Where Does the Atlanta Braves Infield Rank Among NL East Teams?

Matt PowersCorrespondent IIMarch 7, 2012

Where Does the Atlanta Braves Infield Rank Among NL East Teams?

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    After some big moves by the Marlins and Nationals this winter, the NL East will be among the toughest divisions in baseball in 2012. That makes now a good time to preview the infields of the NL East to see how the Atlanta Braves compare.

    This article ranks the infields, including catchers, of the five teams in the division to see where the Braves' infield stands among their rivals.

5. New York Mets

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    The Mets infield starts with All-Star third baseman David Wright, the face of the franchise. Wright is a well-rounded player that normally hits for average and power, steals bases and plays Gold Glove defense. Wright is an impressive talent, and when healthy, a player that should be an All-Star.

    First baseman Ike Davis got off to a very hot start last year by hitting .302 with seven homers, but his season ended after just 36 games due to an ankle injury. Davis, who will be playing at age 25 this year, is a promising young talent that will need to prove he is totally healthy this year.

    Catcher Josh Thole is a decent young player that will hit for a decent average for the position and gets on base at a good rate. The biggest negative for Thole is the fact he has only hit six homers in 595 career at bats.

    With Jose Reyes departing as a free agent, the Mets are expected to replace him with Ruben Tejada. Tejada will only be 22 years old this year, but he already has 174 games in the big leagues behind him. While he may not have much power or be a threat on the bases like Reyes was, he did hit .284 last season in 328 at bats.

    The projected starter at second base is Daniel Murphy, a player that played most of his games at first base last year. Murphy had a successful year with the bat in 2011, hitting .320 with six homers and 49 RBIs in 109 games. He may not be a great defender, but he should at least be a decent hitter for a middle infielder.

    The Mets have a star at one corner and a promising youngster at the other corner, but a bunch of questions up the middle. Thole is a passable starter for right now, but may not be the long-term solution behind the plate. Murphy may not be a strong enough defender to stick at second base in the long term. The good news is that Tejada does have some potential to grow into a solid shortstop.

4. Washington Nationals

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    The Nationals are similar to the Mets in that they also have a well-rounded star at third base in Ryan Zimmerman. While Zimmerman battled injury last year, he's a guy capable of hitting .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs while playing Gold Glove defense.

    First base will likely belong to Adam LaRoche to start the season, though if Bryce Harper makes the team it could shift Mike Morse to first. LaRoche struggled with Washington last year before getting injured and missing the remainder of the season. When healthy LaRoche could hit .270 with 20-25 homers.

    Catcher Wilson Ramos is coming off a strong rookie year and rough winter after being kidnapped during winter ball in Venezuela. Ramos was brought back unharmed after a few days and could build upon his 2011 numbers, where he managed to hit .267 with 15 homers in 389 at bats.

    Danny Espinosa is another player coming off a strong rookie year last year. The second baseman was a potential 30/30 guy before a major slump in the second half. Overall he did finish at .236 with 21 homers and 17 steals, and has the room to improve upon that in 2012.

    Ian Desmond is back at shortstop after a disappointing second year in 2011. Desmond dropped his average back to .253 and only hit eight homers, though he cut his errors to just 23 from 34 as a rookie. Desmond may be penciled into the lineup now, but if rookie Steve Lombardozzi impresses, Espinosa could be moved over to short to make room.

    This infield would be ranked higher if Morse was to become the everyday first baseman. Still having a star to build around in Zimmerman and a strong, consistent veteran like LaRoche gives the Nationals a solid base to build upon. Youngsters Espinosa and Ramos are each capable of growing into strong players, which would also help the Nationals rank higher next year.

3. Miami Marlins

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    The Miami Marlins made plenty of headlines this winter due to the signing of shortstop Jose Reyes. Reyes won the batting title last year with the Mets, and when healthy he could steal 50 bases in a year. He's not just a guy that puts up good numbers, but he makes an impact on the game from his lead-off spot.

    The other reason the Reyes signing made headlines is because it forced another All-Star shortstop to change positions. That means 2009 NL batting champion Hanley Ramirez will be moving to third base this year. Ramirez struggled mightily last season because he was never fully healthy due to injuries, but when healthy he could hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases.

    Gaby Sanchez may not be an elite first baseman, but he's proven over the first two seasons of his career that he is a solid and consistent producer. Sanchez's 2011 production was almost like a mirror image of his 2010 production. He hit .273 with 19 homers and 83 RBIs in 2010 and followed that by hitting .266 with 19 homers and 78 RBIs last year.

