One of the areas that Frank Wren has really concentrated on in his two-plus years as general manager has been the bench. He acquired Omar Infante two years ago from the Cubs, and then last year signed David Ross to be the backup catcher.
Those two players are good enough to start on many clubs, but they lead the players who comprise the bench for the Braves.
Infante hit .429 (6-14) as a pinch-hitter, but he was more valuable as an occasional starter in numerous positions. Infante played at second base (30 games/22 starts), third base (10/4), shortstop (10/6), center field (8/4), left field (7/4), and right field (3/3).
That's the versatility that Bobby Cox loves on his bench. Infante is not the best defensive player in the world, but he plays adequate enough everywhere he plays. Offensively, he hit .305 overall in 203 at bats. Infante will once again be the main man off the bench in 2010.
After the failed Corky Miller experiment, the Braves brought in David Ross last year as the backup to Brian McCann. Ross played in 54 games and hit .273 with 7 home runs and 20 RBI. For the first time in several years, the Braves did not have a huge drop off when McCann was on the bench.
Ross was also great in the clubhouse. The 32-year-old was a veteran presence for McCann to lean on when necessary, and the pitchers truly enjoyed working with him. Ross will be back for the second and final year of his deal next season.
Last year's main pinch-hitter will not be back. Greg Norton failed miserably as a pinch-hitter, batting only .162 (11-68) off the bench. Norton's overall average was .145, which is unacceptable for a major leaguer.
We're not sure what Matt Diaz's role will be next season. He could be the stopgap right fielder until Jason Heyward is ready. Or Diaz might be the starter in left field, or part of a platoon at either position. But if he is not starting, Diaz will be valuable off the bench. He hit .267 as a pinch-hitter last year. It might help Diaz to get some time at first base in spring training.
Kelly Johnson is likely to be non-tendered, but if he somehow returns he will be on the bench. If the Braves do bring him back, expect Johnson to go back out to the outfield, so he can be more versatile as a reserve. Johnson has played left field and third base in his professional career.
There are two infielders who will compete for time in spring training. Diory Hernandez played in 33 games with Atlanta last year and hit only .141. Hernandez can play second, short, and third base. He made an impression last spring by showing Atlanta coaches he could hit, and then when he got his chance he struggled at the plate. But he'll get another shot next March.
And Brooks Conrad became a fan favorite when he was called up. But Conrad hit only .204 in 54 at bats with the Braves, including a .056 average as a pinch-hitter. Conrad is versatile, but he's got to produce more at the plate to hold down a job, even on the bench.
With Chipper Jones still being a bit brittle, the Braves may look for a veteran player this offseason that could play third base if Jones is out for an extended period of time. Perhaps a player that could play first and third would be someone who would be targeted.
There are going to be a lot of players non-tendered this winter, and with that will come some veteran players who can be had at a bargain. The Braves will tap into that to make sure the depth is better than ever before.
Infante and Ross give the Braves a good start to their list of reserves, but you can expect Wren to solidify the bench even more this winter. The Braves feel they can really compete next year, and a key will be having a solid core of talent Cox can call on at any moment.
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 and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.
25. How does the bench shake out next season?
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