Kelly Johnson has been the Braves second baseman for two seasons now. He's produced well offensively and at times made it interesting in the field. And now the Braves could be at a crossroads with Johnson at second base.
There is no doubt Johnson can handle the responsibility of being the starting second baseman. But the Braves are trying to fill some holes this winter, and with Martin Prado lurking on the bench, Johnson might just be expendable.
Johnson has already been mentioned in trade rumors with the St. Louis Cardinals, who are looking for infield help and have outfielders with power available. That's what the Braves are needing, which is why the rumors have surfaced.
But this is not an easy decision. Johnson is a favorite in the Braves' organization. Bobby Cox likes him, as do the coaches and the front office. But as they try to make improvements, they cannot ignore that Johnson might have to be used as a price for a pitcher or power-hitting outfielder.
If Prado was not around, it might be a different story. But he is, and teams know it. That's why numerous teams have called the Braves regarding Johnson's availability.
Johnson was inconsistent this past season. He struggled in April (.235) before doing well in May (.355). Then he hit only .240 between June 1st and the end of August. Johnson rebounded with a great month of September, hitting .398 with three home runs and 19 RBI. Johnson finished with a .287 overall batting average (11 points higher than 2007), 12 home runs (four fewer than 2007), and 69 RBI (one more than the previous season).
While there is a need for consistency, there's also a need to leave him in the lineup. Johnson was replaced at times by Prado and Omar Infante, despite hitting .333 against southpaws. If Johnson remains, Cox needs to leave him in there on an everyday basis to give Johnson a chance to be more consistent. It's hard to be consistent when you're being pulled out of the lineup - even when it's really not necessary.
But when Prado got his chance, he did well at the plate. Prado hit .320 with two home runs and 33 RBI in 228 at bats, along with a .377 OBP. Those numbers alone make you wonder what he could do with more playing time. He's a steady defensive player at second, perhaps even better than Johnson. But Prado just does not have the offensive skills Johnson has at the plate.
This decision is much like the one the Braves had to make two years ago. Teams were calling for first baseman Adam LaRoche, knowing the Scott Thorman was around as another option. The Braves bit, sending LaRoche to Pittsburgh to fill the need they had for a reliever.
One problem is the Braves just don't have many players at the big league level with significant trade value. Chipper Jones is probably not marketable, due to his age and his contract. Brian McCann is off limits, as are the Braves top five prospects. So that leaves Johnson and shortstop Yunel Escobar as the main major leaguers who could bring back significant value in a trade.
If the Braves feel Prado could be productive as an everyday player, they may be tempted this winter to trade Johnson. But for those who believe Johnson is only going to get better defensively at second base, along with his potential to improve even more at the plate, it's difficult to imagine him being dealt.
Some believe Johnson can hit 20-25 home runs and drive in close to 100 runs a season. That's pretty good for a second baseman, and the Braves know they won't get that from Martin Prado. So to give that up, they're going to have to get back a pretty good return if they trade Kelly Johnson this winter.
Again, this is not an easy decision. Depth provides a team with options, but it also provides a general manager with tough calls that can impact an organization for a number of years.
Bill Shanks hosts The Braves Show Talk Show, 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. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
21. Do the Braves stick with Johnson at 2B?
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