State of the Braves - Part One

Jason Heyward

It's our annual New Year's Eve look at the Braves, and it's so big it's going to take two parts. We start with the position players.

It's time for the annual New Year's Eve state of the Atlanta Braves report. We've done this for a number of years now, and it's always fun to look at the entire organization from top to bottom to see where the Braves are heading into the new year.

Of course, for me, New Year's Day is the day when I can stop saying, "next season," and instead say, "this season." It's just a little deal with me, that when the calendar turns we can now see spring training getting very close.

Pitchers and catchers report in 50 days – February 19.

The Braves bounced back with 86 wins last season, an increase of 14 victories from 2008. It's now been four seasons with no playoffs for the Braves, and after 14 straight years of playing in October, fans are getting a little restless.

But is the 14-game improvement a normal and natural progression to more consistent winning baseball? It might have been too much to ask for the Braves to go from the 72 wins they had in 2008 to 90-plus wins in 2009. Maybe a 14-win improvement was more realistic?

If that's the case then the next step is to have a team that can win 90 or more games. And 2010 is the season for that to happen.

So how much better are the Braves now, at least on paper, compared to where they were when the season ended? And another way I like to look at it is how much better are the Braves going to be on opening day 2010 compared to what the roster looked like last April when the season started in Philadelphia.

Remember, this Braves team went 51-30 in an 81-game stretch during the second half of the season. If not for losing their last six games of the season, the Braves might have won 90 games. But how much will the changes they have already made help next season?

Atlanta could have almost half of its 25-man roster different than what it started the season with last year. That's quite a difference, and we have to remember that part of the changes happened last summer.

Nate McLouth was acquired from the Pirates in June and took over in center for Jordan Schafer, while Martin Prado replaced Kelly Johnson as the primary second baseman.

There were changes in right field and at first base, as well. And the switches from Jeff Francoeur and Casey Kotchman to Matt Diaz and Adam LaRoche made a huge difference in the lineup.

Right field and first base will be different again this season. But let's first look at center field and second base.

How much will it help to have McLouth in the lineup the entire season? Well, he had to help the lineup some, especially since McLouth was more of a leadoff man than Kelly Johnson, who manned the spot for most of the first two months of last season.

McLouth hit 20 home runs, drove in 70, and stole 19 bases between his time in Pittsburgh and Atlanta. With the Braves, he hit .257 with 11 home runs, 36 RBI, and 12 stolen bases in 84 games.

So in 162 games, would McLouth be able to put up 20-25 home runs, drive in 75 or so, and steal around 20 bases?

The big question is whether or not McLouth will hit in the leadoff spot in 2010? He hit only .260 from the leadoff spot between the two teams. Some have wondered if McLouth would do better lower in the order. He hit .244 in the three hole last year, and over the last three seasons his average in the three spot is the exact same as it has been when he's hit leadoff.

McLouth is a nice player. He's signed to a decent contract for two more years, with a club option for 2012. The Braves should expect better all-around numbers from McLouth this season, whether he's in the leadoff spot or not.

It's not out of the question that McLouth could move to left field, if the Braves prefer Melky Cabrera in center. But if Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon, or Xavier Nady is signed for left, McLouth will undoubtedly remain in center.

At second base, Johnson was miscast as a leadoff man from the start of the 2009 season. He had struggled in that role the previous season, but Bobby Cox put him at leadoff again. It was just a mistake. Johnson needed to be lower in the order. He would have been much more consistent if he had hit sixth or even seventh.

I was a big Kelly Johnson fan, and I hate that he was not put in the right position to succeed with the Braves. A leadoff man he wasn't, and I disagreed with Cox on that move more than anything he's done in the last few years.

When Johnson failed in the leadoff spot, with a horrific month of June, Prado took over the position. Prado is a good player, and while I was skeptical of whether or not he could play everyday, I was convinced when he played well the rest of the season.

Prado has always been a hitter. I remember when the old Dodger, Franklin Stubbs, a former hitting coach in the Braves' system, tell me a few years ago Prado would be an outstanding big league hitter. I wasn't so sure, but with what I saw the last four months of last season, Stubbs looks like he was right.

So now, with Johnson gone, what can Prado do as the everyday second baseman? I hope the rumors of Dan Uggla are not true, so that Prado can stay in one position. I'm not in favor of Prado moving around. If he's your second baseman, leave him there so he can be consistent at the plate and put up good numbers.

