Spring Training Battle: backup first base
Lake Buena Vista, Florida
Coming into camp the competition to back up first baseman Adam LaRoche was primed to be one of the biggest battles of the spring. And with two weeks to go before camp breaks, it's still an unanswered dilemma.
Early indications were that James Jurries, finally placed on the 40-man last winter, was the overwhelming favorite. He was placed right with LaRoche at first base during the early fielding drills, which may sound unimportant, but it wasn't. It takes some first-time 40-man roster players several years to participate on the main field during camp, and Jurries was there from day one - by himself.
The other competitors, outfielders Matt Diaz and David Kelton, were back on the minor league fields during early fielding work. So Jurries' presence right behind LaRoche was telling.
Jurries knew what he had to do to win the job. First, he had to show that he could hit, as he has proved so well in his minor league career. Well so far, he's done that. And second, Jurries had to show Bobby Cox that he would not be a defensive liability at first, and so far, he's done that as well.
But something happened that neither Jurries nor anyone else could have ever predicted. Outfielder Brian Jordan went to Cox in late February and told him he wanted to try and compete for the job. The 39-year-old Jordan is trying for one last gasp in the big leagues, and with the competition already stiff for the fourth outfield spot, Jordan believed his potential ability to play first base would increase his chances of making the team.
So on February 24th Jordan popped over there at first base fielding ground balls. Since then he's made several starts at the position, as Cox has given him a legit chance at winning the job.
Jurries has not been deterred. He's hitting .455 in 22 at bats. Jordan is also hitting well, batting .368 so far this spring in 19 at bats. With two weeks left, this race is a dead heat.
With Bobby Cox's admiration of veterans, you wonder if Jordan might have the edge. But Jordan has to continue to prove he can play the position well, and frankly, so far, he's doing that. Jordan looks good over there. His footwork seems to be solid, and he doesn't look odd at the position.
The question for me is his bat. Can Jordan be productive playing once a week at first and maybe once a week in left field? I'm not sure. And of course, Jordan's ability to stay healthy is also a question. He has been unable to remain healthy the last few years, and last season was no exception.
Jurries' edge might be that he could be a legit alternative if LaRoche does not become the productive player the Braves' envision this season when given full-time at bats. Even though he‘ll soon turn 27, Jurries is a rookie. Yes, there's that Saltalamacchia kid hanging in the balance, but Jurries has value since he can hit.
James Jurries deserves the backup job to Adam LaRoche. He's always hit in the minor leagues, hit left-handers very well, and there is no reason to have him return to Triple-A for a third straight season. This kid is ready, and it will be a shame if Cox's desire for a veteran supersedes having the best player on the roster. Yes, Brian Jordan is a great clubhouse presence, but it's time for Jurries to be in the big leagues.
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 email@example.com.
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