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How will the Braves replace Chipper Jones at third base next season?
One of the most often repeated questions for the Atlanta Braves throughout this off-season will be, "who takes over third base for Chipper Jones in 2013?" I must say that on the surface it seems like a simple answer, Martin Prado. But that's where it gets confusing, not because Marteeen can't take over third for Chipper, but because anchoring Prado to just one position may not be to the team's advantage.
Prado is just too darn versatile. The fact that he played a lot of shortstop this season and looked like he'd been doing it for years only adds to that versatility, and makes one want to use him as more than just a one-position player.
The other obvious answer at third base is the guy Chipper calls Roadrunner -- Juan Francisco. I'd like to see him un-Melky himself this off-season and dedicate himself to full-body conditioning, but whether he does that or not he should be a solid option at third. Yep, I said solid. He's not going to win any batting titles, but stuck in the seventh spot in the batting order he could whack 30 home runs if he played almost every day.
One big limiting factor with Francisco, though, is his platoon split. So far he's been atrocious against left-handed pitching. He can't hit lefties and lefties seem to neuter his power. This is where Prado could come in quite handy. If the Braves can't find someone to platoon with Francisco at third, then they could possibly find a part-time left fielder who can hit lefties (no, I do not mean Matt Diaz), and let Prado play third against left-handers.
The team obviously traded for Francisco with an eye towards him possibly taking over for Chipper next year. He went through some growing pains this season, but overall it was a successful one as a part-time player. One could bet that the Braves see his power and want it in their lineup, as Atlanta would be hard-pressed to find that kind of power at third base on the free agent or trade markets.
So I'm going to assume that the Braves want to start Francisco at third in 2013. I've sort of assumed that since he was acquired, and nothing has changed my mind this season. That said, there are likely still some skeptics in the organization who want a fall-back plan. That's where Prado comes into play. Of course, if he's a fall-back plan, then one would need a fall-back plan for Prado in left field. So any discussion of third base next season for the Braves almost has to include a discussion of left field.
One also wonders how patient the team would be with Francisco at third base should he struggle to begin the season, knowing that Prado is a capable and ready replacement. So I guess the decision at third base really comes down to whether or not the Braves want to pin Prado to one position. Beyond Prado and Francisco it seems ridiculous to look outside the organization for a third baseman, unless you're going to trade either of those guys.
As good a spring as Joe Terdoslavich had last year, I don't think he's ready to take on Major League pitching just yet. He needs to prove himself in triple-A for a full season. Behind him is another young third baseman, taken in the same draft as Terdoslavich (and three rounds earlier), named Joe Leonard. He hasn't gotten much prospect press, but he's steadily climbed the ladder, and improved each season. He still needs to add more power, but he won a minor league gold glove at third base this year (only one given out in all the minor leagues), so he's definitely an option defensively at third beyond next season. Both of these guys should be at Gwinnett next season, and one could emerge as a legitimate option for the hot corner.
So after all that, who's on third next year? My guess is Juan Francisco ... or Martin Prado. Between those two I really don't know how it will shake out, but it's good that the Braves have options. It might come down to whether or not the Braves want to hand the third base job to a work in progress -- Francisco -- or give third base to someone they know can handle it -- Prado. As I hinted at, who end up at third may hinge on whether the Braves can acquire an everyday left fielder. Keep in mind that the team might choose to replace Chipper's productivity, not at third, but in left field or center field. But center field is a discussion for another day (tomorrow, in fact)...