Prado hit .307 in 450 at bats, or pretty much the equivalent of three-fourths of a full season, with 11 home runs and 49 RBI. So what can he do over the course of 600 at bats? Well, using simple math, those numbers would come out to 15 home runs and 65 RBI, which would be pretty good for a second baseman.

If Prado gets 600 plate appearances in the number two hole in the batting order, and he's left alone at second base, I think he could be that successful offensively. Prado can hit .300 and can have an OBP of over. 350. The kid can hit, and so we have a lot to look forward to as he has his first full season as a starter in 2010.

So if McLouth and Prado set the order, will that get the Braves' offense going? It better. A year ago Johnson and Yunel Escobar were at the top of the order, but Escobar being lower in the order helped the lineup tremendously.

Of course, if the number three hitter stinks again this season, all of this can be for not. Chipper Jones must bounce back after a horrible season. His batting average dipped 100 points from his batting title season in 2008, and Jones's power is now a non-issue.

He's said himself that if his struggles continue, he'll retire. And for the Braves' sake, let's hope he's telling the truth. But I'm not going to give up on Chipper just yet. Yeah, only a handful of players in big league history have played third base at Chipper's age. But Jones acted genuinely embarrassed about how poorly he performed at the plate last season.

The Braves need Jones to hit close to .300, especially since he is a career .307 hitter. But the fact that Jones's power has gone away is what is even more troubling. Jones has averaged 23 home runs per season in the past five years, but they need him to have at least that many this season.

We have to wonder what Cox will do if Jones struggles early in the season. Jones has said he wants to hit third, and he wants to stay at third base. But if he does poorly, would Cox move him down lower in the order? He might have to, but we know how loyal Cox is, especially to his favorites.

Many have wondered who is the heir-apparent at third base. What if Jones leaves after 2010? Well, Prado could be moved to third, since he does play well there defensively. But the Braves are going to need a power bat at third when Jones does leave, whether it's after this season or three years from now.

This is a huge concern for the organization. Eric Campbell flopped and is gone. Jon Gilmore was traded a year ago, and some in the organization believed he could be the one. And now, there is no clear solid prospect at that position in the system.

There would have to be someone moved from another position, like Prado, or Escobar from shortstop, or Mycal Jones, a draft pick last year that will head to Rome, from shortstop. But Mycal Jones is several years away, so even if that is an option, is not a guarantee.

Some wonder if shortstop Brandon Hicks could make the move to third. He's an outstanding defensive player at shortstop, so the Braves may not want to risk his value by switching positions. But if Hicks returns to Double-A and has a solid season, he's going to have to be considered for a spot somewhere.

Expect new scouting director Tony DeMacio to address this in the draft this June. Now, chances are low that DeMacio can just snap his fingers and find another Evan Longoria. But the Braves do need someone in the farm system that can be somewhat of a long-term option at third base.

Donnell Linares had a decent first season in the Braves system last year, but he's an older Cuban player who could be more of a Quad-A player at his peak. Samuel Sime, considered by some a few years ago to be a decent prospect, has not hit enough. And we're not sure what the Braves have in Jordan Kreke and Jacob Dalfonso, two kids from last year's draft.

So third base needs help.

Let's get back to right field and first base, two positions that were in transition last season, and will be again this year. Francoeur, and all the troubles of the last two season, is now gone. It will be interesting to watch him in New York, and hopefully Jeff being out of the hometown limelight will help him have a decent major league career.

But now that era is over, another hometown kid from the Atlanta area is about to take over that position. Jason Heyward is the best prospect in the game of baseball, and the comparisons range from Willie McCovey to Dave Parker to Fred McGriff.

This kid is the real deal. He's legit. Jason is a sight to see. Sure, I went on about how special Francoeur was five years ago before he came up to the big leagues. But this is an entirely different type of prospect. There were always some questions about Jeff, but not many at all Mr. Heyward.

My favorite Jason Heyward story, at least so far, happened last year in spring training. It was a Monday in March. The Braves were off, and they had a scrimmage going on, with Kenshin Kawakami pitching off the mound for one of the first times as a Brave. Heyward hit two laser shots off the Japanese pitcher, including one that went halfway up the scoreboard at Disney.

And then there was the catch he made in Florida, when he practically climbed the wall and took a home run away from somebody. I also saw his arm in full use, throwing out a base runner in a minor league game on the back fields.

