There is absolutely no disputing the fact that J.D. Drew is an exceptional ballplayer. He had a tremendous 2004 season for the Atlanta Braves, but what he termed "an unfair offer" of $25 million dollars over three years now has him reportedly leaving his home state team for Detroit.
Enjoy being a Tiger J.D.
So now the Braves are left to find someone who will replace him. A year ago, they were in the same position, having to find someone to replace Gary Sheffield, who had a great 2003 season. No one believed Drew would come close to the production Sheffield put up the previous year, and once again now no one believes the Braves will find anyone to top Drew's numbers in 2005.
There are three places to look for a new right fielder: 1) Internally in the organization 2) Free Agency and 3) Trades.
The current situation in Atlanta deserves mention. Last season, Charles Thomas and Eli Marrero formed an almost perfect platoon. The preference is to do that again in 2005. However, Thomas might prove that he deserves to play everyday without a platoon. If so, then the Braves could either sign a lower level free agent to act as a fourth outfielder or allow some of the kids to battle for that same job.
But if no new outfielder is acquired, then chances are the Braves will look to one of their kids in a Spring Training battle. Ryan Langerhans will likely get the first shot since he's been on the 40-man roster the longest and is coming off a complete season in AAA. Langerhans was once considered a Paul O'Neill-type player; now he's more of a mystery. There's no doubt his solid season in Richmond (.298, 20 homers, 72 RBI, 103 runs scored, 34 doubles, and a .397 OBP) last year was an eye opener, but there is a debate on whether he can be a productive everyday big leaguer. His AAA manager believes the left-handed hitting Langerhans is ready for the next level.
"The biggest thing for Ryan is that he's had that breakout year that everybody has been waiting for," says Pat Kelly. "He's been very steady. I just think that offensively he's gotten some confidence. He's learned that by hitting the ball the other way he end s up getting some pitches later on that he can hit out of the ballpark. His power numbers are up and his RBI numbers are good. I just think his overall game has improved and a lot of it is confidence."
Another player who had a tremendous offensive season in 2004 is right-handed hitting Billy McCarthy. After an injury-plagued 2003 season, McCarthy started this past season in AA and then quickly got the call to Richmond. He finished with an overall average of .324 with 15 home runs and 65 RBI in 411 at bats. McCarthy's impressive season got him a spot on Atlanta's 40-man roster.
"He just goes out and hits everyday," Kelly says. "There's another guy that kind of gets overlooked. He doesn't run that great and he's just kind of ok in the outfield. But boy I tell you when he goes up to the plate he finds a way. He was never 0-for-4. He can be 0-for-3 going into that last at bat and he's going to find a way to get a hit. To me, those are good hitters. He'll square a ball up and hit it out of the ballpark and take the next ball to right field. He can hit."
Looking down into the system a bit you will find three players who spent time in AA last season who might be in the mix in Spring Training. Kelly Johnson had a smooth transition to the outfield in 2004. The Braves were even a little surprised with how well he played, but Johnson's work with outfield instructor Jim Beauchamp paid off. His second season in AA also saw more consistency as Johnson hit .282 with 16 home runs and 50 RBI in 479 at bats. There are still many in the organization that believes Johnson is still going to be an everyday player in the big leagues. The strong left-handed bat he showed in 2001 at Macon is still there, most believe, and all he needs is his chance.
"With the new position, he did great," Greenville Manager Brian Snitker says. "He played all three spots and did a great job of adapting to the outfield. It does nothing but enhance his worth. Kelly is still learning. He's another one that needs to play the game. Skill-wise, he can do it all."
Then there are the two wildcards, the prizes of the organization, Jeff Francoeur and Andy Marte. In BravesCenter's exclusive interview with Chipper Jones, the Atlanta star stated his desire to remain at third base. So with that in mind, Marte should be considered to be in any competition in the outfield. Marte may be a bit ahead of Francoeur right now only because he spent all of 2004 in AA. But some people think Marte may even go back to AA to start 2005, especially if he switches to the outfield.
And that's the question: Can Marte play the outfield? Well first it must be said that he is an exceptional defensive third baseman. It will be a shame to have to move him, but his bat is something that must eventually be in the Atlanta lineup. Is he athletic enough to move to the outfield? Well, Ryan Klesko did it, and if he could, Marte should be able to as well. Snitker says that for a 20-year-old in AA, Marte was something special.
"Amazing," Snitker says. "He's 20 years old! You forget that though. He's another one with the makeup and how he carries himself and the way he handles adversity. He's got all the intangibles you're looking for in a player and he's just 20 years old. You'd think he was a 25 or 26-year-old adult when you talk with him. He's such a good kid. He presents himself well. He carries himself so well. He's a young Dominican that you can have a conversation with. This kid picked up the language fast and he's going to be a young big leaguer."
Then there's Francoeur, who is called "Superman" by many in the organization for his outstanding talents. The 21-year-old Francoeur was the early talk of the Arizona Fall League before tiring down the stretch. He's still recovering from losing almost twenty pounds when he missed a month of action following getting hit in the eye. But the Braves have been thrilled with his tenacity to get back to where he was at before the injury.
Francoeur struggled a bit in AA after the injury, but it did nothing to deter the Braves high opinion on him. Overall in 2004, he hit .278 with 18 home runs and 61 RBI in 407 at bats. The Braves believe he is developing into a tremendous baseball player, and the more he plays, the better he's going to get.
