Do you remember the movie ‘The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training?" There was a repeated line in that movie (not as good, by the way, as the original) that somewhat represents my feeling on what the Braves should do with their left-field opening for 2005.
"Let Them Play."
"Them" refers to the kids in the movie, and for this story it also refers to the kids. The Braves have already filled one opening in the outfield with a veteran when they signed Raul Mondesi last week. But a rookie should fill the other opening on the other side, and there are plenty of candidates.
If the Braves have the opportunity to acquire a young, yet veteran major leaguer, like Austin Kearns or Mark Teixeira, then by all means they should try their best. But if the price is too high, they shouldn't give in just for the apparent "need" of another outfielder. The in-house candidates are lining up with their hands raised ready for the opportunity.
Organizationally, the Braves outfield has never been deeper. But some are considered ready now, some may be ready, and some are close to being ready. The combination gives the Braves plenty of options for the 2005 season, more than enough to ward off the thought of bringing in another veteran outfielder on the cheap, such as a Brian Jordan or Ben Grieve.
Just let them play!
The most ready minor leaguer to make the jump to the major leagues is Ryan Langerhans. This is his spring training to make his statement that he can play in the major leagues, whether as simply a fourth outfielder, as part of a platoon, or as a starter. Langerhans had a full season, a productive season in AAA in 2005, and he doesn't need to go back. He will either establish himself as a major leaguer in 2005 or simply become a career minor leaguer.
Langerhans had a tremendously impressive 2004 season in Richmond, hitting .298 with 20 home runs, 72 RBI, 34 doubles, 103 runs scored, and a .397 on base percentage. Those numbers are fairly representative of what his ceiling might be in the big leagues. He's not really a power hitter; the 20 home runs last season doubled his career high. He was frequently compared to a Paul O'Neill-type player a few years ago, one that might hit 20 home runs and drive in 80 along with a good average. He's a good player, but maybe not a great one.
His defense, however, can be considered great. Langerhans has an exceptional throwing arm, and he glides gracefully through the outfield. He's not as fast as Charles Thomas, but I think his defensive contributions could come in other areas.
Langerhans might win the left-field job outright, but there's also a chance he could split time with right-handed hitting Billy McCarthy. The 25-year old former Rutgers star started the 2004 season in Greenville before going up to AAA Richmond. Overall, he hit .324 with 15 home runs and 65 runs batted in. After struggling through an injury-plagued 2003 season in Greenville, McCarthy busted out and proved why the Braves have always believed he was a hitter.
So after hitting a cool .352 in Richmond, McCarthy may not have much more to prove in the minor leagues. If he goes to spring training and shows he can hit against solid competition, the Braves may feel he can handle a platoon situation with Langerhans. Billy a solid player, not as good defensively as Langerhans but solid. He's a smart player with good instincts as well.
Kelly Johnson is one player who will be fun to watch this spring. Chances are he needs just a little more time in the minor leagues, but he's not too far off. Kelly made a terrific transition to the outfield last season, showing the Braves he can play more than just shortstop and third base. He also proved that if the Braves need an outfielder, he's a viable candidate.
Offensively, Kelly made great strides in his second season in AA. He hit .282 with 16 home runs and 50 RBI in 479 at bats. Johnson's left-handed swing is one of the best in the farm system. Scouts still believe he has the potential to become a productive 25 home run a season player in the big leagues. But he may need just a little more development in the minors before getting that opportunity.
Of course, the two wild cards in Spring Training, the two players everyone will be watching no matter what, are Andy Mare and Jeff Francoeur. Both probably need more time in the minor leagues, but both are also capable of going to spring training and playing so well that they convince the Braves to give them a spot. More likely, however, is that the earliest we could see either of them is mid-season, after just a tad more time in the minor leagues.
Both Marte and Francoeur are top prospects, not only for the Braves, but also in the entire game. They are two players that could be part of the Atlanta lineup for the next ten to fifteen years. They don't need to be rushed, but they don't need to be kept back either. The Braves always say the kids will "tell you" when they're ready. This doesn't mean verbally, but by their play. So the only question is when, not if, Marte and Francoeur tell the Braves they are ready.
Marte's main obstacle, however, is learning a new position. The Braves are moving him to the outfield, with a perennial All-Star in his natural position of third base. Marte must start his transition this spring and start to show signs he can handle left field. The Braves don't expect his offense to suffer at all; he's just not the type of player to allow a defensive task interfere with his offensive production. If Marte shows he can play the outfield and he picks up where he left off offensively from last season, it's going to be hard to keep him down in the minors.
As for Francoeur, well, it's just a matter of time. Most likely he'll head back to AA to start the season, but the Braves don't expect him to stay there long. Jeff himself expects to be in the big leagues by August, and his goal is to make a similar impact that David Wright had with the Mets late last season. Don't bet against him. He's an excellent player who is salivating at the chance to be a starter for the Atlanta Braves. When he arrives, he's going to be here for a very long time.
Many ask about the future. What will happen if Langerhans and/or McCarthy and/or Johnson prove they are big leaguers this season while Marte and Francoeur are still developing in the minor leagues? What will happen when Marte and Francoeur are inevitably ready in 2006? Well, that's what you call a "good problem" to have, and there's no one better at sorting out those sort of "problems" than General Manager John Schuerholz. If it comes to that crowded a situation, he'll take care of it in time. Organizational depth is the main reason this franchise has won for fourteen straight years, and he knows how to manipulate it.
But for now, the options are plentiful. The Braves have numerous players to give chances to this spring. If they do that, certainly someone will step up and take advantage of the opportunity. There's just too much talent there for it not to happen.
Bill Shanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Let Them Play!
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