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Top-5 Off-Season Questions for the Atlanta Braves: #4

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We continue our look at the top-5 questions facing the Atlanta Braves this off-season.

Question Four:  Who will man first base for the Braves in 2010?

There was so much concern last year by the Braves at the trade deadline that they get a first baseman in return for Mark Teixeira. They settled, if you will, on the promise of Casey Kotchman -- he who had not yet fulfilled his potential as a major league player. Perhaps that was a theme of our team going into this season with Kotchman, Jeff Francoeur, and Kelly Johnson, all with great "potential," all who had rarely showed that potential. The trade for Adam LaRoche was a shock to most, and a gamble to many others, but it turned out to be a great deal, though it will leave the Braves with a potential hole at first (something they seemed to want to avoid a year ago). Here is what the Braves got and what they gave up in that trade.

Casey Kotchman's as a Braves player in 2009 versus Adam LaRoche as a Braves player in 2009:

Player Games Homeruns RBI BA OBP SLG
Casey Kotchman 87 6 41 .282 .354 .409
Adam LaRoche 57 12 40 .325 .401 .557

 

Unfortunately that was not enough to put the Braves in the post-season, but LaRoche was a major contributor to the excellent play of the team in the second half.

Here is a look at LaRoche's post-trade stats with the Braves compared to Mark Teixeira and Fred McGriff's post-trade stats in the year they were traded:

Player - Year Games Homeruns RBI BA OBP SLG
Fred McGriff - 1993 68 19 55 .310 .392 .612
Mark Teixeira - 2007 54 17 56 .317 .404 .615
Adam LaRoche - 2009 57 12 40 .325 .401 .557

 

He was not quite as much of a superhuman as the Crime Dog and Tex were, but he came mighty close. This begs the next question, which necessitates another chart, could Adam LaRoche keep this up for a full season?

Adam LaRoche's career stats... Games Homeruns RBI BA OBP SLG
...before the All-Star break 464 63 242 .252 .326 .447
...after the All-Star break 374 73 227 .300 .363 .546

 

We all know this and it's true every single season he has been in the majors, he's better in the second half than he is in the first half. The Braves seem to want to keep LaRoche, and he may indeed want to stay in a Braves uniform. After all he has friends here and enjoys playing for Bobby Cox. Perhaps the one more year that Cox is going to manage will be enough to convince LaRoche to sign a one-year deal, that, and Chipper Jones constantly nagging him this off-season (they're hunting buddies, by the way).

For the Braves, LaRoche seems to be the best answer, even with his first and second half swings. If it takes a two-year deal to get him to come back, then that's a solid piece that would remain in the Braves lineup. But if he leaves, where does that leave Atlanta?

There are some other free agent first basemen who might take one-year contracts. Guys like Hank Blalock, Nick Johnson, and Russell Branyan, but none of them are ideal, and none offer quite the upside that LaRoche does. No other free agents really even come close to these four, and much like the closer market, the first basemen market is as lean as has been in years.

The Braves could use their mystery trade chip to acquire a first baseman, but do they want to trade a lot for a big time first base bat that may become obsolete once Freddie Freeman is ready. That question about Freeman raises some other questions. As I've said about our prospects all day in these top-5 questions, Freeman will also be playing in the Arizona Fall League, and while his time there will be watched just as closely as Heyward or Minor or Kimbrel, he is not expected to be major league ready next year. But will he be ready in 2011?

The Braves may choose to make their decision about first base in 2010 without considering Freeman's future. If they have to choose between signing LaRoche to a multi-year deal or plugging in a stop-gap and waiting for Freeman, they may choose to wrap up LaRoche and keep Freeman in the wings to complete his development, using him later on as a possible trade chip. Even with a three-year deal, Freeman would still only be 23 were he to debut in 2012.

The other internal candidates are not too exciting. Barbaro Canizares does not seem to be an everyday player, if he should even be considered a major leaguer. Martin Prado played plenty of first base, but he doesn't offer the power or middle of the order prowess that a first baseman should bring to the lineup.

I believe the Braves will certainly offer LaRoche arbitration, but the jury is still out on how aggressive they will be in re-signing him, especially for more than a one-year deal. I imagine we will get some indications early in the hot-stove season about the Braves intentions toward LaRoche, and we'll also get some intentions about whether LaRoche plans to test the free agent waters. LaRoche's decision may hinge more on the 2011 first base free agent class, which is a much deeper and talented class, than on anything else. If he signs a one-year deal, he may face much steeper competition next off-season. It is for this reason that I believe LaRoche will not return to Atlanta on a one-year deal. Now, that means he may be open to a multi-year deal, but that may not be in the Braves plans.

A lot of ifs at first base for the Braves this off-season. (Sorry if that went on for a while.)

Coming up later, Question Five:  To Tender or to Non-Tender