Position Analysis: First Base

First Base without a doubt been one of the Braves' biggest trouble spots for the past few seasons. Bill Shanks previews some possible 1B candidates for 2004, among them <B>Adam LaRoche</B>, in addition to looking at other firstbasemen currently in the Braves organization. <I>[This feature is a Free Preview of Premium Content Available Exclusively on BravesCenter.Com]</I>

The turnstile at first base has been busy. It's been three years since Andres Galarraga left the Atlanta Braves, and finding a full-time replacement has been difficult.

Rico Brogna was signed as the cheap alternative for 2001. He lasted only 67 games before going home to coach high school football. Ken Caminiti was then brought in, but he was clearly past his prime. At the end of 2001, fans laughed loudly when Julio Franco was signed out of the Mexican League. But they aren't laughing anymore.

Franco has been a pleasant surprise, and suddenly a player valued by the Braves and its fans. But he's still not an everyday player, despite playing 95 games at first base in 2002. Matt Franco, no relation, was also added that season but settled into the role as the chief left-handed bat off the bench. Wes Helms failed to get his full-time chance and was shipped off to Milwaukee.

Robert Fick was the Rico Brogna of 2003. He was signed for $1 million dollars and we pretty much got what we expected: an inconsistent left-handed bat with below average defense. The Francos provided adequate production to complement Fick and not make the position a weakness. But clearly, the Braves have no star at first base.

Enter Adam LaRoche, a 29th round draft choice in 2000 out of Seminole Junior College in Oklahoma. Many teams wanted to draft Adam LaRoche as a pitcher, which was understandable since Adam was pretty good and he had the pitching pedigree. His father, Dave LaRoche, pitched fourteen seasons in the big leagues with the Angels, Indians, and Yankees. But Adam wanted to be a hitter, so he told teams if they wanted him as a pitcher, they needed to pass.

The Braves thought he could be a pitcher, but believed in his ability to be a hitter. They loved his sweet left-handed swing. LaRoche was thrilled a team wanted him to play first base, and he signed with the Braves in the summer of 2000.

Since then he has proven that as a 29th round draft choice, the Braves got a bargain. He has a .288 career minor league average, and has 47 home runs and 236 RBI in 1578 at bats. He answered the final challenge in 2003 when he hit .290 with 20 home runs and 72 RBI in a season split between AA Greenville and AAA Richmond.

Defensively, LaRoche is simply excellent. He can scoop up the ball in the dirt and will make a play moving to his right (author's polite knock on our former first baseman's inability to do so in the Division Series). He is a legit Gold Glove candidate.

With a smooth left-handed swing and tremendous defense, LaRoche has drawn comparisons to John Olerud, Mark Grace, and Will Clark.

The Braves are prepared to give LaRoche every opportunity to be their everyday first baseman in 2004. But remember the Braves history with rookies. They rarely play 150 games or have 600 at bats. Usually, Manager Bobby Cox platoons rookies, allowing them to get their feet wet slowly in the big leagues.

LaRoche will probably get most at bats against right-handed pitchers. A veteran will be on hand to get some time against left-handed pitchers. Julio Franco is a good bet to return to fill that role. Mike Hessman, who impressed Bobby Cox in his late-August call up, will also have an excellent chance to make the team as a 1B/3B/LF. Hess' versatility gives him a great chance to be on the roster.

Former Tulane star James Jurries figures to get his chance to move up to AAA Richmond. Jurries hit .284 with 9 home runs and 54 RBI for Greenville in 2003. He started the season as the G-Braves' third baseman, but after LaRoche was promoted to Richmond, Jurries moved over to first. Like Hessman, Jurries hopes his versatility can one day make him a fixture on a big league roster.

Behind LaRoche, Atlanta's next best everyday first base prospect is Scott Thorman. A first round pick in 2000, Thorman hit .243 with twelve home runs and 56 RBI for High A Myrtle Beach last season. This followed a solid season when he hit .294 for Macon in 2002. Thorman may still need a little time in Myrtle Beach, but the need to push people behind him to Myrtle and Rome could force him to go ahead and start 2004 in Greenville.

Thorman has tremendous power potential, but he sometimes pulls the ball too much, common for a power hitter. He will be tested in AA, and the Braves are curious to see how he handles the promotion. Yaron Peters is scheduled to move up to replace Thorman for the Pelicans. He started the season in Rome, did well enough to get a midseason promotion to Myrtle Beach, but then struggled and was sent back to finish the season in the South Atlantic League. Overall, Peters finished with a .253 batting average, 13 home runs, and 52 RBI. The Braves feel Peters is a marginal prospect, but he does have pretty decent power and the ability to produce offense. Defensively, he'll never be compared to Adam LaRoche, but he will not embarrass anyone either.

Rome will have several players compete for playing time at first base in 2004. The Braves have permanently moved Carlos Guzman from outfield to first base. Guzman split time between the outfield and designated hitter and hit .229 with 10 home runs and 44 RBI. Scott Schade was the starter at first in Danville in 2003, hitting .256 with 2 HR and 22 RBI. He is versatile, able to play all infield positions but shortstop. Keith Eichas, the Braves 17th round draft choice back in June, got significant playing time at first in the Gulf Coast League. Eichas hit .345 with 5 home runs in only 122 at bats. He may be the starter in Rome after a battle with Guzman and Schade in spring training.

Carlos Moreta also played a lot of first in the GCL, but the Braves may resist moving him up to Rome and have him play in Danville in 2004. Moreta, who can also play the outfield, hit .289 and had 8 home runs.

Overall, first base is a very deep position for the Braves. They have a rookie (LaRoche) primed to get significant playing time in 2004 at the big league level, along with several decent prospects (Hessman, Jurries, and Thorman) who could contribute in the next few years.

Bill Shanks hosts a weekly regional television show on the Atlanta Braves and its minor league system. He can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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