Braves infield must step up this season
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Following the retirement of third baseman and team icon Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves knew that things were going to be different on the infield in 2013.
Not only was Jones out of the picture, but Martin Prado was shipped to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of a seven-player trade in January. It was a move left the Braves without their two most consistent hitters from a year ago, as well as devoid of an heir-apparent for Jones.
Unlike the new-look Atlanta outfield, there is a mix of young and old around the horn. Some of these men exemplify youth and potential, while one man in particular is trying to get his career back on track.
General manager Frank Wren has done well to balance the once lefty-heavy lineup, but there are definitely questions that will have to be answered if the Braves are to make a postseason run in 2013.
A productive infield could help Atlanta address some of those concerns.
FIRST BASE: Freddie Freeman
Considering what Freddie Freeman had to deal with last season, his final numbers were a testament to his competitive nature.
After finishing second to teammate Craig Kimbrel in the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year balloting, it appeared Freeman was on track to have an even better sophomore season. He was batting .302 on May 5, but then a pair of maladies sapped some of the slugger’s productivity.
Vision problems began plaguing Freeman in early May. That led to repeated changes of contact lenses during games and an eventual switch to prescription glasses in hopes of solving the problem. It was also a major reason why he hit just .249 over his final 121 games.
Freeman was also dealing with a left index finger injury suffered on June 6 against the Marlins, when he was struck in the left hand by a throw from Jose Reyes while sliding to break up a double play. The X-Rays were negative, but Freeman dealt with discomfort for the remainder of the season.
His final numbers were certainly indicative of his importance to the Atlanta line-up. He set career-highs in multiple categories, including a team-leading 94 RBI. Only Washington’s Adam LaRoche had more RBI among NL first basemen.
Freeman, 23, worked hard alongside teammate Dan Uggla to shed some excess weight over the winter. He told David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that both men are hoping that a better diet and some good old fashioned hard work pays dividends this season:
“It’s something I wanted to do, feel leaner. It was a lot of fun just changing things up. We worked out together, did everything together this offseason. It was a lot of work, and hopefully it pays off.”
There is not much keeping Freeman from being among the top first basemen in the game, but he will need to step up against left-handed pitchers. He turned in just a .237/.315/.399 line against southpaws last season.
Like many hitters in the Atlanta lineup, Freeman is also prone to the strikeout. He has fanned an average of once every 4.1 at-bats in his career. That is a rate he would no doubt like to bring down as he evolves as a hitter.
If he can improve those numbers, then he should take the next step in his progression toward becoming a premier first baseman.
SECOND BASE: Dan Uggla
Dan Uggla was one of the better offensive second basemen in baseball with the Marlins, but has been nothing short of streaky since joining the Braves.
While his career-high 36 home runs and a 33-game hitting streak took the edge off his 2011 performance somewhat, there was no such luck last year.
Uggla, who turns 33 this month, has failed to meet the overall expectations after signing a five-year, $62 million extension immediately after being traded to Atlanta in November of 2010.
Looking over last season’s numbers, it bears pointing out that he led the NL in walks and was a notably better hitter with runners on base. It is also worth noting that the Braves did not acquire Uggla to draw walks while turning in a .384 slugging percentage.
Though Uggla’s 78 RBI were the fewest in any season of his seven-year career, that total still ranked third-best among all major league second basemen. Perhaps that is not the most subjective way to look at the statistics, but it does show that Uggla’s run production was at or above the level of his positional counterparts.
Defensively, Uggla has been adequate at best throughout his career. Combine that fact with his decline at the plate, and it leaves the Braves with an expensive liability on both sides of the ball.
Uggla has always racked up large strikeout totals, which included a team-leading 168 in 2012. In his seven-year career, he has averaged 155 K’s per season.
His offseason regimen helped Uggla come to camp slimmer this year, but the Braves are hoping to see his bat feasting on opposing pitchers once again.
Uggla discussed the depth of his struggles with Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“After a year like that, something I’m not used to having – if I didn’t see a problem there, there’d be something wrong with me. That would be a lack of caring, and that’s not me. I take a lot of pride in what I do, and that was a hit to my pride. And I will do anything and everything to get it right.”
Uggla has three years left on his contract with Atlanta, and will have to improve drastically from the man who batted .185 in his final 99 games last season.
With Jones gone, Uggla’s veteran status could require that he take on more of a leadership role in the clubhouse as well.
SHORTSTOP: Andrelton Simmons
Andrelton Simmons had played just 44 games above the Single-A level before the Braves turned to him to help solve their shortstop dilemma last season.
As it turned out, Atlanta may have found its shortstop of the future.
Simmons, 23, made quite an impression on the Braves last spring, but the club decided to send him down for more seasoning.
