• Exclusives

    Braves hot corner competition begins

    With the departure of Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves head into 2013 season with a Hall-of-Fame sized vacancy at third base. And with no clear-cut favorite to take over at the hot corner for Manager Fredi Gonzalez’s club, the battle for playing time at 3B is now underway.

    The two competitors for the job are Juan Francisco and newly-acquired Chris Johnson. With Francisco being a left-handed hitter and Johnson being a righty at the plate, a “platoon” would seem the most obvious scenario, with the duo splitting time based on the opposing pitcher. Ideally, however, that’s not what the Braves’ skipper envisions.

    “You want competition in spring training; you want somebody to win the job,” Gonzalez said. “I think a platoon, which is the worst-case scenario, is still good. … Best-case scenario, maybe one of those guys wins the job. I think spring training will take care of that.”

    One possible reason for Gonzalez calling a platoon a “worst-case scenario” is the fact that this third-base tandem is not well suited for such a pairing. A platoon works best when one player hits left-handed pitching better than the other, whereas his counterpart performs better against right-handers.

    The problem is that Chis Johnson has what some refer to as “reverse splits”. Though he is a right-handed hitter, he actually hits righties better left-handed pitching. Since both Braves third basemen perform better against RHP, the potential benefit of a platoon is largely negated. With that in mind, Fredi Gonzalez has suggested that playing time at third base will be awarded as it is earned.

    Francisco joined the Braves last year and struggled in a limited role as Chipper’s backup. After being acquired last Spring from Cincinnati, the Dominican Republic native hit for just a .234 average and .278 on-base percentage. However, he did show off the homerun power that attracted the Braves to the infielder last Spring, belting 9 homers in 192 at-bats.

    Being young with little MLB experience, there’s good reason to believe that Fransisco can improve upon his 2013 numbers, and the team has asked that he take specific steps to that end.

    Over the winter, Fredi Gonzalez and General Manager Frank Wren called the 25-year old into a closed door meeting and challenged him to work on both his swing and his physical conditioning. Fransisco responded positively, putting in plenty of extra work with Hitting Coach Greg Walker, trying to make his all-or-nothing swing a little less, well… all or nothing. He also came to camp in noticeably better shape, though still wider around the waster than a typical infielder.

    Only time will tell if Fransisco’s winter work pays off.

    Chris Johnson, 28, came to the Braves along with Justin Upton this winter in the trade that sent Martin Prado to Arizona. Playing in 136 games last year, Johnson was a far more productive hitter than Francisco, hitting for a .281 average and .326 on-base percentage. While he doesn’t have quite the pop that Francisco does, he did hit 15 home runs in 488 at bats last season. And it’s not as though the Braves are in need of more power hitting with the lineup they’ll have. With a cereer .276 average, Johnson is the more polished and proven hitter of the two.

    While a platoon is still possible, neither Francisco nor Johnson wish to be part-time players. As is always the case in sports, competition breeds success.

    “That’s what they want us to do, and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Johnson of fighting for a starting role. “I think we were going to do that anyway. I think we both want to start and play every single day. That’s the goal. But if it works out where we’re going to platoon, then me and Juan are OK with that. Whatever we can do to help the team.”

    Added Francisco: “This is my chance. I need to work hard every day, every practice, every game.”

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    Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh