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Chop-N-Change: An Atlanta Braves Blog | Page 26

Braves Acquire Dan Uggla

Written by Joe Lucia on .

Braves fans, rejoice. We've got our big right handed bat, and  his name...IS DAN UGGLA! God I've wanted to do that for awhile...anyway, the deal is done. All the damage was is Mike Dunn, who wasn't guaranteed a spot on the major league roster to begin with, and Omar Infante, who is a utilityman that got too much playing time last season and got exposed. Uggla just won the NL Silver Slugger at second base last week, and now he's going to slide perfectly into the Braves lineup. But at what position, its anyone's guess. One possibility is shifting Chipper to first, Prado to third, and Uggla to second. Where does that leave Freddie Freeman? A trade for a left fielder possibly? Another option is that this could lead to Chipper's retirement, meaning the Braves would still need a left fielder. A final option is that either Uggla or Martin Prado would shift to left field. I like Uggla's bat better at second base than in left field, but I'll take it wherever I can get it.

Today is a today for celebration...we've got the bat we've always wanted. And it took absolutely nothing to get him.

Braves Close to Acquiring Dan Uggla?

Written by Joe Lucia on .

The Braves are reportedly close to a deal for Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla. The rumored names heading to Florida? Mike Dunn and Omar Infante. Really, Marlins? A utility infielder and a LOOGY for a top 5 second baseman? That would be pretty sweet. If the trade does go through, I'd expect some form of prospect to be heading to Florida as well, because that's not nearly enough. As for where Uggla would fit into the Braves plans...left field? He's a butcher at second base. Moving Prado to the outfield would be odd, since he's been an infielder his entire career.

My eyes are gonna be on this story all night...if the deal goes through, expect another post.

(Pipe?) Dreaming of Justin Upton

Written by Paddy McMahon on .

The Arizona Diamondbacks have reportedly made young outfielder Justin Upton available for trade.

Yeah, the same Justin Upton who, entering his age-24 season, has a career line of .272/.352/.471 and has a career 6.1 UZR in right field. The same Justin Upton who was heralded as one of the best prospects in baseball; the same Justin Upton who ranked #11 on the FanGraphs trade value list (which isn't an objective measure of value, but still: he's really good); the same Justin Upton who is signed through 2015 for about a team-friendly $50MM. Need more reason to salivate? As Aaron Gleeman pointed out, in the last 50 years, these are the players who have at least 1,500 PA before age-22 with a higher OPS than Justin Upton:

Alex Rodriguez

Miguel Cabrera

Ken Griffey Jr

Tony Conigliaro

Boog Powell

Cesar Cedeno

C'est tout. He's one of the best young hitters in baseball, not just today, but on a fairly historic level. He did have a bit of a down year in 2010 (.273/.356/.442), but a monster 2009 (.300/.366/.532) should help dispel doubts about his potential going forward. And in that down year, he even managed to raise his walk rate up to over 11%, so the season was not without its positives. And keep in mind that if I sound like I'm seeking out small ways to praise a down year for a player I like, Upton in 2010 was still worth nearly a full win with his glove alone, posted a .349 wOBA, and was a 3 WAR player. As a 23-year old. So what can we expect from Upton going forward?

In 2009, Upton was worth 5.6 WAR, so I'd say his talent level probably lies somewhere between 3 and as much as 8 WAR. 8 may be shooting for the moon, but he's got the defensive talent to augment a bat that should only get better as he develops – or, as Torii Hunter puts it, as he gets his man muscles. That's a recipe for excellence by any measure, and I for one would love to see him don a Braves uniform in 2011.

What would it take to get him? Well, new Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers has said that he'd have to be "blown away" by an offer in order to ship Upton out of town. Can the Braves put together such a package and still remain competitive next season? I think it's possible. My offer would look something like this:

Braves Send: Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Mike Minor, Craig Kimbrel and Cody Johnson

Braves Receive: Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds.

Frankly, I don't trust young arms all that much, which is mostly why I included four of them in the trade. That may seem excessive, but even after sending away Teheran, Delgado, Minor and Kimbrel, the system still has Arodys Vizcaino and Brandon Beachy and Cory Rasmus and Cole Rohrbough and you get the idea.

