Below is a position-by-position breakdown (not including pitchers) of the Atlanta Braves' roster heading into 2009. The players are listed in order of their ranking on the depth chart.
Casey Kotchman should be with the team for the whole season this year instead of being a half-season rental like he was last year. He's an excellent defensive player and a solid hitter who can consistently knock runs in and often finds a way to put the ball in play, forcing the defense to make a play.
Journeyman Martin Prado likely won't play much first base this season because of his limited experience at the position (he has played only 17 games at first base in his career), and because Kotchman doesn't get hurt much (he's only been on the 15-day disabled list once, and that was it).
But if Prado gets called on, he could probably handle himself—in his minimal time playing first base he has made only one error in 135 total chances. In addition, he's been very strong offensively the past two seasons, hitting a combined .304.
He can also steal the odd base and use his speed to take extra bases on routine hits once in awhile. But he's a really solid hitter for average when he plays.
Kelly Johnson wasn't particularly strong at the plate until 2008, when he hit .287 with 12 homers and 68 RBI (which is decent for someone who switched between the No. 1 and No. 2 slots in a lineup that sorely lacked in bottom-of-the-lineup hitting).
When Johnson got on base, he was often asked to utilize his speed to take extra bases—he had 39 doubles, six triples, and 11 stolen bases in 2008. But he was also caught stealing six times.
However, Johnson's plate discipline was poor, and his 52 walks drawn to 113 strikeouts showed that.
But, considering he made only 14 errors in 701 chances, which averages out to 98 percent, the Braves can live with below average plate discipline because he does a little of everything else.
Prado, who is more experienced at second base than he is at first, is actually a worse fielder at second base—his career fielding percentage at the position is about 96 percent. He's made eight errors in just 184 chances.
He also doesn't turn many double plays—just 14 in 38 games—so his lack of experience in turning two could lead to problems in execution, which could then lead to extended innings. It's nit-picky, but true.
Omar Infante picked up his hitting last season, batting .293 with 40 RBI and 24 doubles in 96 games. But his hitting has been too inconsistent throughout his career to keep him just for that.
Infante's fielding is also inconsistent, but seems to be better at second base and in the outfield. The Braves may keep him if they have concerns about depth at 2B or in the outfield, but don't be surprised if he doesn't make the final 25-man roster.
Yunel Escobar is a strong hitter for average, and he sometimes knocks in runs.
But his swing is designed to help him slap the ball to the right side of the field, and this makes it hard for him to hit inside pitches. If it’s a fastball, he won’t get around on it.
If it’s an off-speed or breaking pitch, he’ll either swing early, and miss it, or swing right through it with the same result. Escobar also isn’t the most disciplined or patient hitter, so he strikes out more than he draws walks.
But if he does make contact, chances are something positive will happen. He may hit a home run, knock in a run, or get an extra-base hit, whatever. And once he gets on base, he can be a threat to run.
But he's just a little too slow to be a major threat to steal that will have the pitcher glancing over his shoulder before every pitch. But in MLB, even the best hitters don’t get on base all the time. How often can you count on a guy like Escobar, a developing player, to get on?
Infante's fielding at shortstop is good, but by no means excellent, at about 95 percent.
Prado's fielding at shortstop is okay. He’s only started and played two games at shortstop in his career, and he made an error in five chances. Don’t expect Prado to play much shortstop in 2009 unless injuries force him to do so.
Chipper Jones should have another tremendous season. The veteran entering his 16th season can hit for average (he hit .364 last season and has a .310 career average) and power (22 homers in 2008, the second-lowest total of his career, counting his rookie year, 1993, during which he played in only eight games and had three at-bats).
He’ll also knock in runs when called upon, and he hits a fair number of doubles (449 in his career, which averages out to about 30 per year). Most of all, Jones is one of the most disciplined hitters in MLB—he drew 90 walks in 2008 and struck out only 61 times.
The only downside to Chipper is that he's getting older, and because of that he's starting to deal with more injuries. Prado fielded about 95 percent from the position last season. Infante converts about 96 percent of his chances at third base.
Brian McCann is one of the best-hitting catchers in the majors. He has excellent power—in 2008 he hit 23 homers, 42 doubles, and knocked in 87 runs. His plate discipline is also very good (57 walks to 64 strikeouts in ’08), which is no surprise considering the way his eyes are visibly dialed into the ball as it leaves the pitcher’s hand.
