Editor's Note: This continues the guest writing series on the Braves off-season progress from resident Braves historian, Taylor... Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 from the previous posts (right toolbar)...
The 2010 Atlanta Braves showed just how important the non every day starting position players (commonly referred to as "the bench") on the team can truly be. Just watch a highlight reel of the season and you will see big hit after big hit from guys that weren't penciled in the starting lineup. Let's take a look now at what the Braves can do to make the bench even stronger going forward.
With the bench we are essentially looking at FIVE roster spots. One of those spots is locked up by David Ross, who will be returning after arguably the best season for a backup catcher in the game in 2010. He is a defensive wizard behind the plate, and has a ton of pop with the bat as well. That leaves us with 4 empty spots. We will look to fill those spots with an outfielder, an infielder, and two guys who can hopefully play a bunch of positions. From an offensive perspective, we are looking for at least one big pinch hitting power threat from each side of the plate. So we have 4 spots, and a few guys returning from last season. Let's take a look at some of those 2010 bench Braves and how they fit in for the 2011 team.
The Braves will undoubtedly exercise their team option on Omar Infante for the 2011 season (Ed: The biggest lock in the history of Earth). This will give them the option of retaining him at the dirt cheap cost of $2.5m for the year. Now, before we get too excited about the prospects of the All-Star Super Sub suiting up in 2011 for the Atlanta Braves, consider the possibility that he could actually be dealt this offseason as a part of a package to land a big OF bat. I alluded to the idea in the last post, but I absolutely believe Omar Infante should be shopped, and shopped hard. Here's the thing, Omar isn't as good as he is currently perceived to be. All this means is that there is likely a quantifiable difference between his actual ability and what he could return on the trade market. In short, his trade value is at an all time high. Also something to consider, it's unlikely he'd resign with the Braves after the 2011 season anyways if we couldn't offer him an everyday position.
What makes this a real sticky situation is the fact that we have a 38 year old third baseman coming off of his 2nd torn ACL recovery in his career. If we dealt Omar we'd essentially be gambling that Chipper makes a full recovery and can be at least a semblance of his formerly productive self at the plate. Oh, that, AND we'd be crossing our fingers he doesn't find his way to the DL during the season like he's been oh so prone to do the past 5 years or so. Let's face it, it's unlikely that Chipper, even if 'healthy', will end up playing more than 130 games or so. The verdict: hold onto Omar unless something amazing is presented in front of you and he's a main piece of the deal. It's just too important to have the luxury of sliding Prado over to third and penciling in Omar at second when the inevitable happens and Chipper gets hurt or needs a day off every week. Also, Omar can play all 3 OF positions, is an option at SS, hits both righties and lefties pretty equally, and can take some starts against tough lefties for Freddie Freeman by sliding Prado over to 1B and sticking Omar out at 2B. Plus, he's a gamer and very well liked in the clubhouse. (Ed: This hits the nail on the head... Omar isn't someone you want penciled in as a starter at one spot... perfect)
A much easier decision, in my eyes, is what to do with Matt Diaz. We have the option of offering him arbitration and bringing him back for 2011, but I think it's time to cut ties with the Florida State Alum. While Diaz is certainly a fan favorite and well liked in the clubhouse, there is simply no room for him on the 2011 Braves in my opinion. It is imperative that the Braves use the 4th outfielder roster position on someone that can play all 3 OF positions, run, and play above average to exceptional defense. Diaz main contribution over the past few years has been his bat, specifically his ability to hit left handed pitching, and even that has seen a decline. He doesn't play good defense, isn't a stolen base threat, and is limited to only the corner OF positions on defense. Unless specifically used for a platoon with a left handed hitting corner OFer, he doesn't really have a place on a Major League roster. I love the guy, but it's time he goes. It's time to hit the free agent and trade market and find specifically the kind of OFer I described above. Throwing out a few names that may be available that fit that description: Tony Gwynn Jr. , Carlos Gomez, and Dewayne Wise. It really doesn't matter who it is, he just needs to be able to play exceptional defense and be able to run.
That's 3 of the 5 bench spots accounted for. The other two are very simple. Pay Hinske enough to come back for another year assuming the same role as left handed power hitting pinch hit option and spot starter if necessary at 1B or LF. And, shockingly enough, retain Brooks "Boots" "Raw Dog" "Clutch" Conrad. With Hinske, it's simple. He is one of the best at what he does, a leader in the clubhouse, and he has a penchant for winning games. I can't think of one other available option that would be an upgrade over Hinske.
Bringing back Brooks might seem a bit odd. He did commit a Chuck Knoblauch circa 1999 amount of errors in what turned out to be the 7 most important games of the year for the 2010 Braves. The idea of seeing him in a Braves uniform again after that Buster Posey ground ball went right between his legs in the critical game 3 of the NLDS seems, well, ridiculous. The thing is you have to understand what you are getting with Brooks. He makes league minimum and all of his value is in his ability to pinch hit well from both sides of the plate. He offers a unique pinch hit option in that he can lead off an inning, lay down a bunt hitting 2nd, or come up with men on base and drive them in. He truly was the "secret weapon" off the bench for all of 2010. What you can't do with Brooks is expect him to be able to start games or play good defense. He is essentially an emergency infielder, which is fine. Between Omar and Prado every position on the infield can be covered, so it would take a parlay of catastrophic events to get Brooks anywhere near the infield (which is what happened in 2010 with the injuries to both Chipper AND Prado).
So with all of this we have a bench that looks like this:
C- David Ross
UT - Omar Infante
UT - Brooks Conrad
UT - Eric Hinske
OF - SOMEONE WHO CAN RUN AND PLAY DEFENSE
Note: It's also possible we could elect to carry one less pitcher and open up another roster spot for a bench player. In this case we'd more than likely go with an infield defensive specialist who can also pinch run (welcome back Diory if you ask me). (Ed: I think this is absolutely imperative... if you carry Conrad, which I actually like, you have to employ another infielder capable of playing defense)
That's all folks. In the next installment I'll take a look at the pitching staff for 2011. After that my final installment will be a few managerial MUSTs going forward into the 2011 season.