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The departure of Andruw Jones to Los Angeles left the Braves front office in an unfamiliar situation; they were searching for a center fielder. First-year GM Frank Wren addressed the issue with two fairly minor deals this off-season, bringing in Josh Anderson from Houston and Mark Kotsay from Oakland. The latter of the two will in all likelihood be receiving the majority of the at-bats in center field next season before Atlanta's number one prospect, Jordan Schafer, presumably takes the reigns in 2009.
Despite never playing a game in a Braves uniform, Kotsay has caused a rift among Braves fans. There is a group that seems to be the minority, who believe he'll be a solid regular next year, however most fans that I've heard from don't seem to believe too much in his ability as a player. I think the cause for this is that a lot of fans, many of whom just didn't like the trade, are zooming in on his '07 numbers alone without taking into account his health status. Kotsay has suffered through chronic back problems in recent years, culminating in arthroscopic back surgery before the 2007 season. The surgery was a success and his recovery was going smoothly, however he was rushed back onto the field. Kotsay hadn't been able to rehab from the surgery and hadn't strengthened his back enough, leading to horrible numbers, and eventually another trip to the DL to end his season. The 32-year old is reportedly at 100% heading into this season, however there is still a good chance we could see his back acting up at some point this year.
No one is going to call Kotsay terrific at the plate but for the role he is going to be asked to step into, he should be just fine. The bulk of Kotsay's at-bats should be coming out the eight spot in the batting oder this season with a possibility of him slotting into the second spot sometimes. Out of that eight spot, all the Braves will be looking for is someone solid. Kotsay should be able to provide that as he's shown the ability to hit for a decent average, get on base at a reasonable clip, and hit for some power. Nothing is going to be mind-boggling but if healthy, Kotsay should be far from the offensive black hole that Jones was last year. Kotsay owns a career line of .282/.337/.415, which goes right back to him being perfect for what the Braves are looking for. If we take out his '03 and '07 numbers, two opposite ends of the spectrum, his OPS seems to generally stay in the .720-.740 range, which seems to be a reasonable estimate of what he'll do in 2008..
Watching anyone roam center field now that Andruw is gone is going to be lackluster, however this may be the strongest part of Kotsay's game. After the trade, the one thing that the A's fans I talked to all hit on was his defense. His range isn't exceptional, however it is his instincts that make him such a valuable defender at a premium position. What I heard more than anything is that he is moving towards the ball at the crack of the bat, a compliment commonly paid to Andruw Jones. Along with that is a good arm and a very steady glove. It is yet to be seen what his range is going to be like after his surgery and now that he is fully recovered. If he can come anywhere near his pre-2007 defense, mediocre offensive production would be much easier to stomach.
You can have your own opinions about whether or not the Kotsay deal was a good move for Frank Wren, but regardless, Kotsay adds depth and at least a good chance of stability to the Braves' center field plans this season. He is exactly what the doctor ordered with good defense and a solid bat for the back of the batting order. Kotsay is a wonderful clubhouse guy from all accounts and plays the game a similar in a very similar manner to Jordan Schafer, who all signs point to as his successor. Schafer's path to the big leagues is looking to be a relatively quick one so I like what Kotsay adds to the team in his ability to impart knowledge on Schafer and sort of mentor him along during the spring and possibly if the prospect gets a cup of coffee in the majors. Bill James has Kotsay at .275/.339/.396 next season with six home runs in 331 at bats. I'm going to go a with a little more optimistic view in both production and playing time. I think he'll be seeing around 500 at-bats next year with a line of around .275/.350/.415 with 13 home runs. The only reason I see for this high an OPS is that he's going to see a lot more walks batting eighth in the National League. Basically, I think he'll be solid but not spectacular and I'm perfectly fine with that.