In terms of fielding, McCann had his worst year gunning down runners in '08, throwing out only 27 runners and allowing 90 runners to steal. His 99 percent put-out conversion rate is outstanding, especially for a catcher who has to deal with a lot of bouncing throws to the plate and runners looking to barrel him over for a run.
If he just improves his ability to throw out would-be stealers, he'd be one of the best catchers in baseball.
David Ross, an offseason acquisition who played for the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, and Red Sox before coming to Atlanta, has never been particularly good at hitting, but he’s strong in the field. He has a lifetime fielding percentage of 99 percent.
Clint Sammons is likely going back to Triple-A Gwinnett for another season of development in the minors. He has limited ML experience, and his hitting just hasn’t been consistently good enough to warrant a spot on the final 25-man roster.
But when his hitting improves, he should either be an easy choice to bring up to Atlanta to back McCann up, or to use as trade bait, depending on what happens with Ross, because of his impeccable fielding. He has not yet made an error in big-league play in 24 games, during which time he got 115 chances to make plays.
After being signed to a one-year contract in February, former Anaheim Angel Garrett Anderson brings much-needed all-around hitting to the Braves—he’s a career .296 hitter who has averaged 19 homers, 92 RBI, and 35 doubles in 14 full ML seasons.
The main problem with Anderson is his lack of plate discipline—he averages about 28 walks to 80 strikeouts per year. But more than anything, Anderson just puts the ball in play.
Matt Diaz may not get much playing time this year behind Anderson due to his inconsistent bat. Apart from hitting a combined .333 in 2006 and ’07, Diaz hasn’t offered much offensively throughout his brief career. He’s hit a total of 23 homers and 103 RBI in 350 major league games—not exactly laudable numbers.
In addition, he strikes out a lot more than he draws walks. If it weren’t for his passable fielding ability, he wouldn’t stand much of a chance of making the final roster (which he still might not make).
Gregor Blanco mostly tries to find ways to manufacture offense. He drew a decent 74 walks last year, but struck out 99 times. Blanco also stole 13 bases in 2008, tops on the team, and he knocked 38 runs in despite the fact that he often hit with a runner on first base or no one on.
Blanco was a reliable fielder as well, with only two errors in 231 total chances as a ML rookie last year.
Brandon Jones made an acceptable return to the majors for the Braves last year, showing marked improvement over his downright terrible 2007 stint with Atlanta, as he hit .267 with one home run, ten doubles, and 17 RBI. But his patience at the plate still needed further improvement, as he struck out four times for every walk drawn.
His fielding was excellent in limited action, though—he made no errors in 60 chances.
But in a position overflowing with depth, expect Jones to spend much of 2009 at Triple-A Gwinnett unless the Braves get hit with serious injury problems.
Josh Anderson appears ready for the bigs! In 40 games with Atlanta in 2008, he hit nearly .300 with three homers, 12 RBI despite batting in the top of the lineup and frequently hitting with no runners in scoring position, and he stole 10 bases while getting caught trying to steal once.
But, like a lot of young players with fairly limited big-league experience, Anderson should work on his plate discipline a bit (even with his high batting average, having a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3:1 isn’t good).
Gregor Blanco (nothing new to talk about with him)
Jordan Shafer is a non-roster invitee to Spring Training. Unfortunately, I could not access the Richmond Braves’ website, so I could not get any of his minor-league stats for analysis.
However, he has played in three Spring Training games, hitting .273 in 11 at-bats with one homer, a double, an RBI, a walk, five strikeouts, and a stolen base. Not bad.
Jeff Francoeur will look to rebound from his frustrating 2008 season and be able to provide the power he was looking to gain from his rigorous weight-lifting program from the 2008 offseason.
This year he should be used to his new bulk, and he shouldn’t swing late on every other pitch like he did last year. Plate discipline is still a major issue though. In each of his three full seasons, Francoeur has struck out more than 110 times but forced more than 40 walks only once.
Francoeur’s arm is a cannon—he’s averaged 15 assists in each of his four seasons in the majors, easily the most on the team. His fielding is very good for the most part, but sometimes he bears down too hard trying to throw out a runner attempting to score and airmails the throw to the plate, which allows the runner to score easily.
Gregor Blanco (once again, nothing new to talk about).
Brandon Jones (nothing new to talk about regarding him, either).
Click here for Pt. 2, which will talk about the Braves' pitching situation.