19. Should Atlanta bring Julio Franco back?

As BravesCenter continues its look at the top 35 questions facing the Braves this winter, Bill Shanks talks about the future of Julio Franco. Will the Braves bring him back in 2006?

This will be one of the most interesting topics for the Braves' front office to discuss this month. It's a dilemma: a popular player in Julio Franco who is way over the age of retirement, but who can still be productive. ‘When does a player lose it' might be the most appropriate question.

Julio Franco started off the 2005 season slowly, hitting only .229 in the first two months of the season. It made many wonder if the 47-year old was finished. He bounced back with a fantastic month of June and solid months in July and August to finish with very decent numbers, despite slumping again horribly late in the season (.171 in September).

So the slow start and the rough finish makes the decision on whether to bring him back next season even more difficult.

Franco is a huge favorite of Bobby Cox. He's practically a player's manager in the clubhouse. Franco is fantastic with the young players, especially the Latin kids. Everyone in that clubhouse looks up to him with tremendous respect for what he's done and how he continues to be a productive major leaguer.

However, at some point, he is going to break down and not be as productive as he has been the last four plus seasons. It's just a gamble as to when it's inevitably going to happen.

Should Franco's ancillary value, of being a great clubhouse guy, factor into the decision? Well, probably not, but you know it will. This is an organization that loves makeup, and Franco is all about makeup. He helps that clubhouse a great deal, and sometimes there's no way to judge how important that can be.

But if Franco remains on the roster, he is keeping Adam LaRoche as a part-time player. As we have discussed, it's going to be difficult to fully judge LaRoche as long as he continues in a platoon. So would it be better for LaRoche if Franco were to leave? Probably so, even though Franco has had a huge impact on Adam in the last two years.

Franco has already expressed a desire to remain with the Braves once his playing days are over so he can become a minor league manager and train for a spot in the big leagues one day. But does that keep the Braves on the hook with Franco as a player until he breaks down and is no longer productive? That's going to be tough to handle if that is the case.

If the Braves feel LaRoche is ready for more at bats, then it'll probably be better to let Franco go to another team, since it's likely he's going to want pretty decent playing time. Franco had an interest in playing more last season, and expressed that when he signed his contract. So if he still feels the same way, he might not get that chance if the Braves are prepared to give LaRoche more playing time.

The Braves will undoubtedly debate this topic a lot over the next several weeks. Franco has been a solid player, and it's not an easy decision. But the answer may lie more with the team's faith in Adam LaRoche than any skepticism for Franco. It will be an interesting choice.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

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