Heyward is just a superstar. He's scary good. Even the Braves scouts have their eyes glow when they talk about him, instead of the normal ‘settle down he's still only 20' conversation that should be going on. They know how good Heyward is, and how special he's going to be.

But the question is – can he be ready to go on opening day? My answer to that is yes. Let Heyward be the opening day right fielder in Atlanta. Yes, he doesn't turn 21 until August, but this kid is just an unbelievable player.

I want him to win the job because I think Heyward can help this Atlanta team this year. He'll be under the radar; there's no doubt about that. But this kid is mature and he can handle it. Jason can go out there and hit .270 or better, and knock at least 20 home runs, and just be a force in the Atlanta lineup.

Heyward is going to be a star, and he's going to be the face of this franchise in this new decade that is starting tomorrow. It's only a matter of when, not if, this kid becomes a star. If he is one early on, like this year, the Braves are going to be drastically improved in right field.

By the way, in case you missed it when we had Freddie Freeman on our talk show, he said that Jason is up to 248 pounds. And that's not ‘Jason going to the buffet 248 pounds.' That's solid muscle. That is scary.

If Heyward is not ready, and needs a bit more time, the Braves can turn to Matt Diaz, who performed admirably after he took over for Francoeur in July. Diaz is still around, hoping to get more consistent playing time, but unless he's in a platoon with Heyward, he's likely to be simply a bench player in 2010.

Diaz is a career .310 hitter, and in his four seasons in Atlanta, he's hit .316. He hit 13 home runs in 371 at bats last year, which would give him 21 over the course of a full season. No one hustles more on this team than Diaz, and he's still a very valuable player.

But it does not mean he's going to be a starter. Again, he could be in a platoon with Heyward in right, and if Melky Cabrera is the main guy in left, perhaps Diaz could get some time there as well. If the Braves bring in another left fielder, Diaz could fall even lower down in the pecking order.

The right field spot produced 16 home runs and 89 RBI last season for the Braves. Heyward, or even Heyward and Diaz, should eclipse those numbers. And it will be interesting to see where Cox hits Heyward in the lineup if he makes the roster.

The biggest new force in the Atlanta lineup should be, and could be Troy Glaus, who will be officially signed once he passes his physical. I had many people mention Glaus to me, and I never got the impression the Braves were that interested. I'll be honest – I was lukewarm on the idea, but when I looked at how big of a power threat he's been, I really liked the move.

We all know Glaus missed most of last season with shoulder trouble, so that remains a question mark. But when this guy has been healthy, he's been one of the biggest power hitters in the game. And since the doctor who did his surgery says Glaus is now healthy, we might ought to get excited.

Here's the stat I go back to time and again on Glaus: he's had seven seasons (out of 11 complete seasons in the big leagues) where he's played in 149 games or more. Out of those seven seasons, Glaus has averaged 35.5 home runs a year.

Now, even if he falls 10 home runs short of that average, Glaus will be a major threat in the Atlanta lineup. I'll take 25 home runs from him, from the cleanup spot, wouldn't you? Who knows how he'll be defensively at first base, so that could be a worry. But the reason he's coming here is to hit home runs, and he's proved he can do that in his career.

McLouth, Prado, Chipper, and then Glaus, in front of Brian McCann, should be a pretty formidable top five. But along with Chipper bouncing back, they've got to have that power threat. Glaus has got to hit home runs. I'm not saying don't care about the other things he can do, but he has to be that threat that we've missed since Gary Sheffield was here earlier in the decade.

Glaus could be a bargain at $2 million, and the Braves had to find someone to man the position for at least one year. Freddie Freeman is a phenom, and the Braves have someone who could man first base for the next decade possibly a year away.

I've seen Freeman's pure power, and it might even be better than Heyward's – that is saying something. Freeman can simply hit, and when he hits it the ball usually goes a long way. But Freddie spent a lot of time sitting out last year due to nagging injuries, so he's going to need to go back to Double-A Mississippi and have a good, full season.

If Freeman does that, he'll be knocking on the door a year from now. Who knows, maybe Glaus is kept and switched back to third base if Chipper retires. That would at least be an option.

Having Freeman and Heyward in the future lineup could give the Braves two players who could hit 25 or more home runs per season. That is very important, especially considering how the team has lacked power the last few seasons.

Freeman and Heyward are best friends, and if Heyward makes the Atlanta roster, we'll see if that inspires Freeman to do even better so he can get up with his buddy. It's going to be tough for those two to be separated, but it might really push Freeman to have a good year so he can get to Atlanta.

