|By Arturo Pardavila III [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons|
It seems inevitable.
Maybe it shouldn’t, but it really does seem like only a matter of time.
It is so expected that should the Atlanta Braves sign either Kelly Johnson or Jeff Francoeur over the next few days, it would surprise no one. The Braves have proven that when it comes to depth, they like to go to players they are comfortable with. Both Johnson and Francoeur were brought back last year and given a chance to win a job on their bench, which both did. For Johnson, it was actually the second time he re-Braved. Eric O’Flaherty, Emilio Bonifacio, and Kris Medlen are a few other players brought back for this year’s roster that could eventually play for Atlanta in 2017. With the bench wide-open, why not Johnson? Why not Francoeur? Why not both?
Let’s see if either, or both, are good fits for the Braves in 2017.
As I previously went over in a spring training battles preview for the bullpen, the Braves appear convinced to give the eight-man bullpen experiment a shot. I don’t like the idea for an NL team that must utilize its bench on a nightly basis. Last season, the Braves did not use their bench nine times and six came in AL parks. That leaves just three times when the Braves did not use their bench for a pinch hitter, pinch runner, or defensive replacement when they didn’t have the aid of the DH. It’s a rarity that a manager won’t have to go to the bench two-or-three times under traditional National League rules. Yet, the Braves want to limit the bench to four players, which includes a backup catcher that managers will be apprehensive about using in case a catcher is needed later in the game.
Where does that leave the bench? Well, right now, we have a good idea about half of it. Kurt Suzuki was given a one-year, $1.5 million contract last month to support Tyler Flowers. While Anthony Recker will be given a chance to unseat Suzuki, there is a high probability that short of an injury, Flowers will be in the starting lineup on opening day with Suzuki on the bench. The other fairly known player in the mix is Jace Peterson. After 214 starts at second base the last two years, plus 13 additional starts at third base, left field, and center field, Peterson looks destined for the utility bench role many felt he would be best suited for as a prospect. With Sean Rodriguez out for potentially the whole season, Peterson will be asked to do much of what they expected out of Rodriguez, minus the lefty-bashing bat, as the newly acquired Brandon Phillips takes over at second base.
Let’s look at what each player brings the Braves. Kelly Johnson’s third go-around with the Braves was brief. He played in just 49 games with Atlanta before being traded for the second consecutive season to the Mets. All in all, it was a down year for Johnson after a bit of a surprise resurgence in 2015. That year, he hit .265/.314/.435 with most of his best work coming before his July trade to New York. Last year, his numbers fell across the board, though this time, his numbers dramatically improved after joining the Mets. Throughout his career, the left-hand hitting Johnson has shown little preference between left-handed and right-handed pitchers with a slight edge in favor of facing southpaws.
|By Sgt. Anthony Hewitt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons|
Francoeur was included in a late season trade to the Marlins. After playing in 100 games for the first time in three years with the Phils in 2015, Francoeur joined the Braves last year – seven years after the disappointing end to his run with Atlanta that included epic highs and massive lows. Francoeur hit just .249/.290/.381 before his trade and hit better, though with no power, with the Marlins. On the season, he had a .254/.297/.378 slash. Where he did shine, somewhat, was against left-handed pitching. His OPS saw a 90-point improvement when he had the platoon advantage. That’s pretty close to his career marks, though it should be said that his .253/.293/.402 lifetime slash against right-handers makes his value limited.
Beyond the differences at the plate, what truly separates these players is defensive flexibility. The only time Francoeur has ventured away from the outfield was for a two-inning stint on the mound in 2015 and a one-inning fill-in job with the Marlins on the season’s final day – a game former Braves player Martin Prado managed. Meanwhile, Johnson has played six different positions, including each position on the infield and both corner outfield positions.
If the Braves were to sign one, the final position on the bench would also be directly impacted. If the Braves signed Francoeur, it would improve D’Arnaud’s position as the Braves might be more apt to keep a player with a wealth of experience at shortstop. Signing Johnson may also force that, though Peterson was a shortstop until 2014 and Johnson has made cameos at shortstop with the Mets the last two years. Neither should get much time there, but their experience may be enough to prompt the Braves into rolling the dice and only bringing up a shortstop if Dansby Swanson were to miss time.
If it were me, I’d consider Johnson because he can provide more support at multiple positions. That said, having both Johnson and Peterson could be considered redundant, though Johnson’s success against lefthanders helps to differentiate himself from Peterson. As for Francoeur, you might be able to argue that he would be a decent pickup if you felt he could play all three outfield spots and possibly first base. The last time he ventured into center field was 2014 for four innings in Triple-A and he’s never played first base. His bat would have to be his saving grace and we are talking about a guy who has slashed .237/.279/.372 over his last 1561 PA (five years). Again, you might say “But we need a right-handed bat off the bench for late inning lefthanders.” Here’s where I say “don’t confuse Francoeur with Matt Diaz.” If you recall, Diaz was the definition of a platoon-hitting right-handed batter who bashed lefties. Remember that five year sample I referenced a couple of sentences back? Francoeur has slashed .240/.292/.363 against southpaws since 2012. That comes out to a 73 wRC+. While his career numbers, and especially last year, are more slanted to a guy who hits lefties noticeably better, he’s still only an average bat career-wise against lefties (101 wRC+). Kelly Johnson carries a 103 wRC+ against lefties and is not inept against righties (101 wRC+).
With that in mind, if I’m the Braves, I’m definitely trying to bring back Johnson. And bonus, you can trade him to the Mets again. Win-win.
What say you? Johnson? Francoeur? Both? Neither?