How can Braves ease transition at third?

Preparation for the replacement of Chipper Jones began long before he hugged his parents at Turner Field or other teams offered tribute in the form of surfboards and stadium flags.

By announcing his impending retirement before the season, Jones, a stalwart on Atlanta’s roster since the mid-1990s, prevented the storyline from hovering over the team last season and permitted the organization to begin surveying its options at third base. Looking around, though, there are not many changes around the hot corner. With its lack of big offseason addition (barring the B.J. Upton signing, which addressed the center field opening), Atlanta will look to utility stud Martin Prado, who has seemingly played every position in his seven-season career, to primarily fill the considerable void.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the transition resides in Chipper’s offensive production, which last season reached its most efficient mark since 2008. Despite a slight drop in his power numbers, Jones posted a .377 on-base percentage while walking more (12.7 percent of his at-bats) and striking out less (11.4 percent) than any other National League third baseman.

And yes, his offensive marks largely fell below his career averages — one does not spur talk of being a first-ballot Hall of Famer for nothing — but Jones was still one of the better third basemen in the league even at 40 years old. So shifting a strong outfielder to his position does not guarantee a replication of overall team production.

As for the pressure of replacing a team legend, Prado might be the best fit for the job.

A fan favorite whose #MVPrado social media campaign garnered a following in Braves country in 2012, it’s unlikely those associated with the franchise will turn their backs on the 29-year-old for not, you know, being Chipper Jones. He’s already earned his keep in Atlanta, and should be looking down the barrel of a deserved contract extension in the recent future. The Braves might still make a move for a third baseman before or during the season, but for now it appears Prado is the best fit on the current 40-man roster.

And, on subject of replacing a legend, here are some key questions Prado and the Braves are facing at the hot corner this season:

1. Will different production result in better production?

Contrary to popular opinion, the Braves were not too anemic offensively in 2012. Atlanta finished 17th in runs scored and finished in the top half of the league in on-base percentage. (Of course, hitting with runners in scoring position is another story entirely.)

But the loss of Jones, who still commanded a great deal of respect in the middle of the lineup, and center fielder Michael Bourn will test the fortitude of the lineup all-around. At this point, Atlanta pretty much knows what Prado brings to the table — a low-strikeout contact hitter (.295 career average) who offers decent home run power but draws walks in a frustratingly low percentage of his at-bats. So it will likely rely on the likes of Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Upton and the possibility of a bounce-back season from Dan Uggla to pick up the run-producing slack.

At the very least, what the Braves lost in Jones’ power will likely be replaced by Upton (51 home runs over the past two seasons). Prado’s likely backup, Juan Francisco, provides a bit more power and was a steady fielder last season, but his high-strikeout, low-walk ratio will relegate him toward the back of the lineup when he gets playing time.

Instead, Prado will likely fill in at or near the top of the lineup.

Never the fastest guy, Prado will need to focus on getting on-base at a higher percentage in 2013. That means drawing more walks and putting the hitters behind him in favorable spots, much like Bourn was able to do for much of last season.

Expecting Prado to “replace” Chipper Jones is far-fetched — they are different players with different skill sets — but if Prado can continue producing at a high level, which is not overly far-fetched given his age, the Braves offense should be in similar or better shape this season.

2. Will Prado’s defense translate to third base over an entire season?

Masked by his trademark bare-handed fielding of ground balls followed by accurate throws to first, Chipper Jones was not an elite fielder at the third base position throughout his career. In fact, since the 2009 season, his fielding had regressed to the point that he cost the Braves 21.6 runs more than an average fielder would have, according to his ultimate zone rating per 150 defensive games (UZR/150).

Prado, on the other hand, performed at an elite defensive level in left field last season, the third leg of an outfield triumvirate that saw all three players (Prado, Bourn and Heyward) finish among baseball’s top 10 outfielders in UZR/150. Needless to say, it was an elite unit. Prado himself, according to FanGraphs, saved the Braves more than 10 runs in 2012.

But now he’s moving back to the infield where, have no fear Braves fans, he has plenty of experience to lean on.

Prado has played every infield position besides catcher in his career, and besides second base — where his defensive numbers are skewed dramatically thanks to his poor-fielding early years with the team — he has performed at a high level at each in recent seasons. At third base in particular, where he has played more than 1,200 innings, he’s prevented an average of 4.1 runs per 150 games with gradually improving yearly splits:

2006: -62.9
2007: 0.6
2008: 4.5
2009: 18.3
2010: -7.8
2011: 5.7
2012: 14.6

If those numbers hold true, Prado should prove to be a better fielder than Jones next season, and, alongside shortstop Andrelton Simmons, could form one of baseball’s best lefthand-side of the infield units.

3. Will the Braves extend Prado?

Martin Prado is due to be a free agent after the 2013 season, placing him among a good portion of the Braves’ core due for a raise in the next year or so.

Prado is also in his final year of the arbitration process this season, and has more than proved himself as a valuable commodity over his past seven seasons or so in Atlanta. He joins key players like Heyward, Freeman, pitcher Kris Medlen and closer Craig Kimbrel due more money, but could be the first to cash in, perhaps as early as spring training depending on the status of contract negotiations.

The speculated price range for Prado’s arbitration varies — roughly $7.7 million to $11 million in 2013, barring an overriding contract extension — but at 29, with strong seasons likely still ahead of him, the club is expected to eventually make a move with the financial flexibility left behind by Jones’ retirement and the refusal to sign Bourn this offseason.