There are questions surrounding all 30 MLB teams during Spring Training, and Rob Neyer intends to answer them with his 30-part Question of the Day series. Today, he takes a look at the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves just keep reloading.
This season, 21-year-olds Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman will play key roles in the middle of the lineup.
Meanwhile, the bullpen will be stocked with young flame-throwers while the rotation's No. 5 slot is filled by 23-year-old Mike Minor or 24-year-old Brandon Beachy.
With the infield set and Brian McCann behind the plate, the Braves really have just one area of concern.
It's a big one, though ... two-thirds of Turner Field's spacious outfield.
Everything is copacetic with Heyward in right field.
An ex-infielder is playing left field.
An once-good player is playing center field.
Martin Prado will probably work out well enough in left field. Despite playing all over the infield during the last three seasons, his hitting has been both effective and consistent. Remarkably consistent. But while he doesn't figure to let the position switch bother his hitting, Prado has started only three games in the outfield in his career, and there's just no telling about his defense out there. And it's probably worth noting that if he's got the speed of a rangy left fielder, that has not yet showed up in his speed-related statistics.
Again, though, Prado seems like a pretty good bet for adequacy in left field, at least.
Center field? Maybe not so much.
Nate McLouth's last five seasons have the makings of a lovely bell curve:
The next number in this progression? That's hard to say. The missing number at the beginning of the progression is 96, but that was just 120 plate appearances in 2005 (McLouth's rookie season with the Pirates).
Considering what happened in 2010, the Braves will probably be happy with a 96 OPS+ this year. But of course past results do not guarantee future performance. McLouth might struggle terribly again, or he might revisit his All-Star glories of 2008. And it's not as if we've got real clues.
McLouth did miss a month after suffering a concussion last June ... but he was batting .176/.295/.282 before that injury. On a happier note, McLouth did hit well after returning to action for good in late August -- he first returned in July, but for just a few games -- but that was only 22 games and 16 starts. And despite McLouth's fine September, he wasn't given the starting nod even once during the Braves' Division Series loss against the Giants.
But now, with rent-an-outfielder Rick Ankiel gone, McLouth is back atop the depth chart. Should he falter, the Braves' only in-house option is one-time prospect Jordan Schafer, who has spent the last two years in the Wilderness and has either lost his compass or doesn't know how to use one.
If McLouth falters, the Braves maybe feel compelled to trade for a veteran center fielder ... but they'll have to hope for better than they got from Ankiel last season, who gave them little until his decisive homer in Game 2 of their Division Series.
The Braves are good enough to win 85-90 games with just about anyone in center field. But if they do fall short of paydirt, it's as likely to be due to a gaping hole in center field as anything else.