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Braves Watch 2008: Alex's Pick

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This is the second in our series of articles about Braves we think will be a pleasant surprise in 2008. My pick is a seemingly counterintuitive one: Omar Infante. Counterintuitive, of course, because practically the first thing he did in a Braves uniform was break his hand. He's expected to be healed around the end of the month, and to start the season on the DL while rehabbing in the minors -- essentially getting his own spring training on the farm -- and then coming up a few weeks into the season. He's not going to be on the bench to start the year, and the guy who gets his spot, maybe Brent Lillibridge or Martin Prado, won't be eager to give it up. And I don't mean to say anything against those guys. They may be great for us. However, since the organizational desire for Lillibridge appears to be to let him continue to get his licks in at AAA so that he can possibly win a starting job somewhere down the line, and Prado can't play shortstop, I'm writing this piece with the assumption that the all-purpose infield utilityman for most of the year will be Omar Infante, taking the place of The Dreaded Chris Woodward. Omar Infante's career path is a bit like that of Wilson Betemit. Extremely highly regarded as an extremely young shortstop, he was brought up before he was ready, and he eventually established himself as an adequate utility player rather than as a star regular. Part of the reason he'll be a pleasant surprise is that he's an adequate player, providing acceptable defense at a number of different positions and mediocre offense, with a career OPS+ of 81. The bigger reason is that he's not Chris Woodward, who excreted a 39 OPS+ in 136 horrifying at-bats for the Braves last year. Infante's been around forever, so it's hard to remember sometimes that he's still only 26. He doesn't have a ton of power, though he hit 16 homers in 2004 at the age of 22. He basically doesn't walk -- his minor league OBP is .328, and his major league OBP is .298. But he's tremendously versatile, as he appeared at 6 positions as well as DH last year. (Everything but 1B, C, and P.) He's not really a great shortstop, but he doesn't kill you in the field or at the plate, which is exactly what Woodward did last year. How bad was Woodward last year? He had the second-lowest OPS of anyone in the league with that many at-bats. He was outhit by Julio Franco, who retired during the season, and by Kyle Davies and Tim Hudson. By more than 10 points of OPS+, in each case. The difference between Omar Infante's 2007 and Chris Woodward's 2007, in terms of OPS+, is greater than the difference in 2007 between Albert Pujols and Matt Diaz. There is almost no way to understate the boost that we will get from getting a modestly mediocre player to replace a catastrophically terrible one. Plus, he's entering his offensive prime, for what it's worth. He'll be 26 all year, celebrating his 27th birthday the day after Christmas. He's relatively cheap -- he'll make $1.4 million this season, while Woody made $850,000 last year. (Tanyon Sturtze, who never pitched an inning, made another $750,000, so Infante's actually cheaper than the two of them.) He might break out, or he might hit .270/.300/.380, as he generally tends to do. Batting 8th, playing a few innings a week, that's perfectly fine. His floor is so much higher than Woodward that his ceiling almost doesn't matter. But considering what he did when he was 22, he might even be good. That's an ideal utility infielder. (By the way, I'm going to be on this internet radio sports talk show, talking about the Braves, at 8:30 PM eastern time, tonight, Friday the 14th. Please come check me out.) UPDATE: The show went very well; thanks to all the listeners. For those who didn't hear it, but want to listen to a Braves fan (me) telling a Mets fan (Matt Cerrone of MetsBlog.com) exactly where his team can stick it, you should definitely check it out. Here it is.

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