Asking for anything more from the guy who broke the major league record for homeruns just seems greedy. A mediocre April was followed with one of the more sublimely amazing two month stretches ever by a major league catcher, a time when pretty much every pitch Lopez swung at ended up in Turner Field's left field bleachers. Lopez never cooled down, his worst month after April being a .333/.412/.613 August. Lopez was decent behind the plate, and to negate his offense Javy's defense would have to be as bad as Bill Bergen's bat. One of the best seasons ever by a catcher, Javy's 2003 presents the Braves with a conundrum they never expected to have: Do they re-sign Lopez this off-season?
And he made $1.3 million this season. Blanco managed to be as bad as Javy Lopez was good, and that's quite a feat. He found new and exciting ways to embarrass himself in almost every conceivable offensive situation. Blanco also managed to find his way into 3 games as a pinch-hitter, begging the question "Where was Mike Hampton at the time?" His vaunted throwing arm wasn't at all impressive, and he appeared lazy at blocking wild pitches at times. He opted for free agency recently after being outrighted to AAA Richmond, and unless Chuck LaMar starts to worry about his lack of really awful moves in recent months, it's hard to see Blanco catching on anywhere.
.306/.359/.306 in 36 at-bats:
Hit .328/.393/.494 in 354 at-bats for Richmond, which is swell, and bodes well for the future, but can't factor into the grade. Limited action in Atlanta doesn't allow for an informed grade at this time.
Sometimes, good ideas just don't work out. It doesn't mean the idea wasn't a sound one, or that it shouldn't be tried again. It just means that in this instance, things didn't break the right way. Picking up Fick for $1 million after the Tigers non-tendered him was an excellent thought, and hoping that his second-half tumble for Detroit in 2002 was a result of a shoulder injury wasn't at all dumb. But he was hideous against lefties, mediocre against righties, and just plain ugly on defense. He tried his damndest every time he took the field, and that's very charming, but eventually you have to produce, and Fick didn't. His bizarre chop on Eric Karros' arm at first base in Game 4 of the LDS was almost certainly the desperate move of a struggling ball player trying to get on track. Instead, his unprofessional conduct probably guaranteed his exit from the Braves. A .269/.335/.418 corner infielder with no defensive skills or real tactical value won't be missed.
That was just nifty, wasn't it? If you can't fall in love with a 45 year old with a wacky batting stance who hits nearly .300, you don't have a heart. Franco continued to be a flawed player, struggling mightily against righties, and not hitting for quite as much power as one would like. But he got better as the year went on, smacked lefties with aplomb, and really shined defensively. Furthermore, with a lefty hitting, defensively challenged starter, Julio provided Bobby Cox with a lot of tactical value. An inspiring story, Julio might well come back to the Braves next year to platoon with young lefty Adam LaRoche.
Well that carriage turned back into a large orange vegetable fairly quickly, didn't it? His August and September numbers were laughably bad, and the Braves should consider themselves blessed that they got the type of freak season out of Franco in 2002 that they did. Franco's only had two seasons where he's been any good, and while his plate discipline used to make him a mildly valuable tool off the bench, that disappeared this year. He has no defensive value, all of which adds up to a longshot Sprin Training NRI at best.
.286/.423/.667 in 21 at-bats:
Some power, no plate discipline, the ability to play multiple positions without embarrassing himself. Might have a future as a sort of endgame Hail Mary off the bench, but no more.
Well, he didn't have a higher OPS than his brother. That's something to be ashamed of, unless your brother is the current incarnation of Brian Giles. Other than that, Marcus had a pretty much flawless season. Power, patience, batting average, and perhaps most improbably, excellent defense. (He led all NL second basemen in Zone Rating and Range Factor.) Marcus has often been the target of skepticism because he's barely taller than the short end of the stick scouts have tried to give him. Without a doubt the best overall second baseman in the National League in 2003, Giles should have finally eliminated every last doubter. His minor league numbers should have told us he would hit like this, but too many ignored those statistics. Fantasy players who took Jeff Kent or Luis Castillo might have learned their lesson.
Mark DeRosa is an excellent utility player, maybe the best in the league. He has a solid line-drive swing, can play 3 positions competently, and has some pop when hitting against a lefty. But the idea that he was ever Giles' equal was frankly ridiculous, and that fact should have been obvious. DeRosa doesn't have the power or plate discipline to be a solid starter on a championship team. He doesn't have much room for improvement, and while he'll likely be better next year, the Penn grad's numbers are pretty much right where they should be.
