers a bit more power at the plate which should nab him some at-bats against righties. I don’t know if this type of platoon can hit the 30 homer/80 RBI goal Gonzalez has stated above, but I do think 20 homers, 30 doubles and 70 ribbies is a strong possibility. If the Braves can get those numbers at 3rd base, they’re going to be damn tough to beat.