It's been one of the best debates in recent memory for the Braves' Nation. It ranks up there with ‘should Fred McGriff or Ryan Klesko be the starter at first base' or 'should the Braves bring back Tom Glavine?' The current debate filling the airwaves of radio talk shows and threads on message boards is ‘should the Braves re-sign Rafael Furcal?'
It's not an easy decision. There's no debating that when Furcal is ‘on,' the Braves' offense is ‘on.' He's the best leadoff man in the history of the franchise, and his play at shortstop has been spectacular. Furcal is not a player to let go of easily, and he's not going to be an easy player to replace.
While your heart may make you answer the question with a resounding ‘yes,' logic may tell you it's simply time to let Furcal go. He's an excellent player, but is he really worth $10 million dollars per season? That's exactly the neighborhood he's moved into financially, and the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets are ready to throw him that kind of money.
No one would say they just want Furcal to leave. He's a good player, and no one wants to lose a good player. But in today's baseball society, finances enter the picture to where you have to wonder how smart it is to pay every good player $10 million dollars. It's just not.
But the main reason the Braves should not cry too much when the Cubs or Mets overpay for Furcal is the presence of Wilson Betemit. The Braves have an able replacement ready to step in to replace Furcal in the 25-year-old Betemit, who proved last season he's talented enough to play in the major leagues.
Funny thing is, it wasn't too long ago that some people believed Betemit was going to replace Furcal anyway. Back before the 2002 season, after Betemit's outstanding 2001 campaign in the minor leagues, some in the Braves' organization believed Betemit was ready to make the same kind of jump Furcal had made two years earlier, going from Myrtle Beach to Atlanta. There were a few that believed Betemit had surpassed Furcal, and that he could take over at short and Furcal could move back to his natural position of second base.
This was all before Marcus Giles established himself as the starting second baseman, and Betemit was one of the top prospects in baseball. Betemit was being compared to Miguel Tejada and other top shortstops. He was a tall, athletic player with awesome offensive potential. Some believed he could develop into a player that hit close to .300 with 25 home runs and 100 RBI per season.
But then Betemit floundered in the spring of 2002 under the pressure of some hoping he'd make the major league team. The Braves then sent him to Triple-A (in hindsight a mistake) and he suffered from a lower back strain and had an injury-plagued season. The next spring, with Furcal establishing himself as a top player and Chipper Jones then in left field, the Braves moved Betemit to third base. That transition took a while, and it wasn't until the middle of the 2004 season before Betemit regained some of the star status he had lost over the previous three seasons.
Out of options, Betemit made the Atlanta roster last spring. Most thought he'd be a seldom-used backup, but when Chipper Jones got injured in early June, Betemit stepped in and was tremendous. He showed he was, in fact, still a pretty darn good baseball player. He finished the season with a .305 batting average, 4 home runs and 20 RBI in 246 at bats. Betemit played outstanding defense at third base, and when he was pressed into duty at shortstop, he looked like he had never left his natural position.
So now that Betemit has proven he can play in the big leagues, many believe he'd be the perfect replacement for Furcal. He's not going to play much at third, with Chipper around for three more years and Andy Marte right behind him. So if he's got a future with the Atlanta Braves, it's got to be at shortstop. And Betemit's just too good to spend the rest of his career as a reserve.
He deserves the chance. That potential that we all saw in 2001 peaked through again last season. Wilson Betemit has talent, and it's natural to wonder what he could do with consistent playing time. Offensively, he has power from both sides of the plate, but he doesn't try to hit home runs. He's just got natural power. If given the chance, he could probably hit 20 home runs and drive in around 80 per season.
But fans should not expect another Rafael Furcal. Betemit does not have that speed, and he is not a leadoff hitter. He might hit second in the order if needed, but he'll probably be placed in the bottom half of the lineup. And defensively, he won't show the arm that Furcal has, but Betemit did prove last season that he still can be an above-average player defensively.
Betemit's like many of the Braves young players. We need to see what they can do before just giving up on them. It might be tempting for GM John Schuerholz to get a veteran starter to replace Furcal, but that would only block Betemit from getting the at bats he would need to show all of us if he can be a regular in the big leagues. Particularly with Betemit currently playing well in the Dominican Winter League, Schuerholz has got to be curious as to what his young player might do as a starter.
And it's time we see whether or not Betemit can be a starter in the big leagues. I just think back to the summer of 2001, when everything Southern League pitchers threw up to Betemit must have looked like a watermelon. He hit .355 in that short stint in Double-A, and that's what made many people, including myself, believe he could possibly be ready for the big leagues. That talent is still there, and if given the chance, we might still see that same player that many believed would develop into an All-Star switch-hitting shortstop.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional front office philosophies. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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