Furcal is probably the hardest Brave to evaluate and project. On the one hand, a.793 OPS out of your shortstop is pretty darn good. Furcal stole 25 bases and only got caught twice, which is really quite exceptional. A 20 point bump in batting average and a small increase in his walk rate pushed Furcal's OBP to acceptable areas. And yet he's maddeningly inconsistent in the field, making some amazing plays while finishing dead last among NL shortstops in fielding percentage and more importantly, Zone Rating. A .352 OBP out of your leadoff hitter is far from ideal, and is still down about 40 points from where it was in 2000. Furcal was certainly an above-average player in 2003, and that's all that matters in the grading, but he presents John Schuerholtz with a real conundrum this off-season. Furcal's due for a big raise in arbitration, more than he's worth almost certainly, and the Braves don't have much money to spend. And yet, Atlanta's internal options at shortstop are weak, basically consisting of some combination of DeRosa, Jesse Garcia, and Wilson Betemit.
.400/.400/.600 in 10 at-bats:
A speedy, slick fielding middle infielder with little power, no plate discipline, and little room for offensive growth. Might be a decent option as the last man off the bench on a team with excellent hitters everywhere else, but that's a stretch.
After 2002, that line almost looks good. Castilla achieved what was pretty much his absolute ceiling in 2003, hitting more bad fastballs and hanging curves into the seats than last year. Still swung at everything, still managed to look decent at third base despite a serious lack of range. A plus starter at a premium position, Castilla didn't hurt the Braves. Bringing him back next year is still a horrible idea, and bringing him back at anything more than $1 million would be an abomination. Count your blessings that the 2 year contract he received in the winter of 2001 wasn't too awful and move on.
Chipper Jones, LF
Ho-hum. His numbers are down for the third straight year, and Chipper's getting a little older, but the Braves will take this every time. If Chipper wants to hit .300/.400/.500 for the next 3 years, it's just fine with me. Power, plate discipline, and batting average. There are a lot of exceptional left fielders in the NL these days, but Chipper is still helping the Braves. Has some adventures in left field, but never really embarrasses himself, and he doesn't kill the team defensively.
Andruw Jones, CF
Having lots of talent kind of sucks, doesn't it? When sheer brilliance is expected, mere excellence is a disappointment. A solid defensive center fielder with an .851 OPS is an eminently valuable commodity. Considering the dearth of solid center fielders these days, Jones really does shine. And yet because he has such obvious physical talent, and because we all got it in our heads that Jones should be hitting .300/.400/.550 every year while playing amazing defense, .277/.338/.513 has become some sort of disappointment. Look, Jones really should lose some weight this offseason. And yes, he's frustrating as any player in the league. But evaluating Andruw Jones strictly by what Andruw Jones does on the field, it's hard to argue that he's not done the Braves a world of good these past several years.
Gary Sheffield, RF
I said in May that I was in awe of Gary Sheffield. I still am. Too many people have focused on his awful postseason and used that to tear down his performance this year. But he finished a 10th straight year with an OBP over .400, and he continues to swing a jaw-droppingly fast bat. The Braves simply would not be the same team without Sheffield's presence in the lineup, and they're facing that very possibility in 2004. He has a very balanced skill-set, combining power, plate discipline, and batting average with surprising speed and a great throwing arm. Sheffield is an amazing hitter, one of the most unique in the game today. If one is inclined to ignore that because of 2 bad post-seasons, that is their right. But for the rest of us, Sheffield is one of the more awe-inspiring players in the game today, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Darren Bragg, OF
A nearly comical lack of power this year, but an excellent second-half made Bragg somewhat useful off the Braves bench. Bragg has solid speed and is a pretty good defender, and he'll take a lot of pitches. He likely won't be back next year, and that's probably wise, but as a 4th outfielder, he's done a decent job with Atlanta.
Ryan Langerhans, OF
.267/.267.267 in 15 at-bats:
Nothing special as a prospect, Langerhans is still the best upper-level outfielder in the Braves system, which says more about the Braves system than about Langerhans. Flashed decent strike zone judgment at two minor league levels, and hit for some power at AAA Richmond. Can play all 3 outfield positions decently. Projects as a solid 4th outfielder.
Part II, Pitchers, coming soon. Same Bat Time, same Bat Channel!