"Just by the way he carries himself, he's special," Snitker says of Francoeur. "Again, we talk about the type of person somebody is. Well a lot of guys are good ballplayers, but what sets them apart a lot of times is the kind of person they are. He's a class guy."
Critics point to Francoeur's low walk total and high strikeout total as two areas where he must improve before he gets to the big leagues. Snitker says that will work itself out in time.
"Francoeur's got a lot to learn yet," says the veteran Braves minor league manager. "He's just a kid. He's a big kid with a big swing. There are some fundamental things he can do that will make him better. But you can just tell he's going to figure it out. He's another one that just needs to play the game."
The former Clemson football recruit will probably return to AA to start next season. But it might not take him long to figure the things out he needs to do to become a big leaguer.
The free agent market is almost dried up. Two players the Braves had some interest in signed elsewhere: Richard Hidalgo for one year to Texas and Jermaine Dye for two years to the White Sox. Don't even think about Carlos Beltran. He's off limits with our new Time Warner budget. But there is an interesting possibility that has some people thinking a bit.
Magglio Ordonez is leaving the White Sox. He is coming off an injury-plagued 2004 season that has limited his market. His agent, the devil himself Scott Boras, is trying to entice teams (mostly the Orioles) to sign Ordonez to a long-term deal saying his injury troubles are behind him. But so far, it's not working. The other option is to sign with a team for one year, prove he's healthy, and then get a long-term deal for the big bucks next winter.
That might be a viable option for the Braves if not for Boras. Ordonez made over $14 million last season, and it's unlikely Boras "will allow him" to sign for anything around half of that figure. Maybe if the market continues to be soft for his client, Boras will see the potential advantages of allowing Ordonez to sign with the Braves for one season. But considering his track record, don't bet on it.
The other names on the free agent list are not very attractive. Brian Jordan? Been down that road before. No thank you. Jeromy Burnitz? Ugh. A Colorado hitter. Don't think so. And then there's Danny Bautista, formerly of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Bautista seems like a possibility only because he's not expected to command a large contract, and he may accept a one-year deal. Remember, he played for the Braves in the late 90's, and he was a favorite of Bobby Cox. The right-handed hitter had a .286 average last season with 11 home runs and 65 RBI. Could he be a decent stopgap hitter? Possibly. But he is not a player that needs to be given any large contract. One year for maybe $2.5 million?
There are a few outfielders that may be non-tendered next week. That could put a few more bodies on the market. Jacque Jones of the Twins is a possibility, but he might look for a multi-year deal.
The trade market is not bursting with possibilities. Austin Kearns is everyone's favorite, and if the Braves somehow get an abundance of pitchers, they may have enough to entice Reds GM Dan O'Brien. But Kearns would cost the Braves a Horacio Ramirez or a Dan Meyer, and they may not be willing to do that.
Brian Giles is a name that people have tossed around. He's be a natural fit to be here now that his little brother has been saved from a trade to OBP heaven. Brian still has two years under contract with the Padres, but would probably cost an expensive package.
So what will the Braves do? Well, as of now, the plan is to wait it out. Ordonez may be a possibility, but considering the still pending changes on the pitching staff, the remaining $12 million in budget might be used up before an offer could be made.
The precarious position John Schuerholz finds himself in is because of our depth. The Braves have two players who are pretty much ready for the big leagues right now in Langerhans and McCarthy. Only McCarthy could see some time back in AAA, but he's very capable of going up and playing in 2005. Langerhans is out of options, so the Braves are going to have to make a decision on him this spring anyway.
How smart is it to go out and get a player for anything more than one year when it is possible that the Braves might have two rookie outfielders in 2006? Francoeur and Marte might both be ready then. Even if Marte doesn't make it in his outfield experiment, the Braves might feel compelled to ask Chipper Jones about moving back to the outfield, which would keep him around in that spot until his contract expires after the 2008 season.
Could Langerhans and/or McCarthy hold down the fort in an outfield by committee – at least for the first half of the season? Well we're not saying that if Langerhans or McCarthy do well they're going to be shown the door when and if Francoeur and/or Marte are going to be ready. But what's going to happen, for instance, if the Braves sign a Danny Bautista or a Magglio Ordonez and either Francoeur or Marte prove they are ready? We're talking about two players in Francoeur and Marte who might be around for the next ten to fifteen years. Is it smart to block their way, especially with very capable players in Langerhans and McCarthy around to get some playing time?
There are more wildcards, of course. We're not sure how Charles Thomas is going to do in his sophomore season. We're not sure if Eli Marrero will continue to play as well as he did in his platoon situation if he were to get more significant playing time.
Would a healthy Magglio Ordonez be nice in the Atlanta lineup? You bet. But it just seems like that might be unlikely to happen, especially consider who his agent is. Why go sign someone like Danny Bautista, when a Langerhans and/or McCarthy can surely put up just as solid major league numbers if given the chance?
There's no doubt most fans have an interest in adding a major player to replace J.D. Drew. But with two potential superstars almost ready and two players who deserve their chance in the big leagues ready now, is it really smart to spend money on someone who might only be around for one season anyway?
Probably not. Let's give the kids a chance.
Bill Shanks can be reached at email@example.com
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