There is a lot of mess with the Atlanta Braves right now. They are headed for a fourth place finish in the National League East and their worst record since 1990.
But no position has been in a bigger mess for a longer period of time than left field. And as the Braves look ahead to what messes they need to fix this winter, left field must be at the top of the list.
The problem is severe. It's been a problem for a while now, and we need to look both at the history of the position and the enormity of the lack of production this season before we even think about figuring out how it will be fixed.
Atlanta has not had a player start more than 100 games in left field since Chipper Jones started 149 there in 2003. That was the last star the Braves had at the position, when Jones was moved to left from third base for the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Jones hit 53 home runs and drove in 206 runs for those two years as the left fielder.
In the five seasons since, five different players have led the team in starts in left field. Those players have combined (through Tuesday's games) for 36 home runs and 199 RBI in the five seasons.
With the exception of the two seasons with Chipper in left, the position has really been a problem ever since the Braves traded Ryan Klesko following the 1999 season. In the nine seasons since Klesko was traded, the Braves have had nine different players lead the team in games started in left field.
Klesko was the Braves last long-term left fielder. He was the primary starter in left from 1994 through 1998 (he moved to first base in 1999 to replace cancer-stricken Andres Galarraga). Klesko averaged 23 home runs, 73 RBI and 399 at bats in those five seasons, with some time spent in a platoon with right-handed hitters.
After Klesko, Gerald Williams took over and started 78 games in left. Reggie Sanders was acquired in the deal that sent Klesko to San Diego, but Sanders' 2000 season was the worst of his career. Sanders hit only .232 with 11 home runs and 37 RBI in 340 at bats.
B.J. Surhoff was acquired late in 2000 and for the rest of that season and 2001 he became the primary starter in left. But Surhoff was past his prime and hit only 10 home runs and drove in 58 runs in 2001. Bernard Gilkey and Dave Martinez also tried to step in, but they too were too old to contribute.
After Chipper moved back to third base early in the 2004 season, a young kid named Charles Thomas took over and became a hit with the fans. Thomas hit .288 in 236 at bats, but he was used that next offseason as part of the payment for Tim Hudson in a trade with Oakland.
The 2005 season started with Brian Jordan being brought back to switch over from right to left, but Jordan got hurt and was starting to show his age. Kelly Johnson came up from the minors and became the main player, with 73 starts in left. But an elbow injury the next spring would cause another change in the position, with Ryan Langerhans and Matt Diaz taking over in a platoon in 2006.
The Braves hoped Langerhans and Diaz would be productive in a platoon again in 2007, with Langerhans getting a chance to get most of the at bats. But Langerhans was ineffective in April, and as the Braves were turning to Diaz veteran Willie Harris came up from Richmond and was effective enough to join Diaz in yet another platoon.
This season the Braves believed Diaz was ready to take control of the position. But a knee injury ended Diaz's season in late May. Gregor Blanco took over and has made 53 starts in left field, the most by any player at the position this season. Blanco has hit .253, with a decent on base percentage, but little production.
Braves' left fielders have combined for a .261 batting average this season, with only six home runs and 61 RBI in 547 at bats. The Mets' left field situation has been pretty bad this season with Moises Alou battling injuries, and the seven Mets players have combined for nine home runs and 61 RBI. And the Nationals' left fielders may be as bad as Atlanta's, with only nine home runs and only 38 RBI this season.
The lack of production in left field contributes to the Braves having the worst production of any National League outfield this season. Obviously, the disappointing season of right fielder Jeff Francoeur is also a major reason. But the numbers are telling, and fully explain why the Braves are so far behind in the National League East.
Through Tuesday's action, the Braves' outfield had a combined batting average of .259 with only 25 home runs (last in the National League) and 187 RBI (second-worst in the NL) in 1685 at bats. Only the Padres (161) and the Nationals (173) have fewer runs batted in this season from their outfielders.
Here are what the outfields for the National League teams have produced this season:
TEAM – HR – RBI
BRAVES – 25 – 187
Phillies – 69 – 203
Mets – 47 – 234
Marlins – 55 – 232
Nationals – 44 – 173
Cardinals – 78 – 262
Brewers – 79 – 243 (Braun, Cameron, and Hart only)
Pirates – 74 – 280
Reds – 66 – 188
Astros – 64 – 211
Cubs – 63 – 237
Rockies – 58 – 235
Dodgers – 53 – 218
Padres – 50 – 161
Diamondbacks – 47 – 199
Giants – 37 – 188
The Braves still have to figure out what to do in right field, where Jeff Francoeur has had a miserable season. But he's still young, and to give up on him now may be foolish. Chances are the Braves will instead bring him back in 2009 to see if he can rebound and again be productive, unless some team comes calling for Francoeur with a pitcher to deal to Atlanta.
In center field the Braves have options. They can give Jordan Schafer the chance in spring training to win the position. He's rebounded nicely in Double-A since his suspension from HGH use in April. Schafer has finished the season well, showing he could possibly be ready next spring to win the position.
If Schafer is not ready, Gregor Blanco and Josh Anderson could be candidates to step in until Schafer gets the call. Blanco has been inconsistent but he's gotten on base; still, he's showed he's more of a fourth outfielder than a starter. And Josh Anderson is playing good baseball right now, giving him a chance for legit playing time next season if Schafer needs more time in the minor leagues.
So that leaves the biggest question for left field, where the Braves need to stop this revolving door of players and settle on someone for at least more than one season. Diaz is too much of a question mark, and he probably proved before his knee injury in May that he's just not cut out to be an everyday player. That would give the Braves yet another fourth outfielder.
Brandon Jones shows glimpses of talent here and there, but the consistency is still missing. Plus, his defense is a worry. Blanco and Anderson could obviously be options again, but they're just more fourth outfielders acting as a Band-aid for a bigger problem.
Expect the Braves to pursue a left fielder through free agency or a trade. And it's probably a safe bet that a right-handed hitting left fielder may be a priority. Here's a list of the outfielders available through free agency this winter:
Bobby Abreu – more of a RF, still a hitter; .296 BA and .371 OBP with 16 homers
Moises Alou – old and has been hurt
Rocco Baldelli – Is he back? If so, Braves have had interest before and could again
Emil Brown – Decent player but not worth a major contract
Pat Burrell – will command huge money, but no doubt he's a run producer
Adam Dunn – doubtful the Braves would overpay
Raul Ibanez – solid player, but a lefty hitter; Braves had interest a few years ago
Manny Ramirez – would take up half the money available, but is tempting
Juan Rivera – healthy now and could be a decent bargain, but is he a star?
Players who have options for 2009: Garrett Anderson, Brian Giles, Ken Griffey, Jr., Vladimir Guerrero, Jason Michaels
Here are a few players who could be targets in a trade this winter:
Ryan Spilborghs – will he ever get a chance to play everyday? High OBP
Melky Cabrera – struggling, not much power, but still young
Co Co Crisp – speedster, Braves need power, but he might be available
Marcus Thames – right-handed hitter with power that has interested Braves before
Magglio Ordonez – rumors are he might be available; will be 35, but still a huge threat
Jermaine Dye – Would the Sox trade him? If they did, Braves would be interested
Jose Guillen – could be had as KC wants to deal him, but is he a problem?
There are others out there who may become available, but those are just a few names that might be options for the Braves to improve the position.
Left field is going to be a priority for the Braves this winter. They've ‘gotten by' for years, and now it's caught up to them a little bit. They've got to improve the lineup by getting a big bat that can play left field next season.
Bill Shanks hosts The Atlanta Baseball Show on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon. He 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. You can email Bill at email@example.com.
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