First base should be okay for several years after Freeman takes over, but it will be fun to see how Riann Spanjer-Furstenburg will do in Rome this season. He was a mid-teens draft picks last June who did well in Danville. Is he a legit prospect, or just a college player who did well in the Appy League? We should know more after seeing RSF in a full season.

We know who the catcher is going to be for the next several years, and the position is in good hands with Brian McCann. He's the best catcher in the National League, and McCann won't turn 26 until February.

McCann is halfway through the six-year contract he signed in March of 2007, and he's getting ready to become a bit more expensive. McCann will earn $5.5 million this season, and then $6.5 million in 2011, followed by $8.5 million in 2012. There is a club option for 2013 for $12 million.

The kid, and he'll always be a kid to me, is just a damn good baseball player. He's not perfect. He could throw people out at a better rate. But he's a field general behind the plate. He's in complete control out there, and the pitchers love pitching to him. That is important, especially with an organization once again dedicated to pitching.

At the plate, McCann is very good. He's a force in the lineup, averaging 21.5 home runs in his first four full seasons in the big leagues. He's a run producer, driving in 91.5 runs over the past four seasons. Brian is just an all-around solid player, and he's very important to the Braves as we move into this next decade.

The Braves may have found his eventual replacement, or at least someone who might really push McCann in a few years in young Christian Bethancourt. He's a catcher who is listed at 6'2", 175 pounds, and just turned 18 on September 2. Bethancourt was named the best prospect in the Gulf Coast League by Baseball America after his impressive season.

The right-handed hitter hit put up a .284 average, with 2 home runs and 19 RBI in 32 games. And then Bethancourt went to the Appy League and hit two more home runs and drove in eight in 14 games with Danville. He's an impressive kid, and scouts rave about what he can do behind the plate.

But Bethancourt will head to Rome this season, and it will be quite a test for an 18-year-old. He may need three full seasons, at the least, and that would make him possibly ready for the big leagues right when McCann's contract is coming to an end. It's always good to have other options, and the Braves could have a good one in Bethancourt.

David Ross is an outstanding backup catcher, and will be back for another season in 2010. The Braves also have a good backup, backup option in Clint Sammons, who will once again go to Triple-A Gwinnett. Matt Kennelly and Braeden Schlehuber are two more catchers in A-ball who will be watched closely.

Now let's move to shortstop, where Yunel Escobar had a rocky season in 2009. At times it seemed like Bobby Cox wanted to kill the Cuban, but after the manager had a sit-down with Escobar, things calmed down and he had another solid season.

Escobar is now a career .301 hitter after batting .299 this past season, with 14 home runs and 76 RBI. He's now had two full seasons as the starting shortstop, and Escobar is arguably one of the best players at his position.

Escobar is under control through 2013, and he won't be eligible for arbitration until after this season. You wonder if the Braves would approach Escobar about a long-term deal, to buy him out of his arbitration years.

He's got probably some of the highest value on the team, and we'll have to see how he behaves in Cox's last year. Escobar helped the lineup tremendously last season when Cox dropped him lower in the order. He became a true run producer, and let's hope he'll be productive from the sixth spot in the lineup this season as well.

As mentioned earlier, Hicks is a legit shortstop candidate. A good season from Hicks in Double-A could make the Braves at least think about trading Escobar, but Hicks would have to make significant strides at the plate. Hicks must decrease his strikeouts, and if he does, the Braves are going to have to wonder about his future role with the team.

Mycal Jones, also mentioned earlier in the conversation about the future at third, is really a shortstop and will probably head to Rome for 2010.

Now let's move to left field. Do we have to? This has been a bad topic for so many years. The turnstiles have been busy as left field has been the most unstable position for the Braves this decade. In fact, in the last six seasons, six different players have led the team in games started in left field.

Not since Chipper Jones played left in 2002 and 2003 have the Braves had a player lead the team in games started in consecutive seasons at the position. It started back in 2000 with Reggie Sanders and Bobby Bonilla tying for the team lead in 62 games started, followed by B.J. Surhoff (2001), Jones's two years, and then Charles Thomas, Kelly Johnson, Ryan Langerhans, Matt Diaz, Gregor Blanco, and last season Garret Anderson.

