Atlanta Braves Positional Review/Preview: Middle Infield
Over the coming days, I will write a short review about the performance the Braves received from different positions, as well as what to expect from the team in the future.
Up third, the middle infielders.
Starters: Kelly Johnson (2B) and Yunel Escobar (SS)
Kelly produced a .287/.349/.446 line while playing in 150 games. He continued to improve after hitting .276 in 2007. Johnson came on late at the end of the year, hitting .398 in September and increasing his possible trade value. Although he has 20 power upside, he hit only 12 HRs this year, which is down from 16 in 2007. He also managed to steal 11 bases, which was a career high. Escobar, who played so well near the end of 2007 that it prompted the Braves to trade Edgar Renteria, played in only 136 games but still came in third on the team in ABs. Although all his ratios dipped from his 2007 campaign, Escobar proved that he can be a solid everyday player by hitting .288 over the course of the season. Escobar also finished with a flurry, although he didn't play the entire month of September. He was a bit of a disappointment on the base-paths, as he stole only 2 bases while getting caught 5 times. Although Escobar doesn't have tremendous power or speed, he should continue to develop and provide the Braves with solid SS play.
Omar Infante, Martin Prado, Brent Lillibridge and Rueben Gotay all saw some time at the middle infield positions this past season. Prado was the biggest surprise (which was discussed in the first base review/preview) as he managed to hit .320 in 228 ABs. Infante also played extremely well in a super utility role by hitting .293 in over 300 ABs. Goaty managed to hit only .235, and Lillibride struggled to a .200 BA (although he is known more for his defense).
Both Catcher and First Base are pretty well situated for the 2009 season, but there has been a lot of speculation about the middle infield. Currently, Escobar and Johnson look like they will man second and short for another year, but both names have been flying in trade rumors. With the emergence of Martin Prado, the Braves are in a similar situation to last year when Escobar seemingly forced the club into giving him more playing time. With Frank Wren deciding that certain prospects are untouchable, Escobar and Johnson both are more likely to be moved, with Prado then filling in for whoever is traded.
Although so far there have been nothing but rumors, I see the Braves trading either Johnson or Escobar. I see Johnson as the one to go, because Prado is more suited to play second base on a long term basis. This would give the Braves one less left-handed bat, but with Chipper, McCann and Kotchman there should still be plenty of balance in the lineup. If Wren truly does want to fill at least one of the clubs three main needs (two starting pitchers and a power hitting outfielder) via trade, a middle infielder will likely be on the move.
In the minors, the Braves have Brandon Hicks (SS) and Travis Jones (2B) who both played in Myrtle Beach last year. Both have a solid power upside for a middle infielder, but had low averages due to large strikeout totals. Brent Lillibridge is also still young, although his 2008 season was a big step back from 2007. In 2007 he hit .282 between AA and AAA, but hit only .220 in AAA in 2008 (as well as .200 in the Majors). He is the best base stealing threat among middle infielders, but won't be given too much of a chance unless his hitting improves. Lillibridge will likely spend time in AAA as well as Atlanta again in 2009.
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