Atlanta Braves 2009 Preview: Who's Leading Off?

Kevin MarkumCorrespondent IFebruary 19, 2009

The Braves are about to head into spring training with many questions.

Who is playing left field?  Who will man center?

In a previous article, I talked about one of the Braves' big questions that concern Jeff Francoeur and how he will bounce back from a dismal 2008 campaign.

This time, I think a question must be asked about the situation that is going on at the top of the Braves batting order.

Traditionally, fans refer to the top spot in the batting order as the leadoff man. Many question why this spot in the order is valued so much when in reality, the leadoff man only generally leads off in the first inning.

I think managers set up their batting order from 1-6 with guys they feel can produce runs at a high rate. This is not to discredit the guys batting from 7-9, but it is a well-known fact that you put your better hitters up in the front half of the order.

The leadoff man is typically a speedy player that has a high on base percentage and has a low strikeout rate. You want this guy to get a high on-base percentage whether it be through means of a hit or a walk.

A good leadoff man is also a talented baserunner who can hit for extra bases or steal a bag in some situations.

The second batter needs to be able to protect the runners on base while your 3-6 guys need to be able to move up the runners and drive them home.

Without the leadoff man, the lineup falls apart. While it is possible to have success without a talented leadoff man, it sure does make it easy to produce runs when you already have a man on-base with no outs.

In 2008, the Braves saw 751 plate appearances from the No. 1 spot in the order.  The majority came from Gregor Blanco, Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, and the speedy Josh Anderson.

Even with contributions from all around the clubhouse, the leadoff spot combined for a .273 batting average and only a .330 OBP in 2008. While this isn't too awful, I hope to see an improvement in 2009.

So, who should bat first in 2009? 

I think the likely candidates are Jordan Schafer, Josh Anderson, Gregor Blanco, Yunel Escobar, and Kelly Johnson. 

Boy do I miss Rafael Furcal.

I think a lot of the questions concerning this situation will become more clear when the Braves figure out who is playing in left and center field.

Right off the bat, I don't foresee Johnson or Escobar being considered for the leadoff spot. I also don't see Schafer coming up and batting first either. His ability shows he would be a better fit in the second or fifth spot in the lineup.

As a result, I think the battle for the top spot ultimately will come down to Anderson and Blanco.  I also believe that whoever can prove that they hit well enough to lead off will also win their spot in the outfield.

I'm not in any way counting out Jordan Schafer for the starting job in center. I think if he wins this job, he would just likely bat down in the lineup and the one that bats first will play in left.

Gregor Blanco in 430 at-bats last year totaled a .251 average, 52 runs, 13 stolen bases, and a .369 OBP. However, leading off in the order he had 234 at-bats with a .252 BA and an OBP of .371.

Obviously, not much changed when he batted up front, but are those the type of stats you want to see from your leadoff man?

Anderson is the candidate I feel deserves a look in 2009 to bat first and play left and/or center for the Braves. He batted .294 and had 10 stolen bases with only 136 at-bats last season. However, for the season he had only a .338 OBP. 

Batting leadoff with 101 at-bats, Anderson held a .297 average and a .343 OBP.

I think the key for Anderson is the potential he has if he plays a full season. I think in a full season he could steal 40-plus bases and maintain a .290-plus average. I think the walks will come with maturity.

Josh Anderson is the best bet for a decent leadoff man in 2009. Although based on the stats, it is very debatable.

I picture this as the Braves lineup for 2009:

CF - J. Anderson
SS - Y. Escobar
3B - C. Jones
C -   B. McCann
RF - J. Francoeur
1B - C. Kotchman
2B - K. Johnson
LF - Diaz/B. Jones

However, I'd like to see a lineup like this:

LF - J. Anderson
2B - K. Johnson
SS - Y. Escobar
3B - C. Jones
C -   B. McCann
RF - J. Francoeur
1B - C. Kotchman
CF - J. Schafer

Okay, Braves' fans. Let me have it for putting Chipper in the clean-up spot. I just think given the potential for Escobar in 2009, and the way Kelly Johnson fits in the second spot, it could be a good year to make the swap.

I think McCann fits much better in the fifth spot in the order anyway.

Defensively I think Schafer will be better in 2009, as his bat will come along with it from what scouts are saying.

No matter what happens 2-9, let's stick Josh Anderson up at the top of the lineup to get it all started.

If the Braves can address this question about a leadoff man internally with Anderson, the Braves could be in for an excellent 2009 campaign.