Braves 2005 Preview: Infield

Wilson Betemit
Betemit, once considered the jewel of the Braves system, has failed to live up to expectations. Nevertheless, he is still just 24 years old and had a decent year in Richmond (.278 with 13 HR 24 2B, and 2 3B). While he is no longer considered a future star, he still could make an impact with Atlanta this year. Betemit will be competing for the final utility infielder’s spot with Pete Orr. Because Orr can also play outfield, Betemit is going to need an outstanding performance this spring to make the big club.

Julio Franco
The ageless wonder, Julio had another great year in 2004. He will turn 47 in 2005, but as long as he produces, he will have a place to play in Atlanta. In 2004, he hit .309, with 18 doubles, 3 triples, 6 home runs and 57 RBIs. With runners in scoring position, his average was .347 (33-for-95). He continues to prove that age indeed is just a number. He will continue to get the majority of AB’s against LHP, and will probably have another solid season. It really is a shame he was only given 162 AB’s from 1997-2001; he could be approaching 3000 hits and a spot in the hall of fame had he been given a chance somewhere.

Marcus Giles
Giles was off to a scorching-hot start to his 2004 season, leading all NL second basemen in the first tally of all-star voting. Unfortunately, his season was soon interrupted for 6 weeks due to another random injury. Once he returned from the injury, he did not hit at the same level as before, mainly because his collarbone fracture kept him from lifting weights, and his power was down significantly.

Giles still hit .311 last year, but hit .393 with 14 RBI in April. You could feel that Marcus was going to have a huge 2004, until his injury really set him back. As long as he avoids another freak injury, he should have a great year. Marcus has the ability to be the best hitting second baseman in all of baseball, and this may be the year he proves that.

Rafael Furcal
Fukey had a great season in 2004, marred only by off the field problems with the law. I was there at game two of the NLCS when he hit the walk-off bomb to beat Houston in extra innings…what an exciting ballgame. Rafael plays a solid shortstop, has a cannon for an arm, and is a very good leadoff hitter. He was 29-35 on steals, and scored over 100 runs for the second consecutive season. He has also shown excellent plate discipline the last two years, with a very low 1.24:1 strikeout to walk ratio.

Rafael earned a nice raise this off-season, signing a one-year deal to avoid arbitration. With another strong season, he will be in line to earn big bucks on the free agent market after the 2005 campaign.

Pete Orr
Orr came out of nowhere to have as good a season as anyone did in the Atlanta minor league system. His breakout season included a .320 average, 24 steals, 16 doubles, and 10 (yes, ten!) triples. He also only made four errors all season, while Betemit made 16. Throw in his ability to play a competent outfield, and Pete Orr looks like a great utility big leaguer. He is already 25, but is only a year older than Betemit. He is in a battle with Betemit this spring to win the final bench spot, and his superior season last year coupled with his versatility give him the edge in my opinion. Betemit is considered by scouts to have more tools; however, the sabermetrician in me simply cannot ignore the stats Orr put up in Richmond last year. I will take proven production over tools any day of the week.

Adam LaRoche
Adam is a guy who I happen to know personally, and I look for big things from him in 2005. A sore shoulder nagged him for the entire first half, and his swing was weak as a result. However, once his shoulder had time to heal after the break, his numbers recovered nicely. His 10 HR, 15 2B and .302 batting average left his second half OPS at a very respectable .943, almost 250 points higher than his first half OPS of .648. He also hit the game tying double off the unhittable Brad Lidge in game two, and a mammoth bomb to put Atlanta on top in game four during the NLCS.

Adam was always compared to Mark Grace coming up through the minors, and he put up Grace-like numbers in 2004- even as a rookie playing with an undisclosed injury for half of the season. While Julio Franco continues to amaze, it is safe to say that he will not play forever (though I wouldn’t rule it out!). Bobby needs to slowly give Adam more AB’s against LHP this season to ease the adjustment when he takes over full time for Julio. He isn’t likely to ever have a 30-40 HR season, but is a good bet for a nice stretch of .300-20-90 seasons. If Adam continues this season to hit the way he did in the second half last year, this year may be the first in a long run of very good seasons.

Chipper Jones
Obviously, 2004 was not Chipper’s best year. His numbers were down in almost every category last year, though his 30 HR were up from his 2002 and 2003 numbers. His batting average, OPB, and OPS were all down significantly from his prior years and his career averages. Throughout the first half of the season, he was in and out of the lineup and never really was able to find a groove at the plate. The amount of sprinting, stopping, and starting quickly that is required in the outfield certainly was not good for his injured hamstring. As a result, the Braves moved him back to third, and he responded by playing excellent defense and hitting .337 with 11 HR in August.

Chipper will turn 35 this year, and is still scheduled to make a ridiculous amount of money over the next several years. However, being the consummate team player, he had no qualms with offering to restructure his contract to allow the team more payroll flexibility in their pursuit of a long-term deal for Tim Hudson and other potential free agents. He is at the tail end of his prime years, and needs a strong 2005 to prove that last year was just an aberration based on injuries. I believe Chipper indeed will rebound with a strong season this year, and return to his 30+ HR and 100+ RBI years of years past.

