Team Preview: The Infield
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 final spots will shake out.
When the Atlanta Braves added powerful switch-hitting Gold Glove first baseman Mark Teixeira prior to the trade deadline last season, they knew that their line-up would receive a considerable boost. Now, with the Teixeira in the fold for a full season in 2008, the Braves may boast the most dynamic infield in the National League East.
Sure, the Mets have young studs David Wright and Jose Reyes to go along with veteran Florida cast-offs Carlos Delgado and Luis Castillo, but the Braves have plenty of fire power on the corners and emerging young talents up the middle.
Chipper Jones has anchored the Braves infield since his rookie season of 1995 (save a brief stint in the outfield). As always, as Chipper goes, so go the Braves. Despite missing more than 30 games, Jones finished just two points shy of his first batting title (.337) while pacing the league in the all-too-important OPS category (1.029). That’s on base percentage plus slugging percentage for those behind the times. Chipper also scored 108 runs and drove home another 102, making him the element that will allow the Braves offense to reach critical mass.
In the fielding department, Jones continues to play about as steady a third base as anyone in baseball. He makes all the plays he should, committing only nine errors in 126 games. Compare that to Wright’s 21 in 159 and you start to wonder what is going on with the Gold Glove Award.
The Braves are hoping to get a full season from Jones for the first time since 2003. With the departure of long time partner in crime Andruw Jones, Chipper will need to put up strong numbers again if the Braves are to have any chance of keeping up in the East race. Atlanta has placed its hopes firmly on Jones being able to remain in the line-up, dealing away starting shortstop Edgar Renteria so that young stud Yunel Escobar, who backed up all over the infield, could assume the starting duties at short. The Braves also dealt away two-years ago’s Jones stand-in, Willy Aybar.
Teixeira’s bat will no doubt make a huge difference over the course of the season. Last year marked the fourth consecutive season in which the former Georgia Tech star surpassed 30 homers and 100 RBI. In fact, in 54 games with Atlanta, Teixeira belted 17 homers drove home 56 runs while slugging at a cool .615 clip. Prior to a calf injury that cost him 30 games last season while with Texas, Teixeira had played in 162 games in each 2005 and 2006.
Off-season knee surgery for Teixeira went just as planned, giving him plenty of time to ready himself for the season. Without Andruw, the Braves are hoping that their new clean-up man can recapture the success he enjoyed in ’05 when he hit .301 with 43 homers and 144 RBI.
Escobar, 25, surprised everyone and no one all at the same time last season. Braves skipper Bobby Cox already knew that they had something special in the Cuban defector, but did not necessarily expect to see him displacing Renteria. Escobar’s exciting play made the Braves comfortable enough to part with top prospect Elvis Andrus and later Renteria.
Serving as a super-sub of sorts, Escobar launched a full-tilt assault on the rest of the league. In 94 contests, he hit .325 with 25 doubles, five homers and 28 RBI. Escobar’s heads-up style on the base paths made for many exciting moments, including his stolen base against then Arizona closer Jose Valverde that occurred while the hurler bent down to tie his shoe. Reaching base wasn’t a problem for Escobar (.385 OBP) so Valverde may not be the last pitcher to suffer some embarrassment on the base paths.
All the tools are there at Escobar’s disposal. His strong accurate arm and solid range will both be on display in his natural position this season. At the plate, his opposite field approach echoes of Renteria and compliments his keen eye in using the whole field. Escobar’s power is still coming along, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him poke a dozen or so homers.
When the Braves decided to let long-time second baseman Marcus Giles leave via free-agency and go with converted outfielder coming off Tommy John surgery in Kelly Johnson, some experts thought they were crazy. Johnson’s work with the bat this season pointed to the bigger picture while his fielding continues to come along.
Johnson turned in quite a solid all-around season in 2007, hitting .276 with 26 doubles, 10 triples, 16 homers, 68 RBI and 91 runs scored. By drawing 79 walks, Johnson was able to turn in a better-than average .375 OBP in his own right. As he continues to learn the position, Johnson should become more adept at making the play to his right, which was the cause for many of his errors a year ago. The Braves expect more of the same from the patient line-drive hitter this season.
Serving the Braves behind the plate is the ever-popular young catcher Brian McCann. The Braves felt so strongly about the Duluth-native that they inked him to a six-year contract last spring after his All-star season of 2006. Though the average dipped from .333 to .270, McCann fought valiantly through ankle and hand troubles that nagged him for most of the season.
The NL again gave McCann the nod to join the All-star squad, despite just a .262 average and nine homers at the break. But as the weather heated up, so did McCann, hitting .289 with 10 of his 17 homers and driving home 41 runs in July and August.
McCann finished only two RBI off his pace from two seasons ago (with 92). If you were looking for timely run production, 41 of those came with two outs. Though he did finish a few homers shy of his 24 two seasons ago, McCann upped his doubles total to 38. A full off-season of rest should have McCann healed up and ready go as Grape Fruit League action begins.
Still to come:
- The Bench
- The Bullpen
Till Next time,