Teheran is the organization's top prospect and one of the best pitching prospects in the minors, drawing immense praise from scouts and fans alike (this post is a good example; the title of the page, after all, is The Inescapable Brilliance of Julio Teheran). Teheran strikes out over a batter an inning while walking about 2 per 9, which are pretty much both benchmarks of excellence in their respective categories. In 2010, he was even better, posting a 2.59 ERA while playing at three different levels – low-A, A+, and AA. Oh, and he was 19 last year. It's really hard to part with talent like that, but, hey, you gotta give somethin' to get somethin'.

Delgado, who's entering his age-21 season after moving up to AA as a 20-year old, has a 3.45 ERA in basically 400 career IP. In that time, he's struck out a shade under 10 batters per 9, while walking just over 3. Those are, of course, outstanding numbers, as is the 3.04 K:BB ratio. He limits hits (7.8 per 9) and homers (0.6), and appears to be a consistent force in the rotations where he's been playing.

As for Minor, his inclusion in this trade is dependent on Kevin Towers' ability to look past ERA when judging a pitcher. Minor's velocity ticked up last season, which propelled him to excellent FIP and xFIP marks of 3.77 and 3.86, both of which belie his 5.77 ERA. That inflated ERA is probably a function of a BABIP that clocked in just a shade under .400; if Minor's velo increase is for real*, this guy is an MLB-ready starter whose downside is the middle of the rotation.

*I don't think it is.

As for Craig Kimbrel, he fills an immense void for the Diamondbacks: shutdown reliever. The Arizona 'pen. As detailed by Jack Moore, the Diamondbacks relievers combined for a 5.74 ERA that was over a full run worse than the next-worst team, and their -8.37 WPA is almost three wins lower than the next-worst team in over a decade.

Enter Kimbrel, who struck out nearly 2 batters per inning, which is utterly dominant. However, he also walked nearly seven per 9 innings. He still managed a K:BB ratio over 2 because of the strikeout rate, and his FIP was a sparkling 1.53, but I'd love the chance to trade away a reliever – even a potentially top-flight one like Kimbrel – to a needy team for a good prospect. The inclusion of Kimbrel is also my way of hedging my bets in re Towers' appreciation of ERA; Kimbrel's was 0.77.

As for Cody Johnson, the dude's got mammoth power and not much else. He's averaged 20 HR/PA in the minors, but his .243/.320/.476 line may not inspire all that much confidence. However, he is entering his age-22 season, and he spent most of the past year at AA, where he was a bit young for the league. He's going to strike out an enormous amount, but his raw power (and a bit of speed – double digit SBs in each of the past three seasons) smack of the throw-in guy from Arizona: Mark Reynolds.

The Diamondbacks' willingness to trade Justin Upton suggests a desire to rebuild and dump salary. The $13MM owed Mark Reynolds over the next two seasons ($5MM, $7.5MM, $500K buyout of an $11MM option in 2013) is going to be tough to get off the books with the season he just posted (.198/.320/.433) last season, but I suspect that he'll bounce back with a BABIP regression up from .257. My plan is for Reynolds to man the bench and come in as a late-innings pinch hitter until Chipper hits the DL, at which point he should be more than adequate as a fill-in guy. Plus, that would allow the Braves flexibility to either trade Omar Infante (whom I don't trust to repeat his 2010, and whose value is at its highest right now) or keep him on the bench as insurance against a Martin Prado injury.

As for Upton, who's the real prize here, you'd have a bit of an issue with both him and Jason Heyward playing right field. However, since both are so gifted defensively, you could slide either over to center field, platooning Nate McLouth and Matt Diaz in left. The defense wouldn't be great, but given that center and left were problem spots last year anyway, it's not like you're losing out on a whole lot. And since the Braves need a bat like Upton's so, so badly in a woeful lineup, that's the kind of sacrifice you have to make.


Now, I should point out that I added Delgado after writing up the Diamondbacks' side, because I didn't want to be one of those homer fans who proposes stupidly one-sided deals of some prospect for an elite hitter. It's entirely possible that it wouldn't take all four of those pitchers to get Upton, and I hope that is indeed the case. All I'm saying is that Upton seems like the safest bet among the free agent hitters (Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth both being, in all likelihood, prohibitively expensive) and that the Braves should do everything they can to go get him. Whether it takes two elite pitching prospects and two guys who've proven themselves in the majors (plus Cody Johnson) to get that done or not, Upton being available could be a gift from the heavens (desert) and a crucial part of the 2011 season.

