Team Preview: The Outfield
As spring training approaches, it is time to take an in depth look at how the Braves are shaping up. Each entry will cover a specific portion of the club with a deeper look at how the positions and the battles to fill those final spots will shake out.
For the first time in more than a decade, the Atlanta Braves will begin a season without Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones patrolling center field. While the change will be apparent, the Braves have still maintain a solid corps of outfielders, lead by homegrown star Jeff Francoeur.
After exploding on to the scene with a red hot summer in 2005, Francoeur, 24, has continued to mature over his two and a half seasons with Atlanta. He has proven solid on both sides of the ball, winning his first Rawlings Gold Glove award last season while finishing with a very respectable .293 batting average. After hitting .300 in his abbreviated rookie season, some said that his lack of patience would prevent him from ever approaching that mark again.
Digging deeper into the statistics shows a great deal of overall growth in Francoeur’s game. His cannon arm racked up 19 outfield assists, which tied him for the Major League lead among outfielders. Though his home run total dipped from 29 in ’06 to 19 last season, Francoeur upped his doubles total from 24 to 40 and his overall hit total from 169 to 188.
Don’t look now, but the free-swinger nearly doubled his walk total (from 23 to 42) which saw his paltry 2006 on base percentage of .293 climb to .338 last season. While that will not rank him among the league leaders, it certainly shows signs that Francoeur will continue that improvement over time.
How about durability? Francoeur gives you that too, having started all 162 games in each of the past two seasons. Run Production? For the second year in a row, Francoeur drove home more than 100 runs. As he enters the prime years of his career, the Braves will likely try to lock up the new face of their franchise to a long-term deal in an attempt to buy out some of his arbitration years and perhaps the first few years of his impending free agency.
There is no doubt that the Braves will look for an offensive boost from Francoeur to help fill the void left by the departure of Andruw. Having Mark Teixeira in the mix certainly helps there. The club is eagarly awaiting the arrival of super-prospect Jordan Schafer, but Atlanta had to make a move to fill the center field spot for 2007. General Manager Frank Wren made a move, first with the acquisition of the speedy rookie Josh Anderson from Houston. Many wondered if that would be the final move, giving life to a theory that Schafer would be given an opportunity to win the job outright in the spring.
All that speculation came to a close when Wren sent pitchers Joey Devine and Jamie Richmond to Oakland in exchange for veteran center fielder Mark Kotsay in mid-January. Missing substantial time in 2007 and bringing with him a history of back problems, Kotsay is some-what of a role of the dice. That not withstanding, the Braves were happy to bring in a veteran stop-gap to fill the hole and buy time for Schafer to gain valuable experience in Double-A and beyond.
At 32-years old, Kotsay is far from over the hill by anyone’s standard. Kotsay’s defense is far better than average, which should help everyone from Wren to Bobby Cox to Atlanta pitchers continue to breathe easy when the ball is struck toward center field. Seasonal averages project Kotsay to hit around .280 with upwards of 12 homers and 65 RBI if healthy. The key will be keeping Kotsay healthy and in the lineup for better than 150 games. Since the Braves only owe him 2 million this season, the reward far outweighs the risk, especially with Anderson ready as an insurance policy.
If Kotsay should fall short due to injury, Atlanta will have the option of going with Anderson. The 25-year old proved himself ready for the show last season with the Astros, hitting .358 in 21 September contests. A speedy base-runner, Anderson lead the Houston system with 40 steals at Triple-A Round Rock. The Braves will definitely benefit from some speed off the bench.
Matt Diaz, soon to be 30, has very quietly established himself as an integral part of the offensive dynamic when given the chance. Though he has been a part of platoons in each of his first two seasons, Diaz ranks second to Ichiro Suzuki with a .333 average since the start of 2006. Given, it is in half as many at-bats, but the numbers certainly don’t lie. Seemingly never trying to hit the ball out of the park, Diaz sprays line drives all over the field at will.
In 2007, despite splitting significant time with new-comer Willie Harris, Diaz increased his productivity across the board from his first season in Atlanta. Much like Francoeur, the average was up from .327 to .338, doubles from 15 to 21, homers from seven to 12 and RBIs from 32 to 45. As the year wore on, Diaz began to play smarter on defense and as result he began making the routine plays look just that.
It will come as no surprise if Cox again chooses to go with a platoon to complement the righty swinging Diaz. Highly regarded prospect Brandon Jones got a taste of the Major Leagues last season and may be sticking around come this spring. The next in a the line of Jones boys, Brandon, 24, drove home 104 runs at three stops including Atlanta in 2007. Though he only had 19 at-bats with the big club, it appears that he will be given an opportunity as a cost-effective lefty counterpart to Diaz.
Jones batted .295 in 138 games between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Richmond, clouting 19 homers and even swiping 17 bases between the two levels. The native Floridian projects to get a good portion of the pinch-hit at-bats along with power-threat Scott Thorman. With Jones on board it is unlikely that Thorman will see any time in the outfield this season. The acquisition of Anderson all but rules that out.
- The Infield
- The Bullpen
- The Bench
Till next time,