The Braves believe they have a chance at a postseason berth, and that's why they upgraded first base Friday with the acquisition of first baseman Adam LaRoche from the Boston Red Sox for Casey Kotchman.
With the trade, the Braves have now changed exactly half of its eight position players on the field since Opening Day. First base, second base, center field, and right field are now different from when the team opened up in Philadelphia on April 5.
All season long the offense has been the question mark for this team. The Braves are 21st in the majors in runs scored (452) and 23rd in home runs (91). When Atlanta has scored four or more runs in a game, its record is 45-11, and when it has scored only three or fewer runs the record is 6-39.
So when Atlanta gives its pitching staff run support, it usually wins. And the inconsistency in the offense is what made general manager Frank Wren know he needed one more power bat in the lineup.
Third baseman Chipper Jones, who is close to LaRoche and spends a lot of time with him hunting in the offseason, was excited to get his old teammate back.
"I'm happy he's coming back," Jones said Friday night. "We spent the All Star Break together, and I told him he was going to get traded. I thought one of the likely spots would be somewhere like San Francisco, a team that needed a first baseman with some pop in their lineup. It just seemed like a good fit for him."
"Then all of a sudden when the trades started going down I knew that we were inquiring about him," Jones said. "It didn't work out and he went to Boston. Obviously Boston has got some personnel issues as far as who plays where, who plays when. With them acquiring Victor Martinez, Roachy was kind of the odd man out. It gave us an opportunity to get back in the picture. Hopefully he can have his typical second half and help us out a little bit."
Atlanta's first basemen have only seven home runs total, tied for last in the National League, and the .401 slugging percentage is next to last in the NL. So an upgrade was needed.
Kotchman had been doing a bit better as of late, hitting .320 in July with four home runs and 13 RBI. But he did not hit a home run in April or June, and Kotchman just did not provide much of a power threat in the lineup.
While his defense is outstanding, Kotchman just did not provide what is needed offensively at his position. His biggest power season as a professional was in 2005, when he hit 17 home runs between Triple-A Salt Lake City and his rookie year in Los Angeles.
If Kotchman had stayed with the Braves through the end of the season, he likely would have been a non-tender candidate this winter. He makes $2.885 this season, and will be in line for a salary near $4 million through arbitration. The Braves were probably not prepared to pay that type of money for a first baseman with no power.
So instead, the Braves get a familiar face in LaRoche, who hit 65 home runs in his three years as the primary first baseman in Atlanta from 2004 through 2006. LaRoche spent only nine days in Boston, but was expendable after the Red Sox acquired Victor Martinez from Cleveland on Friday.
LaRoche, in his contract season, is arguably putting up his worst offensive season as a pro. He's hitting only .248 combined between Pittsburgh and Boston, with 13 home runs and 43 RBI. His .326 OBP and .446 slugging percentage statistics, along with his batting average, are all below his career averages.
But LaRoche is simply more of a power threat than Kotchman, and the difference in defense is not that glaring. Kotchman did not commit an error in the 130 games he played in Atlanta, but LaRoche played above average defense at first base when he was a Braves' starter at first a few years ago.
The simple fact that LaRoche can hit the ball out of the ballpark, with an average of 22 home runs in his first five seasons coming into this year, should make a difference. Pitches knew Kotchman could hurt them with singles and doubles, but LaRoche has the ability to drive the ball out of the ballpark.
Atlanta general manager Frank Wren also made this deal knowing full well how strong LaRoche is historically as the season gets into the dog days of summer. In his career, LaRoche has hit .295 after the All-Star break, while hitting only .252 before the break.
LaRoche has done most of his damage in his career in the final two months of the season. In August and September in his first five seasons, LaRoche has hit .300 (239-797), while in the first four months of the year during his career LaRoche has hit .256 (473-1850).
It will be interesting to see where manager Bobby Cox places LaRoche in the Atlanta batting order. LaRoche is yet another left-handed hitter, and the Braves could have four lefty hitters in the middle of the lineup.
The offense had gained stability with the insertion of Martin Prado in the number two hole, and with Yunel Escobar falling to sixth in the order. Will Cox place LaRoche behind Escobar, or will he want the power potential to be higher in the lineup?
"Well, I'm sure he'll probably be down six or seven (in the lineup)," Jones said. "That would be my guess. Probably seven. You got to squeeze some right-handed bats in between lefties somewhere. We got a ton of lefties. You know, to add a little balance to our lineup, he's probably going to hit down in the lineup. If somebody doesn't play, I'm sure he'll move up. But it still gives you a threat that a pitcher has to respect late in the lineup. If you make a mistake to Roachy, he can hit the ball 450 feet."
This team will also be helped by LaRoche's presence in the clubhouse. Kotchman had no personality and did not interact much with his teammates. And while LaRoche is also a quiet person, he's a leader who was assuming a role with this team before his trade to Pittsburgh. And while with the Pirates, he was definitely one of the leaders on that team as well.
LaRoche is still close friends with several Braves' players, and will be welcomed back at Turner Field.
"He grew up in this organization, and he knows all the guys," Jones said. "The team chemistry is not going to falter whatsoever. He's been a good friend to a lot of guys in here. I've got a hunting buddy on the team now."
LaRoche is a free agent at the end of the season, and he has the ability to improve his stock a bit with a strong final two months with the Braves. At the same time, the Braves can see if they can perhaps keep him around until first base prospect Freddie Freeman is ready.
If LaRoche does well, the Braves might try to convince LaRoche to come back for one more season, which would give Freeman more time to develop. Freeman will probably need to start next season back in Double-A, but Freeman could easily knock on the door sometime next summer.
LaRoche may find it hard, with the baseball economy as it is right now, to have a team offer a long-term contract that will give him a significant salary above the $7.05 million he is making this season. So it might behoove him to come back for a year, have a productive 2010 season with Atlanta, and then go out on the market 16 months from now when the economy will hopefully be a bit better.
Or if he does not do well, or his contract demands are just higher than what the Braves want to pay for a first baseman for next season, they can just let LaRoche walk away this winter. Unless Freeman goes to the Arizona Fall League and convinces the Braves he will be ready as a 20-year-old rookie next spring, Atlanta will need a one-year option for first base. And LaRoche will be a much more logical candidate than Casey Kotchman.
It would be, for example, better to pay LaRoche $7 million dollars if he can show he can hit for power, than to pay Kotchman $4 million through arbitration to be a punch-and-Judy hitter at first base.
But for now, the question is: will LaRoche make this lineup better for the final 59 games of this season? Kotchman is a nice player, and if the Atlanta lineup had been loaded with more power hitters it would have been easier to have him play first base and hit only 10 home runs this season. LaRoche offers a bigger threat, and that's exactly what this Braves' lineup needs right now.
The pitching staff is going to give this Atlanta team a chance in the final two months, but if the offense sputters, the Braves will linger around the .500 mark. Hopefully, the addition of another power bat will make a difference. LaRoche might not be Fred McGriff, but the Braves hope he will light a fire under an offense than can look awfully weak at times.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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