And now the Braves will have another new left fielder as Anderson makes his exit. He was miserable from the day he got to Atlanta, unhappy that his beloved Angels let him go. Anderson didn't hustle, and his defense was atrocious. Offensively, he was okay, but not the threat he used to be in a lineup.

So he's gone, and even though another outfielder has been brought in (Melky Cabrera), we still don't know who is going to play left field. I found it interesting that when Cabrera was acquired from the Yankees a few weeks ago, Frank Wren did not say, "here is our new left fielder." He could have, but he didn't. That leads me to believe something else might happen to fill left field.

Let me first talk about Cabrera. I have never seen a player so scrutinized since he was traded to Atlanta in my life. Poor kid has no chance of ever being a fan favorite, since the fans hated him from the time the trade happened.

Okay, I know the trade was not what we hoped for if Javier Vazquez was the one to get traded. Yes, I wish Nick Swisher had been in the deal instead. But maybe the inclusion of the pitchers in the deal will make it more palatable down the road.

But Cabrera is here, at least for now, and regardless of how you may despise him, we have to hope he'll contribute if he is the primary left fielder this season. How will that help the lineup if he is the main left fielder? Well, it might depend on how Cox uses him in the lineup.

Will he bat Cabrera in the leadoff spot, where he's had his highest OBP over the last three seasons? Cabrera's OBP in 180 at bats hitting first is .361, much higher than when he's hit lower in the batting order. His OBP hitting seventh has been .347, hitting eighth it's .280, and then hitting ninth it's .330 over the past three seasons.

Cabrera is not a power hitter, and we all thought that's what the Braves would get if Vazquez was the one traded. So you can't expect him to be in the middle part of the order. Cox could hit Cabrera first, and then move McLouth down in the order, or he could simply hit Cabrera seventh or eighth, depending on whether Jason Heyward is in the lineup.

So let's look at a couple of lineups with Cabrera in there.

Melky Cabrera
Martin Prado
Chipper Jones
Troy Glaus
Brian McCann
Yunel Escobar
Nate McLouth
Jason Heyward

Nate McLouth
Martin Prado
Chipper Jones
Troy Glaus
Brian McCann
Yunel Escobar
Jason Heyward
Melky Cabrera

Are those two lineups better compared to the one that the Braves had on opening day 2009? I believe so. Now, would it be better with another big bopper in the middle? Absolutely. And I think that is why we're all a little skeptical about Cabrera.

Yeah, he's okay. But can't they do better than that?

Cabrera is under control by the Braves for two more years, so it's not like he's going to be some long-term answer for this team in left field. Again, he's okay, but can't they do better than that?

The Braves still have about $10 million to spend under their budget. They've already fixed their bullpen, and Wren has said they're done there. They do need to spend part of that on some reserves for the infield, but that's not going to cost that much. So you have to believe there is still a chance they spend some of that money on another bat for the outfield.

If the Braves want to bring in a player who could play both the outfield and first base, just in case Glaus has trouble one way or the other, there are options.

Some have wondered if Jermaine Dye may have to get some time at first base, and if he could play that position he would be more attractive to the Braves. Dye played one game at first, back in 2005 for the White Sox.

But there is no doubt the soon-to-be 36-year-old Dye can still hit for power. Dye had 27 home runs last season, and over the past six seasons has averaged 31.2 home runs a year. He's been pretty durable in that time span, as well, averaging 143.5 games played since 2004.

Xavier Nady is another name to keep in mind. He's like Glaus in that he's coming back from missing most of the previous season with an injury. Nady had Tommy John in midseason, but should be ready to go opening day. The Braves had interest in Nady earlier, but his agent is Scott Boras. Will the Glaus signing kill their chances or interest in Nady?

Nady just turned 31. He's a right-handed hitter. And before last season, Nady had averaged 18.75 in the four years prior to last season's injury-plagued year. Nady has played 543 games in his career in the outfield, and 82 games at first base.

The Braves are only paying Glaus $2 million with incentives, so they're probably not going to want to spend much more than that on Nady. But again, with Boras, that could be a problem.

And even Johnny Damon has played three games at first in his career. Perhaps he gets some time at first base as he gets older. This is the player I'd love for the Braves to bring in. But again, Boras ishis agent as well. Damon's options seem to be running out, and he's expressed a desire to play for the Braves, especially since he lives in Orlando, where the Braves train in March.

Damon can still play. He still has some power, although you have to wonder how much the new Yankee Stadium helped him last year. Damon is a winner, and that experience could only help a team like the Braves going after a run at the playoffs.

