ATLANTA – The Braves have a lot of questions this off-season. Clearly the biggest is finding some proven veteran arms to round out what became a very weak starting rotation by the end of the year. But even if they find one or two good starting pitchers, do they have the line up and team to make a run in 2009? That question is leading us to reconsider the various positions around the diamond.
The 2009 lineup is going to be built around several anchors. Chipper Jones, of course, remains the star performer. He is coming off of a tremendous 2008 season, having won his first batting title and likely having solidified his Hall of Fame credentials. But he will only be good for 110 – 125 games at best. The Braves need more than just Chipper Jones to carry them through the entire season. Brian McCain, Yunel Escobar, and Kelly Johnson seem to be the most steady performers from the remainder of the bunch. But while fans mostly rave about McCann and Escobar, the enthusiasm for Johnson is much more tempered. Why is that?
According to Espn.com, Kelly had the following, impressive ranks in several major statistical category among National League second basemen:
- Games played: 150, second only to Chase Utley
- Batting average:.287, second only to Chase Utley
- Hits: 157, second only to Chase Utle
- Doubles: 39, second only to Chase Utley
As seen above, Kelly is a solid hitting performer. However, his mediocre power (12 homeruns) and higher strike-out totals (113) remain a concern. I initially pegged him for a steady hitter who would have high walks totals, limited strike-outs and who might be good for 20 homeruns a season one day. I have been a little disappointed, however, as his trend since taking over the starting role in 2007 has been that he is a very streaky performer. Throughout much of 2008, he was a disappointment, up until a massive hitting streak at the end of the year raised his annual totals to acceptable levels.
In addition to offensive concerns, Kelly’s defense leaves much to be desired. Among regular Major League second baseman, Kelly had the following fielding ranks:
- Fielding percentage: .980, fourth worst in baseball
- Errors: 14, third highest in baseball
- Total chances: 701, middle of the pack (suggesting mediocre range)
You have to take his defense with a grain of salt. After all, the Braves converted him from an outfielder into a second baseman. But it does leave you wondering. The Braves have a very weak outfield anyway and with Kelly being a mediocre second baseman, should they consider putting him back out there?
In order to fully evaluate Kelly, you have to compare him against others who have filled that role for the Braves in recent years. The history of Atlanta Braves second basemen is not an overwhelming one. Since they began their run to the World Series in 1991, these players have been the opening day second basemen for the Braves: Marcus Giles (2002 – 2006), Quilvio Veras (2000-2001), Bret Boone (1999), Tony Graffinino (1998), Mark Lemke (1993 – 1997), and Jeff Treadway (1991-1992). Among this list, I would have to currently rank Kelly fairly highly, perhaps second only to Marcus Giles. Marcus, a fan favorite during his tenure with the Braves, was easily the most consistently productive on both offense and defense of the bunch prior to Kelly (even though Marcus was not overwhelming). Mark Lemke was also a big fan favorite (and one of Bobby Cox’s favorites). He could turn a double-play with the best of them, but his hitting performance was largely mediocre. A second baseman needs to be able to help on both offense and defense. The rest of the crew were stop-gaps who never provided consistent production.
In the context of this collection of second basemen, Kelly Johnson really doesn’t look quite so bad. And while he is streaky on offense and inconsistent on defense, he is young and should continue to improve. Further, the Braves do not have any significant prospects coming up the ladder at second base and to fill in the role via a trade or free agent would be a wasted effort- they need pitching more than they need hitting and infielders right now.
Ultimately, I believe he is a good fit for the Braves at second. I hope he remains there over the upcoming several years. I believe he really has the chance to establish himself in the Braves lineup. During the last month of 2008, Kelly’s hitting was lazer-hot. Hopefully he can carry that into 2009 and add some consistency throughout the year.