(Previous information about this list can be found here.)
Favorite Braves List (so far)
Catcher – Brian McCann
A few weeks ago, I began what should be a recurring list over the summer – My Favorite Braves of All-Time. Brian McCann was an easy choice and today, we head over to first base. This position was ultimately an easy choice (much like catcher), though I imagine we will start getting tougher choices with the rest of the list.
Some honorable mentions – Adam LaRoche was quietly a solid first baseman for the Braves for three seasons until he was traded to the Pirates. His return for a two-month stint in 2009 helped give the Braves a lift. While nearing the usual retirement age for most people, Julio Franco kept getting hits. He hit .291 in Atlanta during parts of six seasons, playing in 501 games. Andres Galarraga was a likable guy who had two explosive seasons sandwiched around a year lost to cancer. He hit .303 with 72 homers for Atlanta. Freddie Freeman might push his way onto this squad once he finds his stroke again. Sid Bream started three consecutive opening days for the Braves, but his place in Atlanta lore will always be remembered for beating the throw from Barry “Girl’s Arm” Bonds to end the 1992 NLCS.
Favorite Braves List – First Base
130 homers, three All-Star Games, two 10 MVP finish, and one press box fire.
Those just a few of the reasons that McGriff tops this list. First base has been a position void of long-term stability behind three-year reigns by Bream and LaRoche, though in between those two was the “Crime Dog,” who started for four+ years for Atlanta in the middle of “The Streak.” He helped Atlanta to their only title in 1995, hitting two homers in the Series, and OPSing over .900 during the postseason as a Brave. There is so precious little to get down on McGriff for. Not counting the year the Braves acquired him, McGriff was an 11.7 WAR player for his four full seasons as a Brave and while UZR doesn’t like his defense, he always seemed rather capable around the bag.
Here’s a funny number. In his four full seasons after the trade from the Padres, McGriff batted fourth all but five times. Once Chipper Jones was settled into his spot ahead of him, the Braves offense made things very easy on Bobby Cox. McGriff was the dependable power threat from first base that simply came to the stadium and produced.
McGriff began his career as a ninth round selection by the New York Yankees in 1981, but his stay with the volatile Yanks didn’t last long as he was traded after the 1982 season to the Toronto Blue Jays with Dave Collins (who led the league in triples for the Jays) and Mike Morgan (who played for 12 MLB teams) with the Yanks getting Tom Dodd and Dale Murray. Talk about a dumb deal. The Yankees had traded Dodd to the Jays for John Mayberry just seven months earlier. Murray was an average to bad reliever who would be out of baseball within a few years. While neither Collins or Morgan became long-term contributors for the Blue Jays, McGriff became a star.
At the time of the deal, McGriff had spent two seasons at rookie-ball and was still not 20. In his first year in the organization at two stops at A-ball, McGriff exploded for 28 homers. He hit another 22 homers in ’84 between AA and AAA. After an injury-shortened 1985 season, McGriff posted an .816 OPS at AAA in ’86, earning a brief cup of coffee. After a rookie season platooning at DH and backup first with Cecil Fielder, McGriff took over first base in 1988 for the Jays and began a three-year run as one of the top 1B’s in the game. In his first three seasons as a full-time starter, McGriff hit .283 with a .927 OPS to go with 105 homers. He finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice and won the first of three Silver Sluggers.
However, with John Olerud also at first in 1990, the Jays looked to cash McGriff in to fill out the rest of their team. Toronto sent McGriff and Tony Fernandez to the Padres for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter. Rarely does a deal that includes a budding superstar leaving your franchise work out so perfectly. Alomar and Carter were instrumental in Toronto winning their only titles in 92-93. Meanwhile, McGriff continued to produce, spending the next two-and-a-half seasons with the Padres. He hit .281 with 84 homers and a .906 OPS.
The Braves, who continued their 1991 platoon of Sid Bream and Brian Hunter into 1993, were in need of a jolt. Trailing the Giants by eight games in their final season as an NL West member, the Braves had pitching but their hitting was sluggish. Only two teams had scored less runs in the National League. Terry Pendleton was in the midst of a down year and getting little production from catcher, first base, second base, third base, and center field nightly was keeping the Braves from being the contender worthy of their starting staff. Packaging Vince Moore, Donnie Elliott, and Melvin Nieves together, the Braves got their man in Fred McGriff. His arrival was preceded by a fire and culminated in a fantastic run that saw the Braves win 51 of their remaining 69 games to pull into a tie for the division lead on September 10th. The Braves would pull four games ahead, but saw the lead whither in the final days to a tie on September 30th. The Braves hosted the Rockies for the final series and took the first two games while the Giants beat the Dodgers two straight to match them. It came down to the final day. Atlanta roughed up former farmhand David Nied while Tom Glavine won his 22nd game of the year, winning 5-3, and immediately went to the clubhouse to watch what was happening in L.A. Salomon Torres walked five while not finishing the fourth inning and the Dodgers rolled all over the Giants 12-1. McGriff hit .310 with a 1.004 OPS in 68 games with the Braves, a driving force behind erasing an eight game deficit (though the Giants did help), and pushing Atlanta back into the playoffs. They would fail in the NLCS, though McGriff was fabulous, hitting .435 with four extra base hits in the six-game series.
