With the loss of Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves were left with a major vacancy in their lineup—one they may not fully compensate for this winter alone. Replacing a future Hall-of-Famer, after all, is a difficult task. Gone too, presumably, is fleet-footed leadoff man Michael Bourn.
Newly acquired slugger BJ Upton figures to take Chipper’s place somewhere in the middle of the Braves’ lineup. In inking Upton to a 5-year contract, Braves’ General Manager Frank Wren closed the deal with their top free agent target fairly quickly, filling the right-handed power hitter role. The hole atop the batting order, however, remains.
If the Braves are able to score a capable leadoff hitter, it will make life easier on Braves’ Manager Fredi Gonzalez, but that quest is proving difficult. Wren and Co. do, however, have a plethora of ways to sort out their lineup for the 2012 campaign.
Given Martin Prado’s ability to play a multitude of positions, we’ll likely see him slide over to third base and take Chipper’s spot on the field. This would give the Braves the opportunity to go after someone to play in left: a position that is much easier to fill than 3B.
The Braves could patch up the empty LF position from within, which would be the simplest and most cost-efficient way to go about this. If Wren chooses to go with players already in the system, we’ll probably see some sort of a platoon like we did when Matt Diaz and Eric Hinske manned LF during the 2011 season. This wasn’t overly effective, however—at least not compared to .
In a platoon, we could see Jose Constanza and Reed Johnson splitting time, as each bat from a different side of the plate. Prospect Evan Gattis is another possibility, and could see time in the big leagues this year regardless of what the starting lineup shapes up to be. Now 26 years old and no longer a kid by baseball standards, Gattis and his powerful swing could be ready to make the jump to Turner Field, and perhaps become a valuable player for the Braves off the bench. He currently has 13 home runs in the Winter League and is turning some heads.
Of course, all this left field talk could be moot if Juan Francisco can step up and improve enough to take over at 3B (which would keep Prado in left), but that’s unlikely to happen. Francisco hit for a .234 average last season in 192 at-bats. While the former Cincinnati Red may be able to contribute more in 2012, he can hardly be counted on to earn a starting role.
Ideally, given the choices from within, the Braves will bring in a new starter from the outside. With the winter meetings done with, Frank Wren may have missed his best opportunity to land a new LF; however, that doesn’t mean his search is done.
There are plenty of feasible options to choose from—both via free agency and the trade market.
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One player who could be had via trade is Emilio Bonifacio. While he was part of the blockbuster deal that sent most of Miami’s foundation to Toronto, the Blue Jays may be looking to free up some space in their budget after acquiring R.A. Dickey.
Bonifacio hit just .258 but had a .330 on-base percentage in an injury-plagued 2012 season in which he played in just 64. In 2011, when he was healthy, he batted .296 and finished with a .360 OBP in 152 games. While those numbers don’t jump off the page, Bonifacio would be a significant upgrade in the lineup over the likes of Francisco and Johnson.
Another possible option for Wren would be Cody Ross, who might be on his way out of Boston. While recent reports state that Ben Cherington is trying to re-sign the 31-year-old, the Braves may be able to pry him away from the Red Sox.
Ross batted .267 last year and hit 22 home runs. Now on the back end of his career, he wouldn’t be Atlanta’s ideal choice; but he would likely be more productive than a platoon.
Someone else the Braves could go after, even if it may be a long shot, is Josh Willingham. The 33-year-old veteran is currently signed by the Twins, but the Braves might have the assets necessary to make a trade happen (if Minnesota is willing, of course).
Willingham hit 35 home runs last season with a .260 average. Throw him into Atlanta’s lineup along with Heyward, Upton, McCann, Uggla and Freeman, and we’re looking at perhaps one of the best power-hitting teams in baseball.
Other than the aforementioned players, there are other alternatives out there. The Angels’ Jason Kubel would be a perfect fit, but LA is reportedly reluctant to part with the RH slugger. Colorado’s Dexter Fowler is available for the right price, but the “right price”, as defined by the Rockies’ brass, borders on the absurd. Nick Swisher is still on the market, but has likely priced himself out of Atlanta’s plans.
If a deal can’t be struck before Spring Training, there’s always the trade deadline next summer. The Braves can get by with the playing they have now for the first two-thirds of the season; the playoffs, on the other hand, might be a different story.