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As noted in BP 2006, Atlanta first basemen had a sub-par aggregate line of .262/.327/.456 last year, to go along with 27 home runs and 59 walks against 120 strikeouts; this was well below the 2005 National League positional average of .280/.361/.482. First base was the fourth position on the diamond at which the Braves had a below NL average OPS last season, the others being both left and right field, and catcher. Those latter three spots were all burdened with the inferior play of veterans who have since been dismissed to areas where they can cause the Braves no additional harm:

  • Catcher Johnny Estrada and his 670 OPS in 383 PA was shipped off to Arizona.
  • Left fielder Brian Jordan and his 633 in 251 PA was given only a minor league contract and non-roster invite to camp this spring (where he has been left to fight for an uncertain bench spot).
  • Right fielder Raul Mondesi and his 630 in 155 PA was cut free to graze the Buffalo Commons for the remainder of his days.

Being rid of those blights on the team’s 2005 production allows the Young Turks to fully take control: Brian McCann behind the plate, Jeff Francoeur in right, and Ryan Langerhans/Kelly Johnson in left. Thus, by simply putting the choice products of their system in full-time spots, the Braves will likely receive average-or-better production from those three positions next year.

That same encouraging trend does not hold true at the last of the four inferior positions, first base. Incumbent Adam LaRoche is back for another tour. While being 26 years old means he’s still relatively young, and consequently cheap (he’s still a year away from hitting arbitration), LaRoche hasn’t shown himself to be that much of an offensive asset. He hit .259/.320/.455 last year in 502 PA, a worse line than his platoon mate Julio Franco last season, who was also 21 years his elder. Against RHPs, he hit .268/.330/.474, closer to the average, but still below NL average.

That said, LaRoche’s rate stats are hampered by what he’s done when he isn’t getting 89% of his hacks against righthanded pitching. Therein, of course, lies the problem–in LaRoche’s two big league seasons he has had a total of 68 at-bats against lefties, with just five extra base hits and a 637 OPS. Such a small sample size might well be setting off statistical alarms for the reader as a possible indication that LaRoche has been Hee Seop Choi‘d, or prematurely pigeonholed by preconceived platoon parameters. Looking at the minor league data, however, one finds that LaRoche’s weakness has indeed been correctly identified by twin sages GM John Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox (exact OBP was not calculated due to incomplete L/R data):

LaRoche versus Lefties, 2001-2003

435 .264 .395 10 32 91 0.35

Those numbers were compiled at Myrtle Beach (High-A, Carolina League), Greenville (Double-A, Southern League) and Richmond (Triple-A, International League). Compare them with his overall minor league numbers, which include his 2000 season at Danville of the rookie Appalachian League (and complete OBP data):

1589 .287 .357 .447 48 162 340 0.48

LaRoche hasn’t had much opportunity to bat against his fellow southpaws, but it is still clear the Braves would suffer in 2006 should they decide to employ him in a full-time role. With Franco and his still-quick bat gone to Queens, the key question is who Atlanta will employ as LaRoche’s caddy this year. The player who has stepped up so far in camp has been J.J. Jurries, a 27-year-old 1B/3B who, long after being taken in the 6th round of the 2002 draft out of Tulane, had a breakout season of sorts at Richmond last year, hitting .284/.357/.537 with 21 home runs. Jurries began the spring 9-18 with two homers and 11 RBI; from among the Braves’ viable in-house options–which include undisciplined young slugger Scott Thorman and the well-toasted Jordan–he appears the best candidate:

2003-2005 Minor League Splits

Split      AB  AVG  SLG HR BB SO  BB/K
vs. Right 914 .265 .452 37 83 251 0.33
vs. Left  304 .329 .612 18 43  75 0.57

These numbers were put up in Greenville and Richmond. Jurries has clearly mauled lefties in his somewhat limited minor league exposure, and could do a fine job spelling LaRoche this year while providing Atlanta with a potent source of power off the bench.

Another interesting option at the first base timeshare for Atlanta would be Matt Diaz. A journeyman 28-year-old minor league outfielder, Diaz was inexplicably DFA’d by the Royals following two straight seasons in Triple-A where he slugged a combined .597 with 113 extra base hits in 762 at-bats, prompting the Braves to pick him up for a minor league pitcher in December. Diaz has played all of one game at first base in his seven-year pro career, however, a fact that has led the Braves to play the former Florida State star solely in the outfield thus far. Still, a spare right-handed bat in the outfield could come in handy. With both Jurries and Diaz in the fold, the Braves look to have addressed both their first base platoon and their bench, in both cases by freeing minor leaguers from a Calvin Pickering-esque career.