Still taken aback by the sticker shock? Picture the lineup, man...

2B Martin Prado

RF Jason Heyward

3B Chipper Jones

CF Justin Upton

C Brian McCann

LF Nate McLouth/Matt Diaz

1B Freddie Freeman

SS Alex Gonzalez

It's not elite, but that 1-5 is miles better than what the team was running out there towards the end of the season. If McLouth rebounds from an abnormally lucky season and Freeman can be a solid contributor (something like .275, 20 HR), then the Braves look like serious contenders in the East.

Heyward is ROY Runner-up

Written by Joe Lucia on .

Some disappointing news on your Monday, as Braves rookie right fielder Jason Heyward finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year race, behind Buster Posey of the World Champion San Francisco Giants. Heyward started the year ridiculously strong, winning the NL Rookie of the Month award in both April and May, but a wrist injury slowed him in the middle months of the season, and by the time he got back on track, the Posey freight train had already started churning, and the ridiculous hype behind him put Jason's hype to shame. Heyward's numbers were comparable to Posey's in more playing time, as Heyward posted one of the highest OBPs in all of the league (let alone among rookies), while Posey couldn't even get enough plate appearances to qualify for the bating title. Heyward's struggles down the stretch probably played a small role in things, but its not worth getting bent out of shape over. For what its worth, Heyward appeared on 31 of the 32 ballots, with the only ballot leaving him off belonging to Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a writer I normally enjoy reading. Kovacevic's ballot went Posey-Neil Walker-Jose Tabata, which is laughable in its homerness. Just gives me another reason to hate the miserable city of Pittsburgh. Also worth noting is that Braves reliever Jonny Venters received one third place vote to finish in a tie for 8th in the final voting. Congratulations to Jason and Jonny on a pair of fantastic seasons! Full voting totals are below.

Player 1st 2nd 3rd Pts
Buster Posey, SF 20 9 2 129
Jason Heyward, ATL 9 20 2 107
Jaime Garcia, STL 1 1 16 24
Gaby Sanchez, FLA 2 1 5 18
Neil Walker, PIT
Starlin Castro, CHC

3 3
Ike Davis, NYM

2 2
Jose Tabata, PIT

1 1
Jonny Venters, ATL

1 1

AFL Update - 11/14/10

Written by Joe Lucia on .

Before we all dive into another Sunday of the NFL (well, I won't be: my Ravens played on Thursday), how about we take a look at how the Braves prospects are doing out in Arizona? We're down to 4 players in Arizona, out of the 8 or 9 that have spent time out there. Those 4 are pitchers Cory Gearrin and Benino Pruneda, outfielder Cory Harrilchak, and middle infielder Tyler Pastornicky. Out of those 4, Harrilchak is getting the most play, starting nearly every day. He continues to hit, going 7/19 this past week with 5 runs scored, a pair of doubles, 4 RBI, 5 walks, and 4 strikeouts. For the season, he's hitting .347/.447/.542 with 14 runs, 7 extra base hits, and 12 walks to go with 16 strikeouts. The strikeouts went down this past week while the walks increased, which is a good sign. Harrilchak's fall is making people take notice, and he's working his way up my prospect list a little more.

Tyler Pastornicky didn't get a lot of playing time this week, likely due to his struggling bat and the desire to get other players in the lineup a little bit. In 2 games, he went 2/7 with 3 runs, an RBI, a walk, and a stolen base. Pretty interesting that he scored all 3 times he got on base on the week. I'm not going to put a lot of faith in Pastornicky's bad fall. He's playing with his third club of the year, and at the age of 20, he's probably really tired at this point. Look for him to make more of an impact in 2011.