    Catcher John Buck cashed in on a career year with Toronto in 2010, but disappointed with the Marlins last year. Not only did his home run output drop from 20 to 16, but he saw his average dip from .281 to .227. While Buck can't be expected to repeat his career season, he is likely to improve.

    Buck isn't the only Marlin that had a career year elsewhere in 2010 only to disappoint in his Marlins' debut. Second baseman Omar Infante, who was acquired from the Braves for Dan Uggla after the 2010 season, came close to winning the batting title in 2010. Though he did hit .276 last year, his .315 on-base percentage did disappoint.

    If Reyes and Ramirez are both healthy this year, the Marlins would have the best left side of the infield in baseball, though, there are some questions about Reyes' hamstring and Ramirez's ability to bounce back. After that, Sanchez and Buck are more second-division starters, while Infante could be best in a super-utility role.

2. Philadelphia Phillies

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    The best player in the Phillies' infield is also the biggest question mark. First baseman Ryan Howard has already started to decline in production, but a torn Achilles in the playoffs means that he will miss some time this year. While we don't know when he will be back for sure, he is still capable of hitting 30 homers and 100 RBI's over the course of a full season.

    The Phillies prepared for Howard to miss time as they added a pair of bats this winter. Veteran slugger Jim Thome and versatile Ty Wigginton are both more than solid in the short-term, and when Howard returns they will add to the bench depth.

    Second baseman Chase Utley is another player on the downside, partly due to a degenerative knee condition. Utley played in 103 games last year and hit .259 with 11 homers and 44 RBIs to go with a perfect 14 for 14 in stolen base attempts. Utley may not be an MVP candidate at this point, but he's still a strong second baseman.

    Jimmy Rollins is another infielder on the downside of his career. The former MVP and Gold Glove Award winner is still a strong shortstop, but is no longer elite. He can certainly put up numbers similar to his .268 with 16 homers, 63 RBIs and 30 steals in 2012.

    Placido Polanco continues the theme of aging players in the Phillies' infield. Polanco, who will be 36 years old this season, was actually an All-Star just last year—but that was in part to all of the top candidates being injured. Polanco has never been a power hitter, but will hit for a decent average and get on base at a good rate.

    The only member of the Phillies' infield not on the downside is catcher Carlos Ruiz. Ruiz puts up decent stats after hitting .283 last year and posting a .371 on-base percentage last year. He is also known for collecting big hits.

    The entire Phillies' infield is on the wrong side of 30. They still produce at or above the league average for their positions, giving the Phillies a strong group.

1. Atlanta Braves

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    The Braves infield is led by catcher Brian McCann, a player that has been named an All-Star in each of the six full seasons in his career. McCann is a career .286 hitter that is a good bet to hit at least 20 homers and 75 RBIs every year. Considering he just turned 28 years old and has battled some minor injuries the past two years, he could be in line for a career year.

    Second baseman Dan Uggla had a rough first half in his Braves' debut last year, but a hot second half saved his season. While he hit a career-low .233, he did set a new career-high with 36 homers. Uggla is likely to raise his average to something closer to his career .258 mark and hit 30 homers again in 2012.

    Freddie Freeman was everything the Braves could have asked for last year. At age 21, the first baseman hit .282 with 21 homers and 76 RBIs as a rookie. A slow start as he adjusted to big-league pitching and a cold September due to adjusting to the grind of a 162-game season are certainly things that he could improve upon in 2012, and he could have an even better season.

    Chipper Jones is still the third baseman despite the fact that he will turn 40 in April. In spite of his age and being injury prone, Jones managed to hit .275 with 18 homers and 70 RBIs on his way to another All-Star selection. Jones is near the end, but when he's healthy he will still produce.

    The Braves allowed Alex Gonzalez to leave as a free agent after last season, and are expected to start rookie Tyler Pastornicky there this year. Pastornicky only has a few games of experience above Double-A, causing him to be a question mark. It's likely that he hits somewhere around .250 with 15-20 steals if he holds the job full-time. Veteran Jack Wilson is there in case Pastornicky is not ready.

    The Braves have the top infield in the NL East over the Phillies for a few reasons. McCann and Uggla are All-Stars in their prime, while Freeman is on the rise. The Phillies are filled with players on the downside and their best player will be out for a while. It's close, but the Braves seem to be in a better position,