Andy Marte
Marte is one of the top ten prospects in all of baseball, and is very close to graduating from prospect to big leaguer. The only problem facing Atlanta is finding him a place to play. He led the organization in homeruns with 23, and showed a good eye, walking 58 times. Marte has the tools to please the scouting crowd, and the track record and stats to please the sabermetric crowd. He is a big time prospect who looks like a future Major League star.

Unfortunately, in the short term, it is not clear where he will be playing. His defense is too good for him to be moved to the outfield, yet Chipper’s hamstring is not strong enough for him to play outfield. Essentially, the Braves are faced with a problem where they have two great third basemen, neither of whom can be moved to the outfield, where they have a weakness. In conversations with Rob Neyer of ESPN, he expressed his opinion that we will see Chipper playing first base when Marte is ready. This leaves a tough decision of what to do with LaRoche, and Rob foresees him being traded for outfield or pitching, or even possibly a shortstop to replace Furcal next year. It will certainly be interesting to see how things play out, and the best thing we can do as fans is to just trust Schuerholz to make the right decision…he usually does.

Nick Green
(Written before Green was traded to Tampa Bay)
Thrust into the spotlight following the injury of Marcus Giles, Greenie filled in admirably with the bat and the glove. He was leading the International League in batting with a .377 average when he was called up, and hit .273 through 249 at bats in the big leagues. He only hit three homeruns, but one was a dramatic three-run jack to tie the game in the bottom of the 9th against Montreal.

With Giles returning to full strength, Green will be a relegated to reserve status this year. He proved that he can be a solid major league 2nd baseman last year, and will be a valuable member of the team coming off the bench in 2005.

Luis Hernandez
Hernandez was a surprising addition to the 40-man, as 2004 was his first good season with the bat. However his defense is amazing, and .272 is ample for a SS who has a great arm and glove. He is quick in the infield, but is not a threat to run (4-10 SB). He is listed at only 5’10” 140, but again, size is not an issue for a shortstop. He plays the same position as Pena and is a level behind him, but is only 20 years old. Luis figures to play everyday in Mississippi this year, and hopes to gain strength and increase his offensive production. If he handles AA pitching while continuing to amaze at short, will be a serious candidate for the 2006 shortstop job if Furcal leaves for free-agency.

Scott Thorman
Thorman is a former first round pick, who has some serious raw power. However, that tool has not translated into consistent numbers. He had a couple good years, but followed them with a bad year. In four years of pro ball, he has had the following batting averages: .227, .294, .243, and .299. Scouts say he has the best pure power in the Braves system. He should open up 2005 in AA and needs a good season to maintain prospect status.

Tony Pena Jr.
Pena played everyday in Greenville in 2004, and put together a solid season. His .255 average was not great, but his peripheral numbers were solid. His 11 HR, 22 2B, and 25-38 SB show signs that he can hit big league pitching. This spring it will be very interesting to see how Pena fares against the big league arms. Like Hernandez, his fate with the organization is heavily dependent on the outcome of Furcal’s free agency. However, if Pena does not develop more plate discipline, he might have a hard time hitting big league pitching. Walking just 16 times, compared to 108 strikeouts in 495 AB is simply not acceptable. If Pena has one goal in 2005, it should be to cut down on the strikeouts and increase the walks. History shows that the guys who have good plate discipline in the minors translate to better big league hitters than those who do not. Major League pitchers have such good stuff that free-swinging minor leaguers usually turn into strikeout machines in the majors.

Johnny Estrada
Johnny burst onto the scene last year by making the All-Star team, had the highest batting average on the Braves, and being chosen for the team of MLB stars to tour Japan this off-season. Not a bad first year for the guy who was a “throw-in” in the Kevin Millwood trade. He finished the season batting .337 with RISP and .314 overall. His defense could be improved, as nine errors are quite high for a catcher, but if he continues to hit as he did in 2004, the occasional defensive miscue can be overlooked.

Estrada established himself as a very good Major League player last year; he now must prove that last year was not a fluke. He only struck out 66 times in 462 at bats, and while only hitting nine homeruns, did hit 36 doubles to lead the team. His offensive output is rare for a catcher, which makes him all the more valuable to Atlanta. If Johnny has another strong season this year, he may be mentioned alongside Jorge Posada and Pudge Rodriguez when talking about the best hitting catchers in baseball.

Eddie Perez
There isn’t too much to say about Eddie that we don’t already know. He calls a good game, blocks the ball well and throws well. He is a great backup catcher and sub when Estrada needs an off day. He is also a valuable presence in the clubhouse, as he has been known to mentor many of the younger Latin players and help ease their transition to the glitz and glamour of the Major Leagues. While he is not still in the bigs for his offense, he actually finished the season strongly last year, hitting all three of his homeruns and batting .314 during August and September. He figures to hold down the same role this year as he did last year, and should perform at roughly the same level.

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