Braves' Johnson, Francisco in close race for 3B job

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Braves' Johnson, Francisco in close race for 3B job

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AP
The Braves acquired third baseman Chris Johnson in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks in January.

 PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – The Braves wanted Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson at their best, competing hard for the third-base job this spring, and so far they have.

 Manager Fredi Gonzalez also said he’d prefer one win the job outright rather than settle on a platoon. Still waiting for that.

 Just over one-third of the way through the Grapefruit League schedule, it’s way too close to call.

 Johnson went 3-for-3 with two singles and a home run in the Braves’ 4-2 win against the New York Mets on Monday at Tradition Field, a day after Francisco had a pair of doubles in a win against Detroit.

  Johnson, in the lineup at first base Monday, is 8-for-19 (.421) with two home runs, four RBIs and one strikeout in eight games this spring, and has multiple hits in three of six games in which he's batted more than once.

Francisco is 8-for-24 (.333) with two doubles, one homer, four RBIs and four strikeouts in eight games. Neither has drawn a walk, and neither is likely to draw many during the season.

  “It’s going to be fun,” Johnson said. “Juan can definitely play. I’m just trying to see if I can hang with him and give him a little competition.”

  He smiled as he said that. No one doubts Johnson can give Francisco, 25, more than a little competition. The Braves have known that since getting Johnson, 28, from Arizona as part of the seven-player trade that brought Justin Upton to Atlanta.

  It was why Braves general manager Frank Wren asked that Johnson be included in the trade once Wren agreed to trade Martin Prado to the Diamondbacks in the deal. Prado had previously been penciled in as Chipper Jones’ replacement this season.

  Johnson hit .281 with 48 extra-base hits (15 home runs) and 76 RBIs last season in 136 games (528 plate appearances) for Houston and Arizona. Francisco hit .234 with 20 extra-base hits (nine homers), 32 RBIs and a .278 OBP in 205 plate appearances for the Braves.

  The Braves say they’ll go with either a platoon of right-handed-hitting Johnson and left-hitting Francisco, or have one be the primary third baseman and the other a bench player and pinch-hitter.

  The duo isn’t well-suited for a conventional lefty-righty platoon, in that each has hit far better against right-handed pitchers than against lefties. Johnson has a .283 career average and .775 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 896 at-bats vs. righties, and .255/.666 in 333 at-bats vs. lefties.

  Francisco, has a .258 career average and 14 homers in 361 at-bats in the majors, including .190 with no homers in 63 at-bats against lefties. However, during the Dominican Winter League season the left-handed hitter actually hit for a higher average against lefties (.333, 20-for-60) while batting .307 overall with nine homers, a .369 OBP and 29 RBIs in 34 games.

  Johnson snapped a 2-all tie in the seventh inning when he homered off left-hander Darin Gorski on a 2-2 pitch with one out and nobody on base.

  “Just battling,” he said. “Had two strikes. That’s all you can do with two strikes, protect the plate. I got a pitch I could handle and was quick with it. A fastball in.”

  If the Braves don’t use Johnson and Francisco in a platoon, they could have Johnson be the primary third baseman and backup first baseman.

  “He’s swinging the bat really well, and gives us an option -- he can play some first base,” Gonzalez said. “Whenever  (Freddie) Freeman needs a day off or something, you can run him out there. He looks pretty good at first base.”

  In that arrangement, Francisco would also probably get plenty of starts at third and give the Braves left-handed power off the bench, something they are otherwise lacking.

   “Competition creates a lot of good stuff,” Gonzalez said. “And again, if we decide to go with a platoon, it’s there. If somebody wins it outright, then you’ve still got a pretty good bench, and it’d still be a deadly option off the bench. But they’re swinging the bats really well, both of them. Playing good defense; Juan is playing good defense. So it’s going to be interesting. We’ve still got a lot of games left to be played here in spring training.”

   Johnson said: “It’s a competition, but we’re teammates. We respect each other. I hope he gets hits. And I hope I get hits. That’s the way you want to go about it. You don’t want somebody to win when somebody’s struggling and somebody’s hot. We’re both going to go out there and play our best. At the end of the day, we’re both Braves  and we’ll go from there.”

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