2004 looks to be no exception. As we enter spring training, Braves Manager Bobby Cox may have one of his more versatile rosters in years. For a manager who loves to use his entire roster, Cox may be looking at a lot of different lineups in 2004, just so he can get his players playing time.
The chief reserve will be Eli Marrero. But make no mistake, he will also get a number of starts for the Braves. Marrero came up a catcher, but can play first base, all three outfield spots, and Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz says he may even see some action at third base.
Marrero can be a very productive player. In 2002, he hit .262 with 18 home runs and 66 runs batted in. He mostly played left field that season, with 44 games at catcher. Marrero may be Atlanta's modern day Jerry Royster, a versatile player from the late 70's and early 80's who played second, short, third, and the outfield. But Marrero's difference is his ability to catch, and there are not many players in baseball who can catch and also player more than one more position.
One battle in spring training that may be influenced by Marrero's versatility will be between veteran Julio Franco and Mike Hessman. Franco is a favorite, simply because Cox loves the guy and he has yet to prove he can't hit despite his age. But Hessman can also player left field and third base, which is his natural position. Marrero's ability to play first may also make it easier for Cox to keep Franco, who is somewhat limited now to first base.
Adam LaRoche is the favorite to get the majority of playing time at first base, but whether it's Marrero, Franco, or Hessman, the Braves should have a solid right-handed hitting alternative to compliment the rookie.
Many fans were surprised when the Braves signed Eddie Perez right after acquiring Marrero, but the team wanted to not limit Marrero to one certain position. And since he can also play first, third, and the outfield, the Braves wanted another solid player available as Johnny Estrada's backup.
Perez was a Cox favorite while he was here, and returns after a two-year absence. Perez had a solid season as Milwaukee's starting catcher last season, and Cox will give him plenty of playing time. He can also play first base in a pinch.
Looking again at the infield, the Braves will move super reserve Mark DeRosa to a starting role at third base. So the search will be on to find someone who can play second, short, and third. Hessman's ability to play third will help his chances, but a middle infielder will be needed.
Jesse Garcia will be a favorite, mainly because Cox loves him. He does have great speed, which is an asset off the bench. Garcia has no power, and his career major league batting average is .197. He can play second, short, and even third base.
Wilson Betemit may be getting his last chance with Atlanta. Some in the organization really wonder if sending him to AAA for a third season is necessary, so those same folks are rooting for Betemit to win the reserve job in spring training. His ability to play second base is questionable; he can do it, but he's played more short and third over the past few seasons.
Betemit did improve some last season at Richmond, but his defensive troubles at third base hurt his offense. The Braves still believe Betemit is a superb athlete and has great skill. They would love nothing more than for him to go to Orlando and win a job.
A long shot is Nick Green, who split 2003 at second base and shortstop in Richmond. He can also play third base. The Braves kept Green on the 40-man roster, so they still must believe he has the ability to be a big leaguer.
Two players who were in AA last season will also be given a long look. Richard Lewis was tremendous in the Arizona Fall League after a decent season in Greenville. He can play second and short. Kelly Johnson can play short and third base, and the Braves still believe he has great potential.
The main outfield reserve will be Gary Matthews, Jr., picked up off waivers from the San Diego Padres. Matthews also has very good speed, and the Braves will utilize him as a pinch runner. Matthews will battle with rookie Ryan Langerhans for the fourth spot, but he would have to really struggle in spring training to not make the Atlanta roster.
Langerhans is great defensively and is not a bad hitter. He doesn't have Matthews' speed, and that could be a detriment. But if Langerhans goes to spring training and impresses, Cox might be forced to make a tough decision.
Overall, the Braves look to have more versatility and more speed for 2004. Cox loves players he can insert into different positions, and he'll have more options this season than in years past. Hopefully, it will make the Braves a better team, particularly in the postseason.
Gary Matthews, Jr.
Bill Shanks hosts "The Braves Show" during the baseball season. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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