The Braves knew left field could be a question mark for them in 2006. They started the season with Ryan Langerhans as the main starter and Matt Diaz as his part-time platoon partner, and the season ended the other way around with Diaz as the main starter and Langerhans occasionally spelling him against right-handed pitchers.
Langerhans started 78 games, Diaz started 62 games, Scott Thorman 20 games, and Brian Jordan two games. Combined with those four players in left field, the Braves got the following production: .282, 17 home runs, 65 RBI, 162 hits in 574 at bats.
Now why that's not horrific, when you look at the other positions in the field, it's the least productive for the team. So that gives us a few questions to ponder:
Can Diaz play everyday?
Should the platoon of Diaz and Langerhans continue?
Are there any free agents available?
Could the Braves acquire a left fielder through a trade?
Diaz was impressive in his first full season in the big leagues. He had several cups of coffee with the Devil Rays and Royals, but had never played a full season until 2006. He was mainly in a platoon with Langerhans to start the season, but his bat kept him in the lineup a little more later in the year.
There's no doubt Diaz can hit. He was brought in to hit against lefty pitchers and he did that batting .295 against southpaws. But Diaz actually hit better against right-handed pitchers: .358. That's why Bobby Cox gave him more playing time later in the season. Diaz was fairly consistent all season. He started out a bit slow, getting only 30 at bats in April and hitting .200. But with the exception of a tough July (.242 average), Diaz hit all summer long, especially in May (.465) and August (.406).
Defensively, Diaz was mediocre – at best. He did make some good plays, maybe better than any of us expected him to make. But there were a number of poor plays in the outfield as well, which is a cause for concern. Maybe since Langerhans is so great in the field it made Diaz look a bit more mediocre than he actually was, but there's little doubt that hitting is his forte.
Can Diaz be a productive everyday player? He did well enough to at least make the Braves a bit curious, but how good might he be? Diaz might only hit 15-20 home runs per season, and the Braves may need more from their left fielder than that level of production – especially if Andruw Jones happens to be traded.
Fact is, if the Braves target a leadoff man this winter chances are it'll be a left fielder. Marcus Giles might be traded, and Martin Prado is the likely candidate to replace him. But Prado is not a leadoff man and might hit eighth if he's an everyday player. So the logical move for the Braves is to find a left fielder that can also leadoff.
That would mean continuing the platoon of Diaz and Langerhans is probably a long shot. They were not bad together, but it became fairly obvious that Langerhans was no more than a fourth outfielder. Langerhans is absolutely fantastic in the field, with a great arm and the ability to make great catches. But he just gets exposed offensively a bit when he plays everyday.
Langerhans would be a terrific fourth outfielder for the Braves, and he's got to have some value as well. So don't be surprised if he's thrown into a deal this winter. However, if the Braves do prefer to find a brand new starter for left, they may have to decide between Diaz and Langerhans as the reserve outfielder. So Diaz might be the one traded away. It's unlikely if the Braves get a new left fielder that both Diaz and Langerhans would be on the roster.
So where might the Braves find this new left fielder – if that is the decision they make? Well, there are some free agents on the market, but it's unlikely the Braves will be able to afford most of the bigger name players. Barry Bonds? Don't think so. Alfonso Soriano? Carlos Lee? Even Gary Matthews, Jr?
Doubtful. However, if Andruw Jones is traded and a cheaper centerfielder is acquired in return, the Braves might be able to go for one of those more expensive outfielders. But it's unlikely they'd pay a free agent anywhere near what they might have to pay for Andruw Jones.
But if Jones is, in fact, traded, the Braves might have to get a more experienced player to play either center or left. Could Gary Sheffield return if the Yankees do not pick up his option and trade him? The Braves would not trade for him and pay that $13 million dollar salary, but if the Yankees just let Sheffield walk the Braves might have some interest.
Luis Gonzalez has already mentioned the Braves as one of the teams he might have some interest in. Most fans are going to be turned off by Gonzalez's age (39), but he still had a pretty productive offensive season in 2006. Gonzalez hit .271 with a .352 OBP, 52 doubles, 15 home runs, and 73 RBI. How much will he want? Would the Braves pay Gonzalez $5 million for one year to play left field?
Dave Roberts and Juan Pierre are two leadoff men that are free agents. Pierre plays mostly in center, but if Andruw Jones is still with the team Pierre could play in left. Both Roberts and Pierre are going to want a good chunk of change. Roberts might be more affordable, but he'll be 35 next May and might not be worth a big contract. Pierre is certain to get top dollar after stealing 58 bases for the Cubs this season.
Most of the remaining free agents that could play left field are veterans: Moises Alou, Jeremy Burnitz, Jim Edmonds, Cliff Floyd, Aubrey Huff, Craig Wilson, and Trot Nixon. Chances are, the Braves might look to one of these veterans if Andruw Jones is traded. Then signing a vet for between $3-$5 million may be a good compliment to the younger player that will surely be acquired in any Andruw Jones deal.
But the main option to improve left field is through the trade market, and already fans have focused on Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford. He just turned 25 in August. He can hit for power (18 home runs) and steal a lot of bases (58 last season). He's obviously available, as the Devil Rays seek pitching, and maybe most important is he's affordable. Crawford is due only $4 million in 2007 and then $5.25 million in 2008, followed by escalating salaries of $8.25 million in 2009 and $10 million in 2010. The last two years of that deal are club options, so the team that acquires him may only have to have him for two years and just under $10 million dollars.
Crawford fits the bill perfectly. He's a young outfielder with great speed and has the ability to lead off. Most believe he's better suited to hit third in a lineup, and he did hit second and third for the Devil Rays more than leadoff in 2006. But with his speed, he could definitely bring energy to the top of the lineup.
What would the Devil Rays want for Crawford? Well it's unlikely they'd take Tim Hudson, although that would be the best way for them to get a decent starter. They swindled the Mets out of Scott Kazmir a few years ago, and that's about the only way they can get an ace pitcher outside of developing one themselves. So Hudson would make sense if they paid him the big money in his contract.
With that unlikely it's more logical to assume the Devil Rays are going to want some young pitching in return. Would the Braves trade Kyle Davies or Chuck James to Tampa Bay in a Crawford deal? Maybe, especially if Tom Glavine returns. Either way, Crawford is going to be expensive, and if he is, in fact, on the block, the Braves could be one of many teams knocking on Tampa Bay's door this winter.
Scott Podsednik is another player that might be available in a trade. He's got decent speed (40 steals) but his batting average was only .261 last season. Podsednik will be eligible for arbitration this winter, so the White Sox might prefer to trade him away. But he's not a player that should require much in return.
If the Braves deal pitching this winter, the Reds might be interested and might dangle Adam Dunn. But Dunn is getting ready to really cost a lot of money, so that's unlikely. The Braves had some interest in Craig Monroe last year, so that option might be explored again. And if we want to dream, a deal for Ichiro would definitely shake up the baseball world, and the Braves have enough talent to make that happen if he were available.
So there are a lot of possibilities for left field, but chances are there will be a change. A lot depends on the Andruw Jones situation. The Braves might need to new left fielder to help replace Jones' offense if he is traded, so they may have to wait for a while before making a firm decision. The offense was not horrible last season, but there's little doubt that stability and consistency are much needed in that position.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
30. Who will play left field in 2007?
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