But look at the Braves lineup with Damon at the top:

Johnny Damon
Martin Prado
Chipper Jones
Troy Glaus
Brian McCann
Yunel Escobar
Nate McLouth
Jason Heyward

I believe that is a more dangerous lineup, even with Damon not really being a power hitter. From one to eight, that's pretty good.

I wouldn't be against Dye, Nady, or Damon joining the Braves. The money is there, so it's just hard to imagine the Braves not signing one of these three.

Let's say they do have around $10 million left to spend. Even if they sign two players for the bench at $1.5 million each, that would leave $7 million bucks to spend on another bat. It sounds like Damon is not going to get much more than that, and it's hard to imagine Dye or Nady getting more than that either.

Signing one of these three could help the lineup tremendously. It would also allow Cabrera to be what Wren called him in that press conference – someone that could play all three outfield positions, and that's a valuable piece to have on the roster.

There are two other free agent outfielders who hit right-handed. Vladimir Guerrero is still a hitter, but people wonder if he can play in the field anymore. And Gary Sheffield has said he'll finish his career with Atlanta or Tampa Bay, but you have to wonder how effective he can be in the outfield at the age of 41. Sheffield did, however, hit 10 home runs in 312 at bats last season.

So that's about it. If the Braves are going to bring in a significant bat for the lineup, those are the candidates. And again, I'll take Dye, Nady, and especially Damon. That would be a much more impressive lineup than what they have right now. The money is there, so something else has got to happen.

Again, the Braves do need some help on the bench. They have Omar Infante, who is a very valuable player. He can play second, short, third, and the outfield. Infante is under contract for 2010, so he'll once again be the top reserve this season.

The Braves need more than Diory Hernandez, Brooks Conrad, and Joe Thurston off the bench. Hernandez hit only .141 in 85 at bats, while Conrad hit only .204 in 54 at bats. I know Conrad won a lot of fans over with his hustle, but he really didn't do that well overall. And Thurston was just signed to a minor league deal. He's a nice backup option, but would look better playing in Gwinnett.

Atlanta has the money to spend to bring in a couple of decent players who can be versatile enough to move around the field, and also be productive off the bench.

Let's take a look at some of the reserves the Braves may take a look at in January.

The Braves have had interest in Austin Kearns before, and he's available now as a free agent. They could bring him in on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training, as it's unlikely any team will give him a major league deal.

How about Fernando Tatis? He's 35 now, but the last two seasons he's been pretty valuable for the Mets playing all four infield positions and in the outfield. He's the type of versatile player, with offensive skills, the Braves may look for to fill out the roster.

Eric Hinske is an interesting possibility. He's still only 32 years old, but he's mostly been a reserve the last few seasons. But as recently as two seasons ago Hinske got 432 at bats and had 20 homers for Toronto. Hinske can play the outfield corners, first, and still a bit at third. He'd beat the hell out of having Greg Norton off the bench.

Nomar Garciaparra may be a good possibility. The Braves could use someone that could sit in at first base and third base, and that's where Garciaparra has mostly played the last two seasons. He doesn't have much power anymore, but he might not be a bad bat off the bench.

Chad Tracy plays first and third. He's a lefty hitter, who has had shown some power in the past (27 home runs in 2005). He might have to settle for a reserve role and become another Morgan Ensberg-type player.

Chris Duncan is a left-handed hitter who can play first and the outfield. Three seasons ago he hit 21 home runs for the Cardinals, so he has some power.

Rocco Baldelli can't really play first base, but he was okay for the Red Sox last year in the outfield as a part-time player. That might be what he's relegated to now, but Baldelli is a right-handed bat that has the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark.

As for the middle infielders, keep the name Alfredo Amezaga in mind. He can play the outfield, along with all four infield positions. Amezaga has some speed (20 steals in 2006), but the versatility is what may make him attractive to the Braves.

Jerry Hairston, Jr. played second, short, third, and the outfield last season for the Reds and Yankees. Marcus Thames played first and the outfield for the Tigers. Either player would be good off the bench.

The Braves still have Brandon Jones and Gregor Blanco on the 40-man roster, but they could be removed with the next additions that are made this winter. Both players have not made the impressive impression necessary to be taken seriously for the future. They'll probably be back in Gwinnett this season.