Cory Gearrin has continued his run of multiple inning performances, pitching a pair of innings twice this week. In those 4 innings, his results were spotty: 3 hits, 2 earned runs, a homer, 2 walks, and 5 strikeouts. Gearrin has done a great job at keeping the ball on the ground this fall, as per the norm with him. He's a dark horse candidate to earn a spot in the Braves 2011 bullpen, depending on who is tendered a contract and who isn't. Having Gearrin ready to go is just another reason to question the Scott Proctor signing. Thinking about that just gets me angry.

And finally, there's Benino Pruneda. He came to Arizona late in the season, and has struggled mightily. After throwing a scoreless inning in his first appearance back on October 29th, Pruneda has allowed multiple runs in each appearance since, including a horrifying 4 spot in the 1/3 of an inning he threw this week. To go with that 4 spot, he also allowed 4 hits, 2 walks, and struck out a batter. He's now logged 69 innings on the saeson, and is probably close to being gassed out. The one positive I can take of Pruneda's brief time in the AFL is that he hasn't allowed a homer, albeit in only 4 1/3 innings pitched.

The AFL season will end for the Phoenix Desert Dogs on Thursday, so there will only be one more AFL post after today. Not sure if I'm going to do it on Friday, or if I'll wait until Sunday to do a final writeup and take stock of how all the Braves prospects did. Keep your eyes out for that one.

Kawakami Outrighted to AA

Written by Joe Lucia on .

News has broken this morning that the Braves have outrighted pitcher Kenshin Kawakami to AA Mississippi. What exactly does this mean? First off,  it means that he passed through waivers without a team claming him. That is extremely depressing, because if a team claimed him, they'd be on the hook for his entire $6.67 million salary in 2011. As is, the Braves are still responsible for that salary until/unless he gets traded, and even then, the team will probably still be forced to cover some of his salary.

But there is some good news to go along with this. Kawakami is now not on the Braves 40-man roster, which makes the odds of him being invited to spring training (again, assuming he doesn't get traded) extremely low. The Braves wouldn't remove him from the 40-man only to put him back on in March. If he's still a member of the organization once the season begins, he'll probably be pitching in the minors.

What should the Braves do? The correct answer is "anything", just to get him out of the organization. Whatever offer Frank Wren can get, he needs to take. Kawakami has no place on the roster, with 6 starting pitchers already (Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, Mike Minor, and Brandon Beachy, not to mention the injured Kris Medlen). Kawakami is not suited for the bullpen, as you saw after the All-Star break this season, with Bobby Cox never using Kawakami in relief.

Its time to end this experiment. It didn't go well at all. But you live and learn, and I can't blame Frank Wren for making the move in the first place, considering the team's starting pitching situation after the 2008 season. Its amazing what 2 years can do for a franchise, right?

McCann Wins Silver Slugger

Written by Joe Lucia on .

Hot off the presses: Brian McCann won his fourth NL Silver Slugger award tonight. He's played 5 full seasons in the majors, and only didn't win in 2007, his worst season as a professional. Russell Martin won that season due in part to McCann's .270/.320/.452 line. 2010 was better than that year, but not by a whole lot....269/.375/.453. The only major difference between the two seasons is McCann's newfound mastery of the strikezone, helping him become an even more complete player. His walk total was a career high 74 this season, but his strikeouts also peaked at 98.

In an interesting aside, Braves catchers have won 6 of the 8 Silver Sluggers at catcher since Mike Piazza's reign of dominance ended in 2003. Javy Lopez won that year, and Johnny Estrada won in 2004. With McCann in the fold for the next few seasons at minimum, that streak will probably be increased a little more. Congratulations to Brian on his award!

Why is David DeJesus Not a Brave?

Written by Joe Lucia on .

The news broke yesterday evening that the Royals had traded outfielder David DeJesus to the A's for pitchers Vin Mazzaro and minor league pitcher Justin Marks. Its an awesome, Billy Beane type of trade. He's known for stuff like this, acquiring a guy as a rental and not really giving up a whole lot of anything. Mazzaro is roundly projected as a #4 or #5 starter, and Marks looks to have a future as a lefty specialist. So...why in the hell did the Royals feel the need to make this deal? It was a salary dump, pure and simple. DeJesus was scheduled to make $6 million in 2011, a bargain for a guy who has decent power, excellent plate discipline, and plays great defense. He would have been a perfect addition to the Braves lineup. So, why didn't Frank Wren make the move?

