Atlanta Braves position battle: Juan Francisco versus Chris Johnson
Replacing a lengend certainly isn’t an easy task.
That’s going to be the spring training chore for Atlanta Braves third basemen Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson this season as they’ll attempt to succeed the recently retired Chipper Jones. I’m sure neither player expects to come even close to Jones’ worst season in this position battle, but both players are above-average options to take over Atlanta’s hot corner. The Braves have to love that both players are under 30 years old. It’s also a plus that the pair had their best seasons at the MLB level in 2012. Regardless of what Francisco and Johnson have done in their pasts, their future will probably be determined by what they do in 2013.
There’s a lot of speculation that this hot-corner duo will platoon for the Braves at third base this year. And while it would be nice to have a permanent starter penciled in on the everyday lineup, the fact is that these two players compliment each other quite nicely simply because Francisco bats from the left side and Johnson bats from the right. However, neither player can hit lefties very efficiently and their defense won’t win them any golden gloves soon. The question marks around both players are easily noticeable by one glance at their career statistics and their splits. That’s why I personally believe this will be a position battle. So who will emerge as manager Fredi Gonzales’ favorite? To truly understand the answer to that question, one must take a deep look into the pros and cons that Johnson and Francisco will bring to the Braves:
• Johnson: On paper, Chris Johnson looks like a more capable hitter at the MLB level. However, that’s only because he has more experience in the pros. During four years of major league experience, the 28-year-old has shown glimpses that he can be an above average hitter. During his first “real” MLB season in 2010, Johnson made a name for himself within the Houston Astros organization by hitting .308 with 11 home runs and 52 RBIs in 341 plate appearances. Johnson’s 2010 performance was good enough for the Houston to decide to give him even more playing time in 2011. With 37 more at bats that year, Johnson actually turned in worse numbers, hitting .251 with seven homers and 42 RBIs. The sophomore hiccup may have been expected, but usually power numbers aren’t the first to dip, especially with that first year under Johnson’s belt. However, the supar season must’ve sparked Johnson in 2012 as he turned in career highs for home runs (15) and RBI (76) for the Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2012. Clearly, that’s not bad. What surprised me, though, is that Johnson seemed to become a better hitter after he was traded to the Snakes. Yes, he was in a much friendlier ballpark for hitters, but I honestly believe yet another change in venues could benefit Johnson. Maybe playing at Turner Field will spark Johnson once again and he will lock down a permanent spot in Atlanta’s everyday lineup.
• Francisco: With a much smaller sample size, it’s very tough to determine whether or not Juan Francisco is a better hitter than his counterpart. Yet Francisco’s lack of experience may actually help him in the argument. Last season, Francisco probably played more than he expected with Chipper Jones’ need to miss games due to his age. In a limited role, Francisco impressed. He didn’t exactly do it with his contact hitting, batting just .234. Instead, it was actually the youngster’s power that caught the eyes of Braves fans. In just 192 plate appearances, the 25-year-old slugged nine home runs and 32 RBIs. Those number don’t exactly excite, but when compared to Johnson’s power numbers, Francisco is clearly the player with more pop. Overall, when given the opportunity, Francisco did his job while filling in for Jones. That’s what he could be called on to do this year and it will be up to Fredi Gonzales to decide if he wants to trade Johnson’s better contact bat that carries some power for the high potential of Francisco possibly hitting 20 homeruns if he gets the majority of the playing time. I have to think with Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and B.J. and Justin Upton in this lineup already, Gonzales will ride the guy who can get on base more, though.
• Winner: For the exact reason noted in the last sentence of Francisco’s case to be the starter, I believe Johnson will earn the nod at third base for the majority of the season. Johnson will probably hit lower in the lineup and if he can get on base, Atlanta has plenty of power guys who can bring him in.
• Johnson: As more playing time came Chris Johnson’s way, he became a better defensive player. That’s a very good sign for the Stetson product and one that Fredi Gonzales may consider heavily when he compares Johnson to his counterpart. The difference in Johnson’s fielding between his rookie and sophomore season is almost a night and day comparison. As a rookie, Johnson accumulated a .908 fielding percentage. He clearly bested that the following season, making outs on .937 of balls hit his way. He then improved on that fielding percentage last season by tallying a .940 fielding percentage. In terms of errors, Johnson made the same impressive improvements. As a rookie, he started 89 games, committing an embarrassing 18 errors. Once given 11 more starts during his sophomore season, Johnson committed 15 errors. As an everyday guy last year, he had 19 errors, but he also piled up a career high 123 starts. Although his defense isn’t close to Chipper Jones’, Johnson’s improvement is a strong indication that he’ll only become a better defender in time.
• Francisco: The statistic WAR is becoming a huge stat in baseball. And it’s the only statistic Francisco is better than Johnson in when looking at both players’ defensive ability. Chris Johnson carries a -0.7 defensive WAR while Francisco achieved a 0.2 defensive WAR last season. It might not be fair to compare defensive WAR between this pair, given the huge separation of Johnson’s and Francisco’s playing time, but it’s a statistic that no manager can ignore. So although Francisco is a better defender in those terms, there’s another huge factor that separates the two: size. Bulkier players aren’t exactly known to be the quickest. The difference between Francisco’s and Johnson’s weight is a whopping 25 pounds. Sure, there’s the Pablo Sondoval argument that big men can make plays at third base. Sandoval, who at a staggering 262 pounds has a better fielding percentage than both players, so it’s tough to determine whether or not mass carries the weight to favor one defender or the other. However, Francisco’s .935 fielding percentage in 42 starts is far worse than Sandoval’s .954 career fielding mark.
• Winner: Again, I have to give Johnson the nod. He has proven that time has been his friend and that his physical shape should be considered. Chipper Jones was one of the best defensive third basemen that the game of baseball has seen and it will be a while before any hot corner on the Atlanta Braves’ roster will come close to comparing. If Johnson can keep honing his defensive skills, there’s perhaps a really long shot that he could become three-quarters of the defender that Jones once was. I think the Braves would be content with that.