21. Is Kelly Johnson the long-term 2B?

Kelly Johnson had a great year in his first season as Atlanta's second baseman, but was it enough to secure his spot for the long-term?

Is Kelly Johnson the long-term second baseman? Last winter when the Braves non-tendered longtime second baseman Marcus Giles, the team believed Kelly Johnson could become a decent major league starter at the position. With tremendous hard work and dedication, Johnson surpassed even the expectations that everyone placed on him before the start of the season.

Johnson finished the season with a .276 batting average, 16 home runs 68 runs batted in, a .375 on base percentage, and an .831 OPS. It was the best season for a Braves' second baseman since Giles had his peak year in 2003. And Johnson's numbers dwarfed what Giles had done in the previous four seasons combined.

The left-handed hitter was streaky at times. Johnson hit well in April (.326) and July (.356), but struggled in May and June (.258) and after August 1st (.238).

Johnson started the season as the leadoff hitter, but then with Willie Harris doing well Braves' Manager Bobby Cox moved Johnson down in the order. Kelly hit better when he was not leading off (.288) than when he did (.268), which makes you wonder where his future may be in the batting order.

Defensively Johnson looked solid at times, and then in some games looked like a left fielder playing the position. Johnson made 14 errors, with many of them coming on backhanded plays moving to his right. There is no doubt that if Kelly remains at second he's going to have to put more work in getting better in that area.

So do the Braves want Johnson to be their long-term second baseman? Well, they like Johnson a great deal. He's versatile in where he can play in the field and where he can hit in the batting order. And with Johnson still only 26 years old, the Braves know he still has plenty of good years to develop his game and get to a higher level.

What is Johnson's potential? How good can he get? Well he shows signs of being a player that might hit close to .300 on a regular basis. He shows signs of being a player that could hit between 20 and 30 home runs and driving in 80-100 runs. And if he's left alone at one spot in the batting order, his offensive game could become more consistent and more dangerous.

If Johnson is the second baseman next season, the team will have the option of hitting him first in the order, or using Escobar, who had a .400 OBP when he hit leadoff. Johnson could hit second or could be moved into the middle of the lineup to provide even more production and power.

There's no reason to believe Johnson can't continue to improve defensively either. Yes, he needs to work on certain aspects of being a second baseman, but we saw last winter how dedicated Johnson could be in learning the position. So if that dedication continues, he should be able to improve his defensive flaws as time goes along.

But the Braves do have other options at second base, which could make things interesting as they continue to look for pitching help this winter. While many in the fan base have branded Martin Prado as a mediocre player, the Braves do like the Venezuelan infielder. If Johnson were shopped or even traded, Prado would be an option.

And then there's Yunel Escobar and even Brent Lillibridge. Yes, the Braves traded Edgar Renteria to make room for Escobar at shortstop, but with Lillibridge also around there is the possibility that Escobar could slide over to second base again and have Lillibridge play short. Then they could simply see how Lillibridge would do as a second baseman, especially if he were on the roster to also play some in center field.

So if the Braves do look for another starting pitcher this winter, teams may ask for Johnson. And Atlanta simply has to decide if Johnson's potential at second base is more valuable than bringing in another arm. Johnson has a lot of value, and he could be the centerpiece of a trade for a starting pitcher.

But the Braves could really have an impact player at second base if Johnson continues to develop. Plus, if Chipper Jones retires in a couple of seasons, Johnson might be the top candidate to take over at third base.

For now the decision revolves around second base, and if teams come calling asking for Johnson this winter the Braves are not going to have an easy decision to make.


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 be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



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