However, by the time June rolled around, Simmons found himself in the big leagues to stay. He batted .289 with three homers and 19 RBI while committing just three errors in 49 games.
A broken right hand slowed his roll in mid-July, keeping him out of the lineup until September. He was back in time for the final three weeks and the ill-fated Wild Card game against St. Louis.
The strong-armed native of Curacao provides excellent defense and possesses good plate discipline as well. Simmons has shown the ability to get on base regularly, turning in a .352 OBP in parts of three minor league seasons. He was hovering around that mark with Atlanta before going 1-for-10 to finish the regular season.
With Michael Bourn gone, the Braves are looking for a leadoff hitter. Early indications this spring are that manager Fredi Gonzalez is going to look to Simmons to fill that void.
According to MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, Simmons is chomping at the bit for the opportunity to prove himself as a top of the order hitter.
“I always feel like I’m the guy people doubt. So it’s a good feeling to stand out, do what people don’t expect. It’s satisfying for myself. I always challenge myself to jump out of nowhere.”
Leading off is something Simmons is certainly equipped to do. Including his minor league work, he strikes out just once every 11.2 at-bats on average. His OBP has also improved in each one of his three professional seasons.
With a lack of other candidates to assume the table setting duties, it appears Simmons is poised to play a big part in Atlanta’s offensive success.
THIRD BASE: Chris Johnson
It will not be easy to follow the Chipper Jones show, but there would be at least a little bit of irony if Atlanta’s next third baseman also has the initials C.J.
In fact, it might just be fitting for Chris Johnson to follow Jones at the hot corner.
He told Carroll Rogers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he welcomes the opportunity:
“I’m excited to play third. I know the history over there. Got some shoes to fill, going to do the best I can and try to just make sure that I play Chris Johnson’s game and obviously not Chipper Jones’ game.”
A Florida resident like Jones, Johnson played his collegiate ball at Stetson University under the guidance of Pete Dunn, who is Jones’ godfather. As Rogers pointed out, that allowed Johnson, a Braves fan growing up, the opportunity to get to know the Jones family.
Johnson, 28, split his 2012 season between the Houston Astros and the Diamondbacks, and set career-bests in virtually every offensive category. Among those were 48 extra-base hits and 76 RBI while playing in 136 games.
As the less-heralded part of the trade with Arizona, which landed Justin Upton in Atlanta, Johnson brings a solid bat to a lineup that is sizing up to be one of the most powerful in the majors.
His run in Arizona was short, but that had more to do with the fact that the Braves were in need of a viable third base option after including Martin Prado in the deal for Upton.
There will not be many comparisons between Jones and Johnson besides the position they play and the home state the share. Johnson is more impatient at the plate, less likely to take walks and more prone to strikeouts than Jones.
Johnson ranks toward the bottom in most metrics defensively, as Mark Bowman of MLB.com pointed out:
The concerns about [Johnson] center around his defense. He had a -10.7 UZR/150 defensive rating last year. The only player with a lower mark was Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera with a -11.2.
However, he can drive in his fair share of runs and could also shift over to first base and give Freeman the occasional day off against a tough lefty pitcher.
The starting job was not handed to Johnson upon his arrival. Manager Fredi Gonzalez will give extended looks to both Johnson and Juan Francisco, who flashed some power in limited at-bats with Atlanta last year.
THIRD BASE: Juan Francisco
Acquired from Cincinnati in a trade just before the 2012 season got underway, stocky third baseman Juan Francisco displayed the power that moved him up the ladder in the Reds system.
Francisco, 25, belted nine home runs for the Braves in just 192 at-bats, and then followed it up with a strong showing in winter ball.
His .307/.368/.575 slash line was complemented by nine homers and 29 RBI in 32 games for Licey in the Dominican Republic.
Though he has a strong arm, Francisco’s range is far from tops in the league. His weight has also been a concern when it comes to his ability to serve as starting third baseman in the majors. Francisco is listed as 245 pounds and did not do much slimming down over the offseason.
Cracking the starting lineup typically leads to better results from Francisco, who batted just .122 with one home run while striking out 20 times in 41 at-bats as a pinch-hitter last season.
All nine of his homers in 2012 came off righty pitchers, further suggesting a platoon could be a distinct possibility.
The Braves will use the Grapefruit League season to determine who is the best everyday option at third base. If neither man impresses enough to gain the regular job, then a platoon to start the season would become a reality.
All in all, the Braves infield offers a great deal of offensive firepower if all of these men play up to their potential. The continued emergence of Freeman, a bounce back campaign from Uggla, a strong first full season from Simmons and some kind of stability from third base are things that Atlanta is looking for.
The Nationals certainly are not going to make it easy to capture the NL East title.