The first thing that pops into my mind is injury. DeJesus tore a ligament in his thumb last July making a catch at Yankee Stadium, and maybe the Braves weren't sold on rolling the dice on a player with a hand injury in 2011. The salary couldn't have been an issue, because of the money the team has coming off the books this offseason, plus the cost that will likely be incurred when the team finally gets an every day left fielder. Maybe the Braves brass was really set on acquiring someone with power, as opposed to someone who gets on base at a great clip. DeJesus' career high in homers is 13, but his walk rate always hovers around 8%, while striking out at around 14% of the time.

My overall guess is that the team looked at DeJesus and saw a guy who doesn't fit the mold of what everyone wants in left field. The fans and the media would kill to see a big bopper in left field for the Braves as opposed to someone who gets on base and plays solid defense. You don't need someone like a Pat Burrell in left field to win a championship (despite the Giants doing just that this month). The Yankees left fielder was Brett Gardner, who has no power at all, but plays excellent defense and gets on base at a great clip. The Rays had the best record in the American League, and their starting left fielder, Carl Crawford, stole 47 bases and won a gold glove. You don't need to have a big home run hitter in left field. The problem with the Braves is that they don't have one at first base or in right field either, so the need tends to get magnified a little more. Since the first baseman, Freddie Freeman, and the right fielder, Jason Heyward, aren't going anywhere any time soon, the need for a big slugger falls onto the vacant left field position. If the Braves added a player like Crawford, I'm sure people would still complain about it because he's not a home run hitter, despite being an absolutely fantastic player who would fill other needs for the team.

So what the hell are you getting at Joe, you ask? Didn't you just write an article last week talking about the left field slot, and all you named were big hitters? Well, yes...because that's all the free agent market has to bear. There are other names on the trade market that could be more appealing. DeJesus was a guy who wasn't going to excite the fanbase, but would absolutely positively had been a welcome addition for the team in left field. If the Braves were somehow able to piece together a blockbuster deal for Cardinals center fielder Colby Rasmus, and put him in center while shifting Nate McLouth to left, do you think people would complain, despite Rasmus not being a capital S Slugger? Of course not. There are tons of ways to improve the team and get production out of left field without necessarily adding a huge power bat. Frank Wren just needs to comb the free agent market and talk shop with his fellow GMs in order to find the one he thinks will best fit this team.

Baseball America Looks at the Future....

Written by Joe Lucia on .

I've been doing a lot of moving around of things in my room, and in the process, ran into my 2007 and 2008 Baseball America Prospect Handbooks. I love these things so much. One thing they do every year for each team is take a look at what they project will be the starting lineup 3 years ahead of time. Well, since we just concluded the 2010 season and are coming into 2011, I thought it would be fun (or a little depressing) to take a look at what they slated for the Braves in those years. Without any further ado...

2010 Projected Braves Lineup (in 2007 handbook)
C: Brian McCann
1B: Adam LaRoche
2B: Edgar Renteria
3B: Chipper Jones
SS: Elvis Andrus
LF: Jarrod Saltalamacchia
CF: Andruw Jones
RF: Jeff Francoeur
SP1: Tim Hudson
SP2: Kyle Davies
SP3: Matt Harrison
SP4: Jojo Reyes
SP5: Chuck James
Closer: Rafael Soriano

