During the 2010 season, the Braves bench was one of the best in the league. For the first half of the season, the three-headed platoon of Melky Cabrera, Matt Diaz, and Eric Hinske kept the team around league average in left field while giving the team some good at bats off the bench, while Omar Infante was a supersub all around the diamond, Brooks Conrad delivered clutch hit after clutch hit and didn't need to worry about playing defense at all, and David Ross became the best backup catcher in the league. But then, players started getting hurt. Chipper Jones blew out his knee, and Omar Infante began to play every day. He was replaced by Diory Hernandez, who is a defensive replacement at best. Troy Glaus' knees broke down and he became a bench player after the acquistion of Derrek Lee, and was useless in the field. Hinske's bat cooled and he fell out of the left field platoon, losing his spot to Cabrera. Nate McLouth was banished to Gwinnett during his struggles, and Rick Ankiel took over in center and performed just as bad as McLouth did. Then the final piece of the puzzle fell apart, as Martin Prado got hurt during the final week of the season and Conrad was forced to play every day, exposing him as a player who is all bat and no glove. The only members of that initial bench in the playoffs were Hinske, who was strictly a pinch hitter at that point for some reason, and Ross. Cabrera and Diaz were equally splitting time in left, while Infante and Conrad were both starting.
Looking at 2011, there will be some changes. Cabrera was ran out of town on a rail after his horrible performance in 2010. Ankiel's option was declined, and center field will probably return to Nate McLouth's grasp. Glaus and his bum knees won't return, and neither will the effective Lee, with Freddie Freeman taking over at first base. With Joe Mather being brought in, Diaz's time as the Braves' resident lefty killer may be coming to a close with the arbitration raise on the horizon for him. I'd love to see Hinske get brought back, but there may not be room on this team for him, as an outfielder who can't field well at all. But he would make for an excellent big bat off the bench, which the team desperately needs.
Infante and Ross will both be around in 2011, and will be counted on to do what they've done their entire Braves careers. That is, being fantastic members of the bench. Infante is a great bench player. The problem is, he got 500 plate appearances last season. He becomes less of a useful player if he's getting used that much, because it means that an adequate hitter like him is sucking up at bats from more productive players, such as Jones or Prado. I realize the team didn't have much of a choice last season, and that Infante rode out a hot August to numb the loss of Chipper, but man was he bad in September...really hurt the team, but again: there was no other option.
In my mind, there is going to be a competition in the outfield between Mather and Diaz. Mather is more flexible, with the ability to play all 4 corners and possibly center. Diaz on the other hand, has a more pronouced platoon split and is a valuable pinch hit option off the bench. But if the Braves are looking for an every day left fielder, and not someone to platoon with Diaz for what seems like the 10th straight year, then there is no need to have Diaz waste away on the bench for his multimillion dollar salary in such a limited role. Braves fans love Matt Diaz, and we love that we got him from the Royals for next to nothing. But Diaz has outlived his usefulness as a Brave, as much as it pains me to say it. Right now, the team needs a big slugger in left field...not someone to play platoon games with. The third slot will go to Mather.
That leaves 2 spots on the bench. There are 3 men currently on the 40-man roster that could fill those two spots: Conrad, Hernandez, and Jordan Schafer. Lets cross Schafer off the list right away, because after a pair of lost seasons, he needs to completely work his baseball game to see if he's got a future in this sport. His wrist has been an issue the last two years, and he needs to get it 100% healthy before the Braves worry about working him into the major league lineup.
That leaves us with Conrad and Hernandez. Hernandez is essentially worthless. He has no bat whatsoever, and is strictly a defensive replacement. He does have the advantage of being able to play second, short and third, and unlike Conrad, he can actually play them rather competently. The Braves have a guy like Hernandez on the roster already though, and his name is Omar Infante. Infante can play the same positions, as well as the outfield, and actually knows how to swing the stick a little bit. And then there's Conrad. He's absolutely terrible defensively, as Braves, Phillies, and Giants fans alike can tell you after his performance over the final 7 games of the 2010 season. But Conrad had some of the biggest hits for the Braves in 2010. The walkoff grand slam against the Reds, the go ahead grand slam against the Marlins, the suicide squeeze in Minnesota...those are HUGE hits. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Conrad should immediately get a slot because he's Mr Clutch or something silly like that. He was effective in his role on the bench before the final week of September. That's all he ever will be. This argument in my mind comes down to glove vs bat. What do you like more: the ability to take Chipper out in the 9th inning of a close game in order to possibly prevent a ball from going down the line, or the ability to bring up a guy who has the ability to slam a ball out of the ballpark? I'll take the hitter. Conrad gets slot number 4 over Hernandez.
And that leaves us with the 5th and final slot on the bench. This is where the Braves can play around a little bit. You've got the necessary backup catcher, you've got a pair of guys who can play multiple positions on the infield and outfield, and you've got a pinch hitter with a big bat...where do you go? You can go with a veteran bat off the bench like the team last year with Hinske, you can go with the defensive whiz like Hernandez, you can go with a jack of all trades outfielder...lots of options here. The easiest option is to just bring Hinske back. He's familiar with the organization, he's a great pinch hitter, he can play first base and left field if you're really in a pinch...just a really great bench bat. But maybe there are better options out there. If you're just looking for a big slugger, defense be damned, Jason Giambi may be the best bet. He's still got something left in his bat, has fantastic patience, and wouldn't kill the team spelling Freeman at first base one day a week. But Giambi is a little limited. He can only play first. He's probably a DH at this point in his career, despite being a Rockie after his mammoth Yankees contract expired. Looking at backup outfielders, there really aren't a lot of great names on the market. Andruw Jones? Austin Kearns? Neither is very exciting or an every day player at this point in their careers, but they would be fine in limited duty as bench players. Both are fine defensively, though not as good as they once were earlier in their careers. Jones still has something left in his tank, but Kearns looked shot after the trade from Cleveland to New York.
If you're dead set on signing a free agent to fill that final slot, I'd lean towards Hinske, with Giambi as an intriguing little option and Jones as the sentimental favorite looking to recapture his former glory. What would you guys wanna do with the Braves bench in 2011?