Last month, Chop-n-Change began its look back at the last decade of Braves baseball by looking at the ten worst Braves of the 2000s. Now, we'll turn to a more positive note and explore the best of the Braves in the last ten seasons, with two All-Decade teams. We're going to go all-out and name full 25-man rosters for both teams, so we'll get a chance to remember some of the more obscure players as well as the obvious franchise legends. It's been a fun exercise picking 50 players, and there were definitely some tough decisions. We'll have a ten-part series introducing the First and Second All-Decade Teams. We'll start out with the guys who stood in the shadows of the stars by introducing the corner infielders and corner outfielders from the Second Team:
First Base: Adam LaRoche (2004-06, 2009), .281/.346/.512 with 77 HR, 253 RBI and 0 SB in 457 games.
LaRoche was the Braves' 29th round draft pick in 2000, and after he hit .290/.370/.487 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2003 and the Braves suffered through 111 starts worth of Robert Fick at first base, 24-year-old Roachy got a shot at the every day first base job in 2004. The job was his to keep after he posted an .821 OPS that year, though he seemed to take a step back in 2005 (.775 OPS) and the first half of 2006 (.805 OPS in the first half) before he caught fire and hit 1.042 after the All-Star Break, increasing his trade value to an all-time high.
Facing his first shot at arbitration, and with the Braves in dire need of bullpen help, John Schuerholz dealt LaRoche and minor-leaguer Jamie Romak to the Pirates for closer Mike Gonzalez and shortstop prospect Brent Lillibridge. The rest of his story is recent history; after two and a half years in Pittsburgh, he was traded to the Red Sox and then again to the Braves for Casey Kotchman at the trade deadline last season. His torrid stretch run (.915 second-half OPS, actually lower than in 2006) helped propel the Braves to one of baseball's best second half records but not to the playoffs. At this point in his career, he's seen as a second-half player, which is probably why he's still an unsigned free agent.
LaRoche is an easy choice for second-best. The Braves used eight different regular first basemen during the 2000s: Kotchman, LaRoche, Fick, Mark Teixeira, Scott Thorman, Julio Franco, Rico Brogna and Andres Galarraga. Only two first basemen really distinguished themselves at all, and LaRoche was one of them. You can probably guess the other.
Third Base: Vinny Castilla (2002-03), .254/.289/.405 with 34 HR, 137 RBI and 5 SB in 297 games.
The Braves, in search of offense going into the 2002 season, decided to ink third baseman Vinny Castilla to a two-year pact worth $8 million, moving Chipper Jones out to left field. Vinny was an old Braves farmhand whom the Rockies took in the 1993 expansion draft, and he went on to hit 40 homers 3 straight years in the thin Colorado air, while becoming one of the best defensive third sackers in the league. After he left Atlanta, he went back to Colorado and hit 35 homers in 2004, at the age of 36 -- or precisely one more homer than he'd hit in TWO years in Atlanta, during which he had an OPS of .694 and a combined UZR of 0.5. Meanwhile, Chipper was never happy about the position switch, and his persistent leg problems date back to the move -- since moving back to the hot corner in 2004, he has only had one season with as many as 140 games played.
Still, Castilla was a very easy choice here, because he was the only choice. He was one of only two players with a significant number of third base starts during the decade. (You might be able to guess the other. I'll save the suspense for our First Team announcements.)
Left Field: Ryan Langerhans (2002-03, 2005-07), .243/.337/.379 with 15 HR, 71 RBI and 1 SB in 296 games.
This may be a controversial pick, but just wait till you see the next one -- the Braves sure had some awful corner outfielders this decade. Anyway, we had some commenters suggesting that Langerhans ought to have been one of our ten worst Braves of the decade. There's an argument to be made there, for sure... that offensive line looks more like a backup shortstop than a left fielder. But consider the other choices for this spot: Garret Anderson, Gregor Blanco, Matt Diaz, Kelly Johnson, Charles Thomas, Chipper Jones, B.J. Surhoff, and Reggie Sanders. Johnson and Jones don't really count; they both spent far more time playing other positions. By process of elimination, then...
This just shows the worthlessness of Atlanta's left fielders for the past ten years -- which is why it's not encouraging that the 2010 Braves still don't appear to have a solution in left. Don't be fooled by the 2002-03 stint, as he had just one plate appearance in '02 and 15 in '03. He was then part of the Baby Braves team of 2005 playing left field and posting a respectable .774 OPS while playing very good defense (+22.4 UZR per 150 games) in the outfield pasture. He declined to a .721 OPS in 2006, then had sixteen strikeouts to just three hits in his first 52 PAs in 2007 before getting traded to Oakland for cash considerations.
Langerhans gets the nod here because while he was nothing special on offense, neither were any other of the Braves left fielders of the decade, and he at least stuck around to play 296 games and contribute truly excellent glovework while he was at it.
[editor's note from Alex: I disagree with Tom. I think Diaz has been far more valuable. They were both essentially part-time players -- Langerhans's career year in 2005 came during a season when Kelly Johnson took the lion's share of the starts in left field. But Diaz has been MUCH more effective with the stick, more than enough to compensate for Langerhans' superior defense.]
[further editor's note from Alex: I am, of course, an idiot.]
Right Field: Jeff Francoeur (2005-09), .266/.308/.424 with 78 HR, 357 RBI and 14 SB in 631 games.
Let the flamewar begin. Francoeur is personally one of my least favorite Braves, and he put up some truly putrid seasons before getting swapped to the Mets for Ryan Church last July. But he did hit a slightly respectable .280/.319/.463 from his 2005 call-up through the end of 2007, hitting 62 homers and driving in 253 runs in those two-and-a-half seasons. That's an OPS+ of exactly 100, which is league-average. And while he was doing that, he showed solid range in right field and we all know about the cannon he had mounted on his right shoulder.
He backslid a whole hell of a lot after that, with a 72 OPS+ in 2008 and a 68 OPS+ before being dealt in '09. His defense worsened too. It's easy to forget the three decent (or at least promising) seasons that preceded the colossal downfall of 2008, and we also have to be careful to remove the "unrealized expectations" filter (since he was expected to be a star).
However, even as I write this, I go back and forth on this choice. Brian Jordan certainly can't leapfrog Frenchy (if you doubt me, just take a look at his .634 OPS in 352 PA in 2005 and 2006). But should I have gone with J.D. Drew's one spectacular year over Frenchy's three decent and two awful? I'm ambivalent, but I'll stick with Frenchy: he was a good defender in the aggregate, and as much as I hate to go with quantity over quality, I can't ignore 78 homers and 357 RBI.
Debate is encouraged here: as I say, this certainly isn't the perfect list. Who else do you think is deserving of some All-Decade honors?
Stay tuned for part two...