When the Braves play Detroit in a Grapefruit League opener Friday, the post-Chipper era commences and the third-base job competition begins.
Neither of the candidates, newcomer Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco, aims to share the position held by now-retired Chipper Jones for most of two decades. Johnson and Francisco both are in it to win it outright, as Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said they should be.
“That’s what they want us to do, and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Johnson, 28. “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.”
Francisco said, “This is my chance. I need to work hard every day, every practice, every game.”
The left-handed-hitting Francisco will start Friday against Detroit right-hander Rick Porcello. Gonzalez said he would alternate starts with Francisco and Johnson, a right-handed hitter, for the first two or three weeks of spring-training games.
“Then as it goes on, after you’ve seen a few weeks maybe match them up a lefty against a righty and righty-lefty, that type of thing. But we’re going to probably go every other day with them and see what happens.”
Until the Braves shipped Martin Prado to Arizona in last month’s trade for outfielder Justin Upton, they planned to make Prado the third baseman, or have him alternate between left field and a third-base platoon with Francisco, 25.
But after agreeing to trade Prado, the Braves asked the Diamondbacks to include Johnson in the deal so they would have third base covered. Johnson hit .281 with 48 extra-base hits (15 homers), 76 RBIs and a .326 on-base percentage last season in 136 games (528 plate appearances) for Houston and Arizona.
Francisco hit .234 with 20 extra-base hits (nine homers), 32 RBIs and a .278 OBP in 205 plate appearances for the Braves.
“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.”
Francisco struck out more than once every three times he came to the plate, totaling 70 K’s and 11 walks. He was 9-for-54 (.167) with one homer and 24 strikeouts after July, and Gonzalez seldom used him in the throes of the playoff race.
Francisco hit .265 with eight homers and 50 strikeouts in 151 at-bats as a backup third baseman, and Gonzalez turned to Prado as the primary backup at third whenever Jones was out of the lineup late in the season.
Acquired last spring from Cincinnati in a late-March trade for pitcher J.J. Hoover, Francisco had played in 81 games in parts of three seasons with the Reds. He played 93 games for the Braves, going 5-for-41 with one homer and 20 strikeouts as a pinch-hitter.
Francisco has worked with hitting coach Greg Walker to lessen the severity of an inward turn and right-knee dip in his swing.
“I’m working on that and feeling more comfortable,” said Francisco, who hit .307 with nine homers, a .369 OBP and 29 RBIs in 34 games in the Dominican Winter League, including a surprising .333 (20-for-60) against lefties. He has a .258 career average and 14 homers in 361 at-bats in the majors, including .190 with no homers in 63 at-bats against lefties.
A conventional platoon isn’t ideally served with Francisco and Johnson, since Johnson hits better against right-handers than lefties. He has a .283 career average and .775 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 896 at-bats vs. righties, and .255/.666 in 333 at-bats vs. lefties.
“It’s something I got good at, hitting right-handed pitching,” he said. “You face a lot more righties than you do lefties anyway, so you kind of get into a habit and routine. But whatever happens, happens.”
Johnson made his debut with Houston in 2009 and hit .308 with 11 homers and an .818 OPS in 341 at-bats as a rookie in 2010. Over the past two seasons he totaled 933 plate appearances and had 221 starts at third base and four at first base. The Braves plan to have him play some first base when Freddie Freeman needs a day off.
Johnson isn’t going to win a Gold Glove, but his defense is at least serviceable.
“But I haven’t seen a train wreck over there,” Gonzalez said. “I haven’t seen a guy you think, ‘Holy cow, we’ve got to substitute for him in the seventh.’ He throws the ball across the diamond pretty good, has good feet.”
“Same thing,” Gonzalez said. “He’s one of those guys, the more you see him the more comfortable you get over there with him.”