Where's the Braves' Leadoff Hitter?|
Georgia Online News Service
You could actually feel the exhale of relief from Braves Nation when free agent Garret Anderson signed on to play left field.
Anderson is what is known in baseball circles as a "professional hitter" – a veteran who can nap in the clubhouse until just before game time, then go 2-for-5 with an RBI against a pitcher he's never faced before.
Those types are in short supply on the Braves, so Anderson's signing is good news.
The bad news is that it won't solve the team's problems.
Braves General Manager Frank Wren has brought his club to spring training with gaping holes in two of the most important slots in the batting order – Nos. 1 and 4.
Without a proven leadoff man to start rallies or a thick-necked cleanup hitter to bash three-run homers, the Braves could have a seriously anemic lineup.
Get ready for 3-1 losses.
It won't be Anderson's fault. He's a lifetime .296 hitter in 14 seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, and is a workmanlike left fielder.
But he is on the downside of his career with an increasingly fragile body, and, most importantly, he is not a cleanup hitter. Anderson will be 37 years old in June and he's averaged a modest 16 home runs a year over the last five seasons.
But he may have to bat fourth by default, because nobody else on the club fits the mold.
That's especially bad news for the No. 3 hitter, Chipper Jones, who had a career year last season while batting in front of cleanup hitter Mark Teixeira. With Teixeira's big bat waiting on deck, Jones saw good pitches all season and feasted on them. He ended up winning the National League batting title.
Teixeira is now a very rich Yankee, so Jones could go days without seeing a fat pitch with the less imposing Anderson batting behind him. And this is the last year of Jones' contract with the Braves, so Wren's failure to land a bona fide cleanup hitter could cost Jones a lot of money down the road. You don't want your team's only superstar to be worrying about such things.
If the Braves don't find a leadoff hitter, meanwhile, Chipper will bat in a lot of two-out-and-nobody-on situations, which is an RBI killer.
The three candidates for leadoff include two holdover centerfielders from last season, Gregor Blanco and Josh Anderson, and prized minor leaguer Jordan Schafer. Both Blanco and Anderson showed good speed and defensive potential last year, but neither did much at the plate, and Schafer basically lost the season while serving a 50-game steroid suspension.
Let's be kind and call the leadoff situation "iffy."
Last season, Braves outfielders hit 27 home runs, worst in the Majors. So Wren adds a left fielder who is not a home run hitter and leaves the centerfield competition primarily to singles hitters.
That would be less of a concern if the Braves had power hitters in right field and at first base, like many teams. But they do not.
Right fielder Jeff Francoeur was clueless at the plate last season and was sent down to the minors at one point. First baseman Casey Kotchman is a gap hitter who, in truth, did not hit all that many gaps in his brief stint with the Braves after being traded for Teixeira in a salary dump.
Atlanta has some hitting talent in the infield beyond third baseman Jones, including second baseman Kelly Johnson, shortstop Yunel Escobar and especially catcher Brian McCann. But they haven't yet put up the consistent power numbers that can help carry a team.
Wren appears to have upgraded the starting pitching -- although nobody's going to confuse the current rotation with the majestic Smoltz-Maddux-Glavine constellation that dominated the 1990s and early 2000s. And don't forget, even those great pitchers produced just one World Series title.
Why? Not enough hitting.
Paul Kaplan has been an award-winning writer and editor at newspapers in Miami, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. [full bio]