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As Braves fans, weve certainly been fortunate to see an impressive influx of youth in recent years. From Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann of the 2005 Baby Braves to the contributions made by Yunel Escobar and a number of other youngsters this past season, the Braves have consistently pumped out homegrown talent to meet the needs of Bobby Coxs lineup and pitching staff. With all this talent coming in, the Braves front office has shown quite the willingness to lock up some of the young stars with long-term deals. Former GM and current Team President John Schuerholz inked All-Star catcher Brian McCann to a six-year $26.8 million deal during spring training a year ago and Jeff Francoeur is expected to do the same in the near future with first-year GM Frank Wren at the helm.
These multi-year pacts for the young, team-controlled players have benefits for both sides. The player gets financial security, the team has a chance to save some money over the life of the deal, and both parties get to skip an arbitration process that can become a messy situation; something weve seen recently with Ryan Howard and the Phillies. The bottom line is that for a talented young player, a deal that buys out the arbitration years and possibly a couple years of free agency can save a lot of frustration and uncertainty.
Assuming Francoeur does sign a long-term deal, there is one other logical choice for a similar multi-year deal: secondbaseman Kelly Johnson. The converted outfielder proved to be an elite offensive force at a position that is pretty devoid of talent not only within this organization, but in baseball as a whole. Just to give a taste of the dearth of good, young secondbaseman, there is only one consensus top 100 prospect at the position (Matt Antonelli). To make a long story short, good all-around secondbaseman are scarce in baseball and pretty non-existent within the Atlanta farm system.
The 26-year old Johnson found success as Atlantas leadoff man in 2007, posting a .372 OBP out of the first spot in the order and early indications from Bobby Cox are that hell spend the majority of the 08 season in one of the first two spots of the order. The Texas-native displayed power, speed, and patience that is uncommon from a secondbaseman and despite early questions about his glove, showed that hes more than capable in the field. Johnson put up a line of .276/.375/.457 last season after learning to play secondbase during the off-season. His .831 OPS ranked fifth in baseball among qualified secondbaseman, only 43 points below the second-highest on the list (Jeff Kent). Hes a poor mans Chase Utley and a rare commodity the Braves would be foolish not to lock up.
Texas secondbaseman Ian Kinsler signed a five-year $22 million deal this off-season. His offensive production was somewhat comparable to Johnsons this past year. Kinsler hit .263/.355/.441. While his power and on base skills were slightly worse, he struck out less and was more of a threat on the basepath. I think the contract he got from the Rangers would be a good starting point for a Johnson deal. There havent been any rumors of long-term contract talks but just like with Brian McCann, it makes too much sense to lock him up for a number of years. The Braves have another very good player at a weak position and hopefully Frank Wren can keep him in Atlanta for a long time.