McGriff settled into life as a Brave in 1994, hitting a career-best .318 over the strike-shortened season with while finishing fourth in the league in homers (34) and RBI (94). He became the first Brave to win the All-Star MVP. He even finished one off his career best with seven steals. Fangraphs gives him 4.9 WAR and career-best .423 wOBA. Like others in the game, possibly the best season McGriff would ever was cut short in early August due to the work stoppage.
While a solid contributor over the next two seasons of his career, the days of McGriff placing himself very well in the leaderboards was over. McGriff’s OPS slumped into the .850 range the next seasons as he began the early 30s stage of his career. He was an All-Star again in 1995, the second-to-last trip to the Midsummer’s Classic. In 1997, McGriff posted the worst OPS of his career up until that point at .797 and as an upcoming free agent, Atlanta wondered if McGriff’s best days were past him. While productive during the NLCS against the Marlins, McGriff’s costly error in Game 1 led to three unearned runs in a 5-3 loss while he was the last player at the plate during Game 5, known as the Erik Gregg game.
After the season, the Braves performed the rare act of selling a player to another team as the expansion Devil Rays acquired the first baseman on the same day as their expansion draft. Two days later, the Braves moved on with former Rockie Andres Galarraga as part of a three-year deal. McGriff was rejuvenated in the AL and posted an .864 OPS over 577 games as a Devil Ray, including a 27-game run in 2004 that led to a release to end his career. McGriff also spent a year-and-a-half as a Cub and one injury-riddled season with the 2003 Dodgers.
McGriff was an easy choice for this list. The Braves didn’t have a first baseman up to his level before him and have struggled to replace his production level since. From his dramatic beginning as a Brave to the sad ending of his time as a Brave (thanks Eric Gregg…no really…it was totally a strike!), McGriff endeared himself to the Braves universe as one of the most consistent, likable, and productive players the Braves had. While Freddie Freeman has the chance to bump him off this list, right now, McGriff is the clear pick for first base on my Favorite Braves squad. In fact, he’s the clubhouse leader to hit cleanup.
Additionally, the three players given up for McGriff in 1994.
- Vince Moore never made it to the majors. The outfielder seemed to fall apart after the trade, in fact. He was hitting .292 with 14 homers for Durham at the time of the trade and finally seemed to be reaching the potential that had made him a fifth round pick in 1991, but his OPS fell 80 points after the trade. He hit a miserable .161 over 54 games in 1994 and never hit better than .256 or hit over 15 HR with the Padres system and when he left the organization after 1997, he had played in 92 games at AA and none above that. He played independent ball for the next seven seasons.
- The Braves had acquired Donnie Elliott the previous season for Ben Rivera and he was superb finishing the season with the Greenville Braves in 1992. He struggled through 18 starts at Richmond in 1993 before the trade, but he was a semi-significant performer for the Padres in 1994, appearing in 30 games, all but one as a reliever. However, after an injury-shortened 1995 campaign that saw him pitch in 8 games (one with the Padres), Elliott was released. He spent 1996 with the Phillies AAA squad and after probably a season lost to injury, Elliott split 1998 between the Texas League (independent) and the Texas Rangers AA team. He would be out of baseball as a player following 1998. Still, getting 31 games out of Elliott was better than zero from Moore.
- Melvin Nieves was the big prospect from the trade and was named the 39th best prospect by Baseball America entering 1993. He was hitting .278 with 10 homers for Richmond at the time of the trade. The Padres took it slow with him and he spent the next year-and-a-half with Las Vegas, appearing in just 29 games with the Padres. In 1995, he joined the Padres for 98 games and hit a paltry .205. The Padres sent him to the Tigers as part of a seven person trade during the 1996 spring training and Nieves seemed to find some footing in the bigs as he posted an .807 OPS and finished third on the team with 24 homers, but 158 K’s in 484 PA was concerning. The following season, all of his marks fell and though he still hit 20 homers, he posted 157 K’s in 405 PA. After ’97, the Tigers shipped him off to the Reds in a deal that included future Brave Paul Bako. Nieves appeared in 83 games as a Red, mostly off the bench, and posted a .717 OPS. His MLB career was over after 1998. He went to Japan for two seasons before coming back state-side in 2001 for a 13 game run in the Rockies organization. A year in the Mexican League and one in the Atlantic League followed. After not playing in 2004, Nieves joined the Nationals organization in and while solid, never got a callup. In 2006, he played for three different teams in two different independent leagues. He finished up after a year off by playing in six games in the Mexican League in 2008. As far as prospects go, Nieves failing made this deal even more of a win for the Braves because Nieves had the power to develop into a big threat at the major league level, but never could make enough contact.