Here’s what we know, with a ninety percent or more degree of certainty, about next year’s infield:
1. Marcus Giles will play second base.
2. Chipper Jones will play somewhere.
That’s about it. Everything else is at most a probability.
At first base, the second season of the LaRoche/Franco platoon was a disappointment. Much of this was because of a deep, Andruw-esque slump which LaRoche went into during August. LaRoche’s final .259/.320/.455 line marked a slight decline from his 2004 numbers, though that’s almost all batting average and his walk and power numbers were pretty much the same. At any event, he didn’t make the jump forward that you want to see in a player’s second year. Meanwhile, Julio Franco had pretty much the same year he’s had every year since coming to Atlanta, but faded badly down the stretch. At 47, you can’t count on him bouncing back.
The central problem isn’t that LaRoche and Julio are bad players. They may not be. The problem is that they’re not good players, or at least not the sort of players who push you towards a championship. You can live with them as #6 or #7 hitters, as they were in 2004. But if they’re hitting fifth — or even cleanup, as they did much of the time before Andruw’s bust out — they’re not helping the team win. You need a third bellweather slugger to team with the Joneses. Where’s the easiest place to put such a player? First base.
Next year, we could see the status quo remain in place, with LaRoche given one more year to prove himself and Julio one more year to do what he does. Or Julio could go elsewhere and LaRoche take over every day, or team with a different righthander, maybe someone from the minors like James Jurries. Or the Braves could import another lefty (a prodigal Ryan Klesko?) with Julio as his caddy. Or Chipper could move across the diamond. Or Andy Marte could. Or they could even move McCann out from behind the plate, though I don’t expect that to happen until they have to make a decision on him versus Saltalamacchia.
If Chipper stays at third base, you really have to start wondering about Andy Marte’s situation. Marte doesn’t have anything left to prove in the minors. He didn’t start off too great in the majors, but a lot of that was just bad luck. He’s going to hit. But the left field experiment last year didn’t last long at all. He’s fairly quick in the infield, but I doubt that the Braves would try him at shortstop. So it’s either third base or first base. Chipper isn’t going anywhere further than first; given the choice, I’d prefer Marte to LaRoche, no question about it.
At shortstop, the Braves probably won’t be able to re-sign Furcal. He’s going to be able to double his salary in free agency, and I just don’t see them matching that. Nor do I see him giving much of a hometown discount. If he’s gone, Wilson Betemit would seem like the heir apparent, but they don’t like his defense. The AAA shortstop, Tony Peña Jr., can’t hit. The AA shortstop, Luis Hernandez, is even worse. Pete Orr has played some shortstop in the past, but doesn’t have a shortstop arm. If the Braves aren’t going to go with Betemit, they’re probably going to have some awful player — either Peña or a veteran import of the Neifi class — at short.