We cannot forget about Jordan Schafer. I wrote a piece a few weeks ago urging everyone to remember the kid. Okay, so he struggled at the plate in his two months in the big leagues last year. But hell, his wrist was messed up. And double hell, he was hitting eighth, which was pretty stupid.

Schafer does have to prove he is recovered from his wrist surgery, and that will be his main goal in spring training. But even right now, including Heyward, the Braves already have five outfielders who look to be on the roster. Schafer's best hope right now is that the Braves do not sign another outfielder (which seems unlikely) or that Heyward needs more time in the minor leagues.

Maybe it wouldn't hurt Schafer to go back to Triple-A for some time to get back on track. He is not going to forget how to play defense, and his defense is exceptional. But you want him to feel comfortable at the plate with his wrist. So it seems unlikely Schafer would be a part of the Atlanta roster on opening day.

But Schafer still has great talents that could help this club down the road. If he could prove he's healthy, and puts up good numbers in 2010, Schafer should just right back in as a top prospect for the Braves' future. The Braves have to take that wrist into consideration when evaluating how he did in April and May.

So let's take another look at the outfield. Heyward will be up at some point in 2010, and he should be in right field for several years – hopefully for the next fifteen seasons! McLouth is under contract for two more years, and the Braves have a club option through 2012. So center field could be okay for the next few seasons.

What does the farm system have for the future in the outfield? Matt Young is a player who will probably get some playing time in spring training at big league camp. He's a scrappy kid who keeps on playing well, and he's more of a Pete Orr-type prospect.

Cody Johnson is just a power-hitting fool. The kid can hit. He can hit them far. Is he Adam Dunn? Well, he can hit them as far as Dunn does with his home runs. I like Cody, and I think that while he does need to improve on his strikeouts and be a more all-around player, you can't ignore power like that. He's going to Double-A this season, and I'm really anxious to see how he does in Mississippi.

Heck, maybe Johnson is the answer to the revolving door in left field. But again, Double-A is going to be a test for him. If Cody has a good season in the Southern League, more people are going to have to take him more seriously. I just go back to that power, and believe you can't ignore something that impressive. I know you have to make contact, and you don't want an all-or-nothing hitter, but let's just hope he can develop more and be a future option.

Willie Cabrera and Concepcion Rodriguez are two nice players who did okay in Double-A last season. But they both need to do be more consistent to get on the radar. Chances are they'll be back in Mississippi.

The player a lot of Braves' scouts are ready to watch in 2010 is Adam Milligan, who was drafted three times by Atlanta before signing. Milligan played nine games in Danville, then 52 games in Rome, followed by six games in Myrtle Beach. Overall, the lefty hitter hit .344 with 13 home runs, 49 RBI, 20 doubles, a .393 OBP, a .592 slugging percentage, and a .985 OPS in 262 at bats.

Milligan has raw power from the left side of the plate. Chances are he'll go to Myrtle Beach to start 2010, and I could see him finishing the season in Double-A. If Milligan has anything similar go on this year, he's going to be a top prospect. Again, when you're looking for raw power, you can't count out guys like Johnson and Milligan.

One long-term outfielder to watch is Kyle Rose, who played mostly in the Gulf Coast League last summer after being drafted in June. Rose had a .282 average, a .391 OBP, and 26 steals in 47 games down in Orlando. Chances are he'll head to Rome for this season. He's got the best stolen base potential of anyone in the farm system.

It sure would be nice to have a good right-handed hitting outfield prospect join this group. Heyward, Schafer, Johnson, and Milligan are all left-handed hitters. I wonder if Tony DeMacio will look for a right-handed hitting outfielder for this year's draft.

We're going to tackle the pitching in part two of our series, but we'll end this first part with a quick discussion about the manager. Bobby Cox will be in his last year as the skipper. It's hard for me to believe, since I started watching the Braves the same year Bobby took over the team – back in 1978.

From 1982 through the middle of 1990, someone else managed the Braves. But for most of us Bobby Cox has been the Braves. We've hollered at him when we've disagreed with him, and we've celebrated with him every year the Braves won a division.

We've got to hope the organization, and especially the ownership, will do everything possible to make Bobby's last season special. That doesn't mean a dip in the payroll, or not giving the front office the flexibility to improve the roster, if needed, during the season.

But what's going to happen next year when Cox leaves? Well, I believe the Braves would love to have Fredi Gonzalez, the manager of the Florida Marlins. He still lives in Atlanta, and he is still close to Cox and Frank Wren. In fact, Wren was the one who worked with Gonzalez in the Marlins' minor league system, and a few years later brought him to the Braves to manage in Richmond.

