This spring could be the most competitive in years at Disney's Wide World of Sports. Atlanta's pitching staff is up for grabs, with several spots open in the Braves' bullpen. And there are several questions regarding the position players as well.
But no issue could be as interesting as who will replace Julio Franco as Atlanta's backup first baseman. Franco has been the backup, or more specifically the right-handed part of the first base equation, for the last four plus seasons. But now that he's in New York, the Braves need to find his replacement.
Atlanta did not sign anyone on the now dried-up free agent market, and while it could still happen, a trade has not produced a backup either. And not one player from last year's roster, except, of course, for Adam LaRoche, has experience at first base. Therefore, the candidates will come from inside the organization and from left field.
Yes, left field. That's what makes this battle so interesting. The Braves have an interest in having a right-handed batter to compliment Ryan Langerhans and/or Kelly Johnson in left field. But if both Langerhans and Johnson are still on the roster, that need will be filled by someone who could be (and almost has to be) that backup first baseman.
The first internal candidate is James Jurries. For several years, he's torn up the Braves' farm system with tremendous offensive production. There was never a question of whether he could hit, but his defense has been another matter. He found a home last year in Richmond after Scott Thorman was promoted from Double-A when he moved to the outfield, but his experience to play first base might give him an edge.
David Kelton was brought over as a six-year free agent from the Cubs' organization. Kelton, a Georgia boy, has bounced around from third to first and finally to the outfield in his minor league career. Here's a kid that was thought of as the Cubs' next Ron Santo, in their never-ending search for a third baseman. The pressure, and position changes, had an effect on his offense. So now that he's away from the Cubs, and has come back home to play for his favorite team growing up as a kid in Troup County, Georgia, could he finally find that offensive consistency that's been missing his entire career? Like Jurries, Kelton considers himself an outfielder now, but that experience at first should be a plus.
And then there's Matt Diaz, acquired from the Royals last month. Okay, so if Langerhans or Johnson is traded, Diaz would probably get the edge to be the fourth outfielder, platooning with the remaining left-handed hitting left fielder. But if those two stick around, which is very possible, Diaz's value could hinge on his ability to play first base. He's never played first in a game, but he's taken a lot of ground balls over there both in the past and since his trade to Atlanta. The Braves have told him to bring his first baseman's mit to spring training, so he's going to get a strong look over there. His ability to be an emergency catcher could give him an edge. But primarily, if he shows he can handle first base, it will give him a boost in the competition. If he can't handle first base very well, then a trade of Langerhans or Johnson may determine whether or not Diaz makes the team or not. There's no doubt Diaz can hit lefties, which could be a plus, but if he can't play first, he may get squeezed out.
Scott Thorman will be in spring training and we can't, no matter how hard some seem to try, forget about him. Since he hits from the left side, like LaRoche, that makes it unlikely for him to make the Atlanta roster out of spring training. But we cannot forget about this kid. He can hit, and it's very likely we'll see him at some point this year in Atlanta. He doesn't get much national press, which is a mistake. Scott Thorman is a good baseball player, and he could get his chance this season to show how good he actually is.
There are a couple of other options for the backup first baseman's position. Eddie Perez is back as a non-roster player invited to camp. He does have experience as a first baseman (in 25 big league games), so if he hits in camp, he might get consideration. And there have been rumors that Brian Jordan might take some ground balls over at first during camp, as he tries to stick around for at least one more big league season. We should mention that Todd Pratt has 13 games at first base in his big league career, although he's expected to remain behind the plate as Brian McCann's backup for this season.
It's funny how this spot could be vitally tied to left field. It's difficult to carry five outfielders on this roster, so the right-handed compliment to the left-handed hitting outfielders is just going to have to also be the backup first baseman, unless Johnson or Langerhans are dealt in camp. So as of now, Jurries, Kelton, and Diaz will be the main competitors in what should be a very interesting race to backup Adam LaRoche.
Bill Shanks 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.