Fourth in an occasional series of analyses of the Braves' 2009 campaign, with an eye toward 2010. The first was on the end to our season, the second was about the pitching staff, and the third was about the overhauled second half lineup.
The first-half Braves had a lot of weak spots in the lineup -- they wound up jettisoning half of them, as I covered last time -- but they certainly had a stellar bench. Dave Ross led the way: he had the second-highest OPS among all catchers in baseball with at least 100 plate appearances. Let that sink in for a minute. Dave Ross was second only to Joe Mauer in all of baseball.
(That wasn't out of character -- it was almost identical to his 2003 rookie campaign. Since 2002, only 15 catchers have at least 1450 plate appearances and an OPS above .750, and only 12 are still active. Mauer leads the list, followed by Jorge Posada and Brian McCann. Dave Ross is, you guessed it, 10th in all of baseball. Is he the tenth-best hitting catcher in baseball? You be the judge.)
Of course, his benchmates Matt Diaz and Martin Prado hit so well that they won starting jobs. Omar Infante continued his supersub brilliance, playing every position but first base and catcher, and putting up a .750 OPS for the second year in a row. After coming over from the Mets, Ryan Church had a .749 OPS in part-time outfield duty, which is (needless to say) higher than Jeff Francoeur's career OPS. Their collective performance was so good, it was almost enough to overshadow Greg Norton's career-endingly awful 2009 campaign. Norton pinch hit a league-leading 89 times, 10 more times than anyone else. He got hit by a pitch once, hit two doubles, got nine singles, and collected 20 walks as a pinch hitter. His season was a lesson in the limits of OBP: he had a .360 OBP as a pinch hitter, but still managed to be a major drag on the offense, because he literally couldn't do anything offensively other than walk.
Our bench got a lot thinner once Diaz and Prado got promoted, though Ryan Church and Kelly Johnson proved capable backups after having been starting players for years. However, third- and fourth-stringers Diory Hernandez, Brooks Conrad, Gregor Blanco, Reid Gorecki, and Barbaro Canizares showed little reason that they should be anywhere in the team's future plans. (Canizares's OPS was .429, Gorecki's OPS was .422, and Hernandez's was .410; meanwhile, Javy Vazquez had a .432 OPS, and Derek Lowe led the staff with a .498 OPS.)
Brandon Jones will be 26 in December, and it's still not completely clear why he stayed on the farm while Gorecki and Norton struggled to touch the Mendoza line. But he wasn't tearing it up on the farm, either, and hasn't had an OPS above .800 in AAA since 2007. Maybe he's getting disappointed because he's been in AAA for two and a half years, but he's not been giving the team a lot of reasons to believe in him.
The bench is usually the last part of the team to come together, and it should be. It would be awfully nice if the Braves could pick up Jason Bay or Matt Holliday -- and if Jordan Schafer gets healthy, starts raking again, and forces his way back into the majors -- and if they do then the bench will be enriched by whomever they push aside. No matter what, at least they'll still have Dave Ross.