So of the 14 projected starter slots, a whopping 3 of them were Braves in 2010: Hudson, Jones, and McCann. 13 of the 14 spent at least some time in the majors in 2010, wiht only James not making his way to The Show. LaRoche was traded to Pittsburgh shortly after this book went to print in the Mike Gonzalez deal, and returned to the Braves for the final 2 months of the 2009 season. Renteria would spend one more year in Atlanta before being shipped out immediately after the World Series in the deal that brought Jair Jurrjens to the Braves. Job well done, Frank Wren. Renteria started at short for the 2010 Giants in the playoffs and won the World Series MVP award, so good for you Edgar. Andrus, Saltalamacchia and Harrison were shipped to Texas at the 2008 trading deadline for Mark Teixeira in a trade that the team really had to make at that point in time...it just didn't work out well. Andrus is the Rangers starting shortstop, with plus defense and no bat. Harrison is an oft-injured long reliever. Saltalamacchia, the biggest name in the deal at the name, is now with the Red Sox as a backup catcher who just can't stay healthy. Andruw Jones walked after his 2008 season and performed terribly with the Dodgers in 2009 before catching on with the White Sox in 2010 before rebounding pretty well and getting talked about (on Chop-N-Change at least) for a possible return to Atlanta in a bench role. Jeff Francouer was banished to the Mets last July and continues to be one of the worst players in baseball. Fans talk about bringing him back, and every time I see a tweet or post suggesting it, I wish I could tase someone across the internet. Finally, we get to the pitchers...Davies was traded to the Royals at the 2007 trade deadline for Octavio Dotel, which didn't work out too well for the Braves. Davies has been adequate as a starter for the Royals, but the Braves have no room for hiim anyway. Reyes was shipped to Toronto in the Alex Gonzalez deal this July, and finished the year in AA. He got hammered his only two appearances with Atlanta in 2010, and fans and coaches never wanted to see him again. Then there's Chuck James, who the Braves released prior to the 2009 season, which he missed after shoulder surgery. He came back in 2010 with the Nationals AA club (in my hometown of Harrisburg!!) and could fit into their 2011 plans. Finally, Soriano. He was traded to Tampa Bay for the horrible Jesse Chavez during last year's offseaosn, and was the best closer in the American League. Well, that didn't work out too well.

Now, we take a look at the 2008 handbook and the 2011 projected lineup...remember, this is what Baseball America thought the Braves starting lineup would be 5 months from today. Scary when you really think about it.

2011 Projected Braves Lineup (in 2008 handbook)
C: Brian McCann
1B: Mark Teixeira
2B: Kelly Johnson
3B: Jon Gilmore
SS: Yunel Escobar
LF: Jason Heyward
CF: Jordan Schafer
RF: Jeff Francoeur
SP1: Tim Hudson
SP2: Jair Jurrjens
SP3: Cole Rohrbough
SP4: Jeff Locke
SP5: Jojo Reyes
Closer: Rafael Soriano

So looking at this team, 6 of the players are still with the Braves organization, though only 5 have played in the majors. Of the 14 men listed, 11 have played in the majors, with the exceptions being Gilmore, Rohrbough, and Locke. We already touched on McCann. Teixeira was dealt to the Angels at the 2008 trading deadline for the fantastic bounty of Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek...IE, a relief prospect and a no bat, all field first baseman. Great haul. Johnson wasn't tendered a contract last offseason and signed with the Diamondbacks, and became one of the best second basemen in the league in 2010. If only he was still a Brave. Jon Gilmore was traded during the 2008 offseason in the Javier Vazquez deal to the White Sox and spent 2010 not hitting very well in A+ ball. I was actually really pissed off that he was in the deal...oops. Escobar was traded to Toronto this past July because he had attitude issues and was hitting horribly. Heyward is the team's superstar, but is currently playing right field. Schafer was the 2009 Opening Day starter in center before breaking his wrist and dealing with issues pertaining to that wrist all of 2010 in the minors. His prospect status is unknown until that damn wrist is 100%. We already touched on the awfulness that is Jeff Francoeur, and the greatness that is Tim Hudson. Jair Jurrjens has spent the last 3 seasons in the Braves rotation, and could possibly be traded this offseason to make room for someone, though with Kris Medlen's injury, it doesn't appear too likely. He's been an above average starter when healthy. Cole Rohrbough completely lost his prospect status after a horrible start to the 2010 season, but appeared to be back on track near the end of the season after a 4 month respite in Florida. He's one to keep an eye on. Jeff Locke was traded to the Pirates in the Nate McLouth deal in June 2009, and has been fantastic for the Pirates since the deal. This one hurts a little less due to the pitching depth the Braves system has, but Locke really is a special one that could be in Pittsburgh in 2012 after spending this season in AA Altoona. And finally, we already talked about Reyes and Soriano.

This is just more of a forewarning to fans like myself who get caught up in prospect hype...there are hits, but more often than not, there are huge misses. Baseball is not a constant game. Everything is very static, and things can change in an instant.

Analyzing the Bench

Written by Joe Lucia on .

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?

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