For all the positives — both short- and long-term — that can be derived from the Braves’ celebrated acquisition of Justin Upton last week, there is one consequence to ponder when looking at Atlanta’s updated depth chart:
What will become of third base?
Last month, my colleague Zach Dillard penned an excellent Burning Questions regarding the state of the Braves at third base — as the franchise moves on from the Chipper Jones era. That column was heavily invested in Martin Prado, last year’s left fielder who seemed like a lock to occupy the hot corner in 2013.
But the Upton trade — bringing brothers Justin and B.J. together on the same team for the first time in their professional lives — changed everything. Prado, who recently agreed to a four-year extension with his new club, now belongs to the Diamondbacks. And the Braves are headed into spring training with essentially two low-key options at third base — Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco.
Here are three Burning Questions involving Atlanta’s new normal at third base:
1. Do Johnson and Francisco have the stuff to flourish as everyday starters, or does a platoon system make more sense?
Johnson (15 HR, 76 RBI, .281 batting) incurred production bumps (on a per-game basis) with hits, runs, homers, RBI and batting average last year, while playing for the Astros and Diamondbacks. But it’s also worth noting his numbers significantly improved after being dealt to Arizona (July 29).
Yes, Chase Field is a hitter-friendly stadium (No. 8 in the Ballpark Power Index), and yes, Johnson had better protection in the D-backs’ lineup (post-trade), compared with his Astros compatriots.
Still, that short left-field porch at Minute Maid Park should have elicited more power for Johnson, who belted only one homer per 48 at-bats in his last two seasons with Houston (719 total at-bats).
For 2010-12, spanning 337 games, Johnson also racked up 320 strikeouts, indicating a 95 percent possibility of striking out — at least once on a given day — during that three-year period.
Regarding Francisco, he posted five straight stellar seasons for the Reds’ affiliate teams from 2007-11 (before being dealt to Atlanta), routinely rolling for 20 homers, 25 doubles, 90 RBI and a batting average around .280. Within that rationale, he should have been a strong candidate to play third base for Cincinnati — and yet, he was shipped before the 2012 campaign.
Verdict: I’m leaning toward the platoon aspect of this dynamic, allowing Francisco more time to develop in a less pressurized role.
2. What’s the upside (or downside) of the Johnson/Francisco arrangement?
For fantasy seamheads, RotoChamp.com, a formidable projections site, has Francisco (tabbed as the primary starter) and Johnson combining for 34 homers, 127 RBI, six steals and an on-base percentage around .305 — which is actually quite low for such ambitious HR/RBI tallies.
Noted sabermetrician Bill James, the godfather of advanced baseball metrics, has Johnson (13 HR/63 RBI) and Francisco earmarked for 25 total homers and 104 RBI.
And Rotowire.com, a prominent fantasy site, invokes a more conservative tone with the pairing — projecting Francisco (13 homers, 40 RBI) and Johnson (the primary starter) for 27 dingers and 109 RBI.
Regardless of which site proves more accurate by season’s end, here’s something to embrace: Of the five National League playoff teams last year (includng the Braves), the primary/secondary third basemen accounted for 116 homers and 402 RBI … with per-club averages of 23.2 homers and 80.4 RBI.
3. Does platooning at third base work for elite teams?
This time last year, the Athletics seemingly had Grand Canyon-sized holes at shortstop, first base, starting pitching and most egregiously, third base (Josh Donaldson/Eric Sogard). And yet, that team somehow produced 94 wins and usurped the Rangers and Angels for the American League West title.
Regarding the wild-card Orioles, the club squeezed serviceable production out of Wilson Betemit for the first few months, before teen sensation Manny Machado (seven homers in 51 games) punched a permanent ticket to the majors (although he’ll likely play shortstop down the road).
The same holds true for the world champion Giants, who scrambled to fill Pablo Sandoval’s entrenched slot (when healthy) at third base for 61 games — through a combination of Joaquin Arias (39 starts), Marco Scutaro (15), Conor Gillaspie (five) and Emmanuel Burriss (two).
So, it’s not like the Braves are doomed for a season of 83 wins if they can’t maximize the usage of Johnson and Francisco. They certainly have the know-how and/or resources to eventually turn the hot corner into a position of strength — if the platoon falls flat.
As possible trade chips, Atlanta has a surplus of pitching and outfield depth. Promising 3B prospects Joey Terdoslavich (20 homers in 2011; .315 batting average in 2012) and Edward Salcedo (17 homers, 23 steals last year in A-ball) could experience the majors sometime in the next 15 months.
And if the club wanted to think outside the box, it could convert 26-year-old slugger Evan Gattis to a new frontier (third base).
Before the Justin Upton deal, the Braves apparently fancied the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Gattis as an outfield prospect (a status he occupied in winter ball) — and not the National League version of Orioles catcher Matt Wieters (size-wise).
But now that J-Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward are locked into the three outfield spots, what about transitioning Gattis to a corner-infield post?
Gattis crunched 40 total homers for 2011/12, and his three-year hitting line of .308/.374/.546 portends a strong bat at the major league level. Someday.
Here’s where things get tricky: Most healthy 26-year-olds with admirable tools are wreaking havoc in the big leagues, not riding buses to Montgomery, Mobile, Chattanooga and Huntsville during the summer months … meaning that Gattis may have an upcoming expiration date on his status as a first-rate prospect and/or significant trade chip.