If Gonzalez is fired, and remember he was almost fired by Florida at the end of 2009, he'll instantly become the top candidate in Atlanta.

If Gonzalez remains with the Marlins, and he's under contract through 2011, the Braves will have to look elsewhere. My favorite internal candidate is Brian Snitker, the third base coach.

Snitker has been in the organization since 1977. He was a minor league player for a few years, and then in the early 80s became a Braves minor league manager. He's been a coach on the big league team three different occasions. So Snitker has done just about everything there is to do to prepare for the big job.

Snitker is a Brave through and through. And what would be wrong with keeping the next manager in the family? He's managed many of the young players, and is ready to be a big league skipper, whether it's with the Braves or not. Many of Cox's third base coaches (Jimy Williams, Ned Yost, and Gonzalez) have become major league managers, and Snitker should be the next in line. It certainly would be better if it was with the team he has been with for over 30 years.

Snitker is also the most qualified candidate on the Atlanta coaching staff. Eddie Perez wants to be a big league manager, but he needs more time as a coach and maybe even spend some time as a minor league manager. Chino Cadahia has been Cox's bench coach the last three years, and he's got some time as a minor league manager. So Cadahia is more qualified than Perez.

Glenn Hubbard has been the Braves first base coach for several years now, and he might have a desire to be a big league manager. But he's never managed, even in the minor leagues, so that might hurt his chances.

And that's my biggest problem with Terry Pendleton, who is the hitting coach and will be mentioned a lot as a candidate. He's never managed before – ever. I guess I would feel better if he had managed in the minors at least once. I know people will say Pendleton's time in the big leagues as a player, and the fact that he was known as a manager on the field, counts enough. And maybe it does.

Look, I wondered about Mike Smith coming to the Falcons with absolutely no head coaching experience. He's worked out just fine. So maybe I'm being a bit harsh on Pendleton since he has never been a manager.

But the other reason is probably the main reason a lot of fans will have questions about Pendleton. I don't think we're quite sure how good a hitting coach Pendleton is, so why should we think he deserves to be a manager?

I mean, when your players are going to other major league hitting coaches for help, and even being sent down to work with minor league hitting coaches for help, it's logical to wonder how good Pendleton is at his job. So with that in mind, and my problem with him never managing before, I'm not on the Pendleton bandwagon at all.

Snitker just has more qualifications than anyone on the current staff. And again, if he doesn't get the Atlanta job, someone is going to hire him to be a big league manager in the next few years.

Gwinnett manager Dave Brundage has been rumored to be a possibility, and you wonder if Phillip Wellman, the Double-A manager, would get an interview.

If Wren looks outside the organization, there are several other names to keep in mind. One name that makes sense as a candidate is Ned Yost, the former manager in Milwaukee who was a third base coach for Cox for several years.

One name I hope pops up from outside the Braves family is Kirk Gibson, who is now Arizona's bench coach. I think Gibson is going to make a heck of a manager. Now I admit, that like Pendleton, Gibson has never been a manager before and that bothers me. But someone is going to get a heck of a skipper one day with Gibson.

I wonder about Alan Trammell as well. He managed the Tigers a few years ago when they lost a million games one season. Trammell was fired and replaced by Jim Leyland. He's been Lou Pinella's bench coach the last three seasons with the Cubs. Sometimes managers are better the second time around, and Trammell deserves another shot.

The same could be said for Carlos Tosca, who managed in Toronto a few years back and is now Gonzalez's bench coach in Florida. Gonzalez replaced Tosca as the Richmond manager after Tosca was named the skipper with the Blue Jays.

Chris Chambliss is a Braves' alum, and you wonder if he'll get an interview. He was a great player for Atlanta from 1980 through 1986. Chambliss has coached and managed in the Atlanta farm system several times, and he's coached in the majors with both New York teams and the Reds. For years, Chambliss's name would pop up as a potential major league manager, but he's never gotten the chance. Chris just turned 61 the other day, so his time might have passed him by.

My favorite is Snitker, but we'll see. Wren and his front office staff have ten months until they have to make the decision on who will follow a future Hall of Famer. That decision could shape this organization for years to come.

Okay, that's sixteen pages on Microsoft Word talking about the present and future position players, along with the manager. We'll wait until tomorrow on the pitchers!


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 thebravesshow@email.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.

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