22. Who replaces Furcal if he leaves Atlanta?

As Bill Shanks continues his look at the top 35 questions facing the Braves this winter, he looks at who might replace Rafael Furcal as the Braves' starting shortstop if he leaves as a free agent.

If the New York Mets or Chicago Cubs throw $10 million dollars a year at free agent shortstop Rafael Furcal, the Atlanta Braves are going to have to find themselves a shortstop for the first time in six years.

Replacing Furcal will not be easy. When he's on offensively, the Braves definitely are a better team, as evidenced by his second half resurgence in 2005. And everyone knows about his defense.

If Furcal does leave, the most obvious internal choice to replace him is Wilson Betemit, who four years ago was the best shortstop prospect in baseball. Betemit was so good, in fact, that in the winter of 2001-2002 some in the organization actually believed he could make the jump to the big leagues and move Furcal to second base. This was before Marcus Giles had established himself as a pretty good player, but it was kicked around a bit.

Betemit failed to live up to those expectations in spring training in 2002. He struggled at the plate and especially in the field. Then he got injured, which crushed that season. In 2003, with Furcal establishing himself as a star, the Braves moved Betemit to third base. That transition took two full seasons to complete, and by the end of the 2004 season, Betemit had re-established himself as a very decent prospect.

With nowhere to start and being out of options, Betemit settled for a bench role in Atlanta in 2005. He did very well, filling in nicely at third base when Chipper Jones missed time in the first half of the season. When Betemit was called upon, he looked like he belonged, both at the plate and especially in the field.

Betemit made only seven errors in 89 games in the field. He hit .305 with 4 home runs and 20 RBI in 246 at bats. The impressive season made many believe Betemit had finally proven he did belong in the big leagues and could be a contributor.

But can Betemit be an everyday shortstop? Critics will say he's gotten too big to play the position, and that he's much better at third base. But when he played shortstop in 2005, Betemit looked fine. He showed decent range and an adequate throwing arm. Is he Rafael Furcal at shortstop? No. And that will be a big difference if Betemit replaces Furcal.

Wilson Betemit is not and will not be a leadoff man. He's a good shortstop, but has no where near the arm that Furcal has. So he's going to be a very different type of player. Betemit has been compared to an Edgar Renteria-type player, one that will play stellar defense and provide 10-15 home runs and drive in around 75 per season as a starter.

Even though those are good numbers, they will be different than what we've gotten from Furcal for the last six seasons, and it might take a while to get used to that change. But if Betemit can become a Renteria-type of player, the Braves should be very satisfied.

There is one interesting option on the free agent market that might be considered by General Manager John Schuerholz. Would he be tempted by Nomar Garciaparra? Perhaps. But Garciaparra would not be able to get a huge contract from the Braves or anyone else. Perhaps a one-year, $5 million dollar deal would be enough to get him, even though he's still a question mark with all of his injuries.

But one thing that might keep Schuerholz from acquiring any long-term player for shortstop is the internal depth at the position. Shortstop is simply the deepest position in the Braves' minor league system, and if you sign a player like Garciaparra to a deal, you run the risk of not seeing how good that homegrown talent may be.

And that homegrown talent is also insurance should Betemit get the job and prove he is not the shortstop the Braves want. If Betemit doesn't make it, the Braves have several short-term and long-term options.

The closest player may be Yunel Escobar, last year's second round draft choice. Escobar will start the 2006 season in Myrtle Beach, but don't be shocked one bit if he finishes the season in AAA Richmond. And some believe Escobar may even be ready for Atlanta in 2007. Like Betemit, Escobar has been compared to Edgar Renteria, and his skills have many in the organizations excited about his future.

Luis Hernandez will return to AA Mississippi in 2006 after a subpar season there last year. Hernandez struggled in the field for the first time in his life and the struggles carried over to his offensive game, where he had made great strides in the tough Carolina League in 2004 at the age of 20. Hernandez will return to AA as a 22-year-old, so he still has a chance to develop and get better. If he does develop into a starting prospect, he'll be a light-hitting, slick-fielding shortstop.

And then there's the wildcard, young Elvis Andrus. No player excited the Braves' minor league staff more than Andrus in 2005, who at the age of sixteen handled the Gulf Coast League like he was 20 or 21. The Braves can't wait to see how good this kid might be in two or three years, and even though he's only 17 now and is still a few years away, his potential is great enough to factor into the discussion for the long-term situation at shortstop.

So if Furcal should leave, Betemit will be the most natural and most convenient replacement. He deserves the chance to be a starter with the Atlanta Braves, and he‘s not going to get a better shot. And if he doesn't make it, the options are there to have the position in good hands over the next half decade.

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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