Braves burning questions: Third base

Chris Johnson finished second in the National League with a .321 average last season and his .394 BABIP set a franchise record.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

A throw in? How about an absolute steal?

Chris Johnson ended up being exactly that, providing one of the biggest surprises of 2013 as he challenged for a National League batting title. He also surprised in another way: supplying the Braves with plenty of fire that’s in contrast to his mild-mannered off-field persona.

No longer one of the guys trying to follow Chipper Jones at third-base, Johnson came into his own in his first season in Atlanta. Now, it’s a matter of what comes next?

A career .276 hitter when he arrived with the Braves, Johnson finished behind only the Rockies’ Michael Cuddyer with a .321 average last season.

But behind a breakout that may have been fueled by opportunity as he drew a career-high 547 at-bats and for the first time made more than 101 starts at one position, Johnson had luck on his side.

Braves Burning Questions

His .394 BABIP was a franchise record and .094 than the top end of the major-league average. Any number that high is, as anyone who is into sabermetrics can attest, primed to return to the mean this season.

Or is it?

Johnson also had an astounding 27.0 line drive percentage, the eighth-highest in baseball and better than MVPs with the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen at 24.5 percent and the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera (24.0). Coupled with a low fly ball rate (27.5 percent), Johnson did as much to create his own luck as it was a byproduct of defenses. Plus, those numbers aren’t fare off from his career averages (24.9 percent line drive and 31.5 fly ball), meaning this just may be who Chris Johnson is.

Now, we may not see Johnson be in another batting crown chase, nor should we expect him to rival his own Braves record BABIP. A drop off could happen, but it’s well within reason to expect him to be in the neighborhood of .300 again.

There’s really no way to sugarcoat Johnson’s defensive numbers. His minus-6 defensive runs saved last year were 20th among all third basemen with at least 800 innings played, as was a minus-4.9 UZR/150.

The positive of it all is that those numbers are actually a little better than what we saw out of Johnson in his days at the position with the Astros and Diamondbacks (he averaged minus-10.5 DRS and minus-21.6 UZR/150 over four seasons before coming to Atlanta).

The fact remains that he’s not an elite defensive third baseman, but guess what? Neither was Chipper Jones.

The future Hall of Famer had negative DRS in two of his final four seasons and four overall and dipped into the minuses in UZR/150 in each of his last four years.

While Johnson committed 14 errors last season, Jones’ last five years were 13, 22, 10, six and 11.

Ultimately, third base hasn’t been a strong defensive spot for the Braves for most of their history, with just two Gold Glove winners: Clete Boyer in 1969 and Terry Pendleton in 1992. Only four Braves to ever play more than 400 innings at 3B ended their time in Atlanta with DRS over zero: Martin Prado (23), Omar Infante (seven), Vinny Castilla (two) and Wilson Betemit (one).

Johnson’s value comes in his offense outweighing his defense. His glove work may not be award-caliber and with arguably the best defensive shortstop in Andrelton Simmons at his side, Johnson only need cut down on situations where he tries to do too much — like a late June game vs. the Mets when he committed three errors in the ninth, including two on one play.

There really aren’t any cheap options on the free-agent market as far as adding depth at third.

Ex-Brave Betemit remains unsigned, but he pulled in $2 million last season and Placido Polanco pulled down $2.7 million in 2013 and he’s now 38 years old.

In all likelihood, Atlanta will go into the season with utility middle infielder Ramiro Pena as Johnson’s backup and Pena has more than proven reliable.

From a defensive standpoint, he’s superior to Johnson with a career six DRS in 555 1/3 innings at third, including three last year in 98 2/3. He also posted a UZR/150 of 13.3 in his first year as a Brave, which was cut short with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder that required season-ending surgery.

Ramiro Pena has a career six DRS in 555 1/3 innings at third, including three last year in 98 2/3 before undergoing season-ending surgery.

He provided some unexpected offense as well, with a career-high .278 average in 97 at-bats and bets in extra-base hits (nine) and home runs (three).

Should Dan Uggla struggle again, it’s a distinct possibility that Pena, who has played 167 innings at second base, could be an option there.

Where things get tricky is beyond Johnson and Pena — or Pena does wind up at second. After non-tendering Paul Janish and Elliot Johnson, the only other player on the 40-man roster to have ever played third base is Elmer Reyes, who 18 games at Class-A Rome in 2011.