(Previous information on this series can be found here. Of importance, this is not a best list, but a favorites list since I started to follow the Braves. That limits options from 1991-to-now.)
Favorite Braves List (so far)
Ace Starter – Greg Maddux
#2 Starter – John Smoltz
#3 Starter – Tim Hudson
#4 Starter – Tom Glavine
Catcher – Brian McCann
First Base – Fred McGriff
Second Base – Marcus Giles
Shortstop – Andrelton Simmons
Third Base – Chipper Jones
Honorable Mentions: Ron Gant played a good deal of center and, of course. he started at second base, but he was a superb left fielder for the Braves at the beginning of The Streak with a 30/30 season in 1991 plus a pair of finishes in the top six of the MVP voting. Had he not been in that motorbike wreck that wiped out his 1994 season, he might be the starter at left instead of being in the honorable mentions. Martin Prado played a variety of positions, but settled into the starter in left from 2011-12 and was nearly a seven-win player in just those two seasons. His defense was criminally underrated in left. Justin Upton has a shot to become the first guy to be a primary starter in left for three consecutive seasons since the guy who makes this favorites list handled the position for five seasons. He’ll probably be traded before that could happen, though.
Favorite Braves List – Left Field
He was a lumbering defensive nightmare who had a manager that was convinced that he was nothing more than a platoon bat. However, he could murder-ball any pitch thrown to him and displayed an impressive understanding and utilization of the strike zone. Despite a relatively short time in Atlanta and muted numbers as a result of platoon, Klesko still ranks fourth in franchise history with a .525 SLG, just four points behind Chipper Jones, and belted nine more homeruns than Fred McGriff as a Brave.
Born in Westminster, California, Klesko was a fifth round choice by the Braves in 1989. As the third selection of the fifth round, Klesko was picked six choices behind another big-time hitter, Jeff Bagwell. More noteworthy for Braves’ circles, the 1989 draft provided very little value to what would become the dynasty of the 90’s. Tyler Houston was a bust, Mike Mordecai (6th round) maxed out as an okayish utility infielder, and Joe Roa‘s entire value to the Braves came as the player to be named in the 1991 trade that brought Alejandro Pena to the Braves.
Atlanta hit on Klesko, though. Drafted to play first base, Klesko didn’t waste much time becoming a monster hitting prospect for the Braves. After OPSing .901 in his first taste of professional ball in ’89, Klesko slashed .315/.385/.480 with 17 HR and 23 steals in 1990. The season received a bit of press as Baseball America chose Klesko as the third best prospect entering the 1991 season, two choices behind Todd Van Poppel. Klesko followed that achievement by posting a .862 OPS in 126 games with Greeneville.
Klesko would actually fall in the Top 100 after the season, getting tabbed as the eighth best prospect with Van Poppel now second and Chipper fourth. Klesko’s numbers would fall as a 21 year-old playing for Richmond in 1992. He set new lows in the three slash categories and went 0-for-14 during a cup of coffee for the surging Braves. There was probably a bit of concern that Klesko had hit a wall, but he would burst through said wall with a productive ’93 campaign that saw him belt 22 HR for Richmond. He also began to shift to left field, a move that would become more and more prominent. He got another cup of coffee with the Braves and this time was superb.
Following Gant’s motorcycle accident, left field was open and Klesko was a strong contender. However, he was not alone. Chipper Jones, who had been drafted a year after Klesko, had caught up to him and looked like the bigger prospect with the brighter future. While Jones played shortstop in the minors, there was little doubt that he possessed the athleticism to make a move to left. The futures of both Klesko and Jones would have been greatly different had Jones not felt a pop running to first in a spring training game. He had tore his ACL and would miss all of 1994, pushing back his moment until the World Championship season. It opened up left for Klesko, who hit .278 with a .907 OPS while finishing third in the Rookie of the Year. He finished third because of tough competition and also because Bobby Cox played veteran Dave Gallagher almost as frequently. Gallagher often replaced Klesko late in games and started, along with another rookie, Mike Kelly, against lefties.
In 1995, it was Kelly and after the Braves picked up Terry Pendleton, even Jones moved to left to spell Klesko. Despite a .608 OPS, Klesko was limited by his perceived issues even if they weren’t based in reality. An injury to David Justice allowed Klesko the chance to play more in 1996 and he did everything you were supposed to do when an opportunity opened up. He slashed .282/.364/.530 and while it’s fair to say he did most of his damage against right-handers, he wasn’t a complete lost cause against lefties. Nevertheless, 1997 saw a return to platoon action with Michael Tucker and Denny Bautista stealing time in left. Bautista made a return trip as Klesko’s caddy in 1998. In Klesko’s final year of 1999, despite the fact that Andres Galarraga‘s unfortunate return of cancer caused him to miss the season, Klesko still lost playing time to Randall Simon and Brian Hunter at first and even Otis Nixon in left.
Yet, he kept raking. In 1995, he became the first player to hit homeruns in three consecutive World Series games when he homered in each of the games played in Cleveland that year. Klesko hammered ten total playoff homers during his run with the Braves and he never posted a wOBA under .350 from 1994 to his trade following the 1999 season. He was durable, effective, and a threat. While his bread-and-butter was bashing righties, he posted a .797 OPS against southpaws in 1995. He simply never was given the opportunity to continue to improve against them.
A move to San Diego changed that. In a blockbuster offseason trade, the Braves packaged Klesko with Bret Boone and pitcher Jason Shiell to acquire the services of 2B Quilvio Veras, OF Reggie Sanders, and 1B Wally Joyner. The deal made sense for Atlanta. They wanted to improve the team speed and Veras was a productive leadoff hitter while Sanders, whole pretty fast himself, gave them even more power added onto a team that hit the fourth most homers in the National League without the services of the “The Big Cat” in 1999. Joyner simply provided Atlanta with backup for a player who was returning from cancer. Since they didn’t want to commit to Klesko and grew tired of Boone after just one year, it was supposed to be win-win.
While Veras was good, but got hurt. Sanders sucked. Joyner wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t all that productive either. On the other hand, Klesko would become an everyday guy, posting 11.5 fWAR at first base over the next three years. This would become even sadder as the Braves were stuck starting Rico Brogna and Ken Caminiti at first base in 2001, instead of still having Klesko.
Klesko would remain productive, though he started to miss more and more games, during the three years that followed his early success in San Diego. In 2006, major shoulder surgery limited him to a half-dozen games and the following season, he went to San Francisco to finish his career.
I believe it’s a shame the Braves wasted so many of his prime years as a platoon guy. Nevertheless, he still is my favorite left fielder for the Braves during their recent history.