Caleb Peiffer

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Operation: Shutdown Redux: Spring usually whets our thirst for baseball, but this year, spring training has been a time for people to walk away from the game. Over in the Cactus League, onetime phenom Zack Greinke has walked away from the Royals. The club has no comment, other than to say that Greinke’s gone for “personal reasons” and that those reasons are not drug-related. In Fort Myers, Florida, it took John Flaherty only about a week of Grapefruit League action to decide he wanted to hang up his shinguards and walk away from the backup catcher scrum against Ken Huckaby and ex-Indian Josh Bard. And in Jupiter, Florida, Pokey Reese and Jeff Allison are missing in action, whereabouts unknown to the public.

Reese’s decision to enter into an undeclared Operation: Shutdown was mysterious, since he was coming to Florida practically guaranteed him a Major League job with the Marlins. As we discussed last time, Reese’s competition at second tends toward the unproven and inexperienced. Nonetheless, Reese went AWOL last week, only eventually sending word, through his agent, that he was “safe.” After hearing nothing further from the veteran gloveman, the club decided to cut ties with Reese, releasing him from his contract.

Sadly, Allison’s disappearance is not as surprising. Marlins officials have been tight-lipped about Allison’s status, originally refusing to say whether he’d been disciplined or left camp voluntarily, then issuing a one-sentence statement which revealed that the former first-round pick was suspended from the team, for an unspecified time and over an unspecified violation of “team policy.”

Unlike Greinke, however, nobody’s gone out of their way to rule out drug use as the reason for Allison’s absence. More’s the pity, given Allison’s well-documented struggles with everything from marijuana to oxycontin and heroin. Allison has lost development time to rehab and a near-fatal overdose, so when he disappears, you don’t simply fear for his career, you fear for his safety.

Those who like to poke their finger in the mostly-mythical gap between scouts and stats often cite an appreciation of a player’s “makeup” as the difference between the two. Makeup, they say, doesn’t show up in the box score. Those same people frequently deride Moneyball while forgetting that the book’s second chapter is focused on the process of winnowing out those folks who are labeled too smart, too dumb, too lazy, or simply too prone to “rob a bank,” for anyone to take a chance on drafting them.

There’s not much debate from either side, scouts or statsheads, that some individuals and some personalities are incompatible with success in professional baseball, regardless of the physical tools or baseball skills that they bring to the table. While we all hope that Allison will someday be able to rise above the demons that have haunted his youth, you have to think that every day some folks in the Marlins’ organization wish they’d simply put a Milo on him.

Everything Counts (in Large Amounts): Some might be surprised to find those Marlins who bothered to show up for work at the top of the Grapefruit League standings, with a record of 7-1-1 at press time. The effort was capped with a 22-run performance against Los Nationales…er, the Washington Nationals earlier this week.

With the Marlins scoring over seven runs per spring training game so far, and allowing the lowest earned run average as well, there’s some temptation to think… or should we say imagine… or perhaps the proper word is hope…

Let’s put it another way: if you’re on this website, you probably have a pretty good idea about sample sizes. We’re not here to insult you. We also derive no pleasure in bursting your bubble. We’re just issuing the standard disclaimer for this time of year, this time with an additional caveat. In case you forgot that nine games is too small a sample to base any decisions on, or that this is spring training, where the emphasis is on players getting in shape over playing to win, just make sure to remember that the Marlins–and every other team playing in Grapefruit or Cactus League action–is playing against a different pool of players than they would usually be facing. Over a hundred players have been skimmed off of the top of these spring training rosters to participate in the World Baseball Classic, compounding the chaos that governs spring training performance. Spring training stats, typically worth very little, are presently worth even less.

Hopefully, the powers-that-be at the various teams will see this period for what it is: an opportunity to get a longer look at some prospects and suspects who otherwise would have ridden the pine while more established players would normally be playing themselves into shape. This year more than any other, it will be valuable for the decision-makers to discount spring performance, and look more at their charges’ overall track records.

Derek Jacques

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