There were some very uninspiring choices for the Braves All-2000s Second Team at the corner positions, but the Braves have had considerably more success filling their up-the-middle positions over the last decade.
Catcher: Javy Lopez (2000-03), .282/.336/.500 with 95 HR, 316 RBI and 1 SB in 500 games.
Lopez is certainly one of the Braves all-time legends, and he'd undoubtedly be a first-teamer on the Braves All-1990s squad. Still, his stardom carried over enough into the 2000s to merit a second team slot for that decade as well. In May 1998, Javy signed a three-year, $19.75 million extension that kept him in Atlanta through 2001. He experienced serious decline as the decade began, seeing his OPS drop from .908 in an injury-plagued 1999 season to .822 in 2000 (his age-29 season) to just .747 in 2001. That's still a solid couple of years for any other catcher, but not up to his 1990s performance. Still, the Braves believed in him enough to re-up with him after the '01 campaign.
Lopez agreed to take a pay cut after his poor performance, inking a $6 million pact for 2002 that included a $7 million player option for 2003. Lopez hit bottom in '02, posting just a .299 OBP and a .670 OPS as he battled injuries and played just 109 games. After the poor showing, he exercised his player option for 2003, and proceeded to have the best year of his career. He hit .328/.378/.687 and bashed 49 homers in just 495 plate appearances, appearing in 129 games. He made his third All-Star team, won the Silver Slugger, and finished fifth in MVP voting. Unsurprisingly, that kind of season priced Lopez out of the Braves' range the following winter, and he signed with the Orioles for three years and $22.5 million (following Greg Maddux and Gary Sheffield on the way out of Atlanta).
Not too difficult to choose Lopez in this spot; Johnny Estrada had a good year in Atlanta in 2004, but followed that up with a stinker after he got hurt in a collision at home plate.
Second base, shortstop, and center field are all below the jump...
Second Base: Kelly Johnson (2005, 2007-09), .264/.346/.430 with 45 HR, 206 RBI and 29 SB in 490 games.
Johnson was the Braves' first round pick in the 2000 draft, and he debuted as a left fielder during the Baby Braves campaign of 2005. He shook off an infamous 1-for-30 start to his big-league career to post a respectable .731 OPS in 87 games in his age-23 rookie season. He missed 2006 to have Tommy John surgery, and returned to a Braves team in 2007 that was without a second baseman after Marcus Giles was non-tendered.
Just as Giles had done, he worked hard all winter with Glenn Hubbard learning to play second base; though he came through the minors as a shortstop, he'd never played second base as a professional. Hubbard was the right man for the job, an old defensive whiz at second who came back to serve as the first base coach. Kelly's hard work paid off, as he won the starting job out of camp and had a banner year at the plate, with an .831 OPS. KJ saw a slight decline in 2008, but his .795 OPS was still solid for a second baseman. The job seemed his for years -- and it would have seemed unthinkable that he'd sink to the Chop-n-Change Second Team. But then the bottom fell out.
Despite his work with Hubbard, he was still average-to-below average with the glove. In previous years he'd had enough of a bat to make the matter moot. But then he started 2009 in a staggering slump. He went 50 for his first 228, a .658 OPS, as Bobby Cox and Frank Wren found themselves unable to resist calls to replace him. Martin Prado, who had hit .320 as a rookie while starting games at first, second, and third, was finally given the job on June 25, which left Johnson as an arbitration-eligible pinch hitter. Over the summer, it became increasingly clear that there wasn't a starting spot left for him on the diamond.
Finally, in December, after nine and a half years with the Braves, he was non-tendered like his predecessor Giles. He's since signed a one-year pact with Arizona worth just north of $2 million. Don't be surprised to see him rebound into 2007-08 form in the desert. He was a pretty easy selection here; early-decade 2Bs Keith Lockhart and Quilvio Veras never did anything especially memorable in Braves' uniforms.
Shortstop: Yunel Escobar (2007-09), .301/.375/.426 with 29 HR, 164 RBI and 12 SB in 371 games.
Here's another one we don't have to look back too far to remember. After injuries sidelined Edgar Renteria in 2007, Escobar shined, finishing sixth in Rookie of the Year voting, and he wound up with Renteria's job after Edgar was traded to Detroit following the 2007 season. He lost some of his power in 2008 (SLG dropped from .451 to .401), but got stronger and rebounded in 2009 to win MVP votes and place 20th in the balloting.
He's always had a strong defensive reputation; though UZR doesn't get quite so excited, finding him merely average for the position; even so, average defensive shortstops who can hit like Escobar are few and far between. His mental lapses on the basepaths are a more serious issue: despite above-average speed, he's one of the worst baserunners in the league. He's 12 for 24 in stolen bases for his career, and because of his penchant for running into outs, according to Bill James's baserunning analysis, in 2008 and 2009 he combined to be 37 bases below league average. His overaggressiveness on the bases has been matched by a tendency toward perceived arrogance at the plate and in the field, as well as mental lapses, which have led to the occasional benching by skipper Bobby Cox.
Nonetheless, he's one of the top offensive and defensive shortstops in baseball -- no small feat, considering he plays in the same division as Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins, and Jose Reyes. If he can mature, so that he makes smarter decisions in the field and does less to antagonize the umpires and his manager, he can be even better. He should hold down the position for several more years to come. Don't be surprised if he appears as a first-teamer on the All-2010 list; hopefully the Braves can keep him in Atlanta past 2013, when he'll first be eligible for free agency.
This choice is something of a shame, because Edgar Renteria is probably the best Brave in the last decade to not appear on either of our All-Decade teams. Renty had two very good years in Atlanta and made an All-Star team -- and then brought us Jair Jurrjens -- but his 24-point OPS advantage over Escobar is erased by Esco's superior defense and 100 more games played.
Center Field: Nate McLouth (2009), .257/.354/.419 with 11 HR, 36 RBI and 12 SB in 84 games.
Well, if Edgar Renteria is a victim of positional excess, McLouth is a beneficiary of scarcity. McLouth was just acquired from the Pirates in May once the Braves stuck a (hopefully temporary) fork in Jordan Schafer, and Nate was solid if unspectacular in his half-season in Atlanta. Throw in some good glovework in center, and McLouth beats out his only competition--Mark Kotsay--for this second-team slot.
This group of players shows one of the fundamental weirdnesses of the franchise: the Braves have done a much better job staffing their middle positions than their corner ones, despite the fact that the defensive spectrum and logic would tell us that shouldn't be the case. The Braves found a talent surplus at positions where across baseball there's a relative scarcity of talent -- and then on the corners, where it should be much easier to find league-average talent, their players were so bad that Ryan Langerhans and Jeff Francoeur were the second-best corner outfielders of the decade. Why do you think that is?
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