Competition at third keeps Fredi Gonzalez talking

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Competition at third keeps Fredi Gonzalez talking

Fredi Gonzalez keeps trying to avoid beating the topic into the ground, but Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson are making it tough because they both keep beating the ball up in Grapefruit League play.

So it has become part of the spring training routine for the Braves’ manager: Francisco and Johnson take turns producing (or do it at the same time), and then reporters corner Gonzalez to ask him if either guy has won the third-base job or at least pulled ahead in the race.

“I keep saying I don’t want to talk about it daily,” Gonzalez said, “and we end up talking about it like it’s a grade every day.”

There’s been plenty for Gonzalez to talk about with either player — or both — nearly every day. A recent stretch of games put the competition in the spotlight again.

Francisco hit a booming home run Friday against the Mets and then again Saturday against the Yankees. Johnson followed that with three hits Sunday against the Mets.

Francisco had a pinch-hit single against the Mets on Sunday and then went 3-for-5 with another home run against the Phillies on Monday. Johnson had a pinch-hit RBI single against the Phillies.

Numbers like those are why the questions about third base keep coming for Gonzalez, who praises both players while never tipping his hand.

“I’m not ready to make a decision right now, one or the other,” Gonzalez said. “They’ve both been great. ‘Juanny’ (has) a couple more home runs. Both play a good third base, better than average defensively. We’ll see. I’m open to a platoon situation, but I’m also open to whoever wins it outright.”

If both players keep up the pace, Gonzalez’s decision might have to wait until close to Opening Day.

Francisco has surged at the plate over the past five games to lift his batting average from .278 to .353 (18 hits) in 51 total at-bats. He’s struck out 15 times, but the recent homer binge helped increase his slugging percentage to .686, tops among Braves regulars this spring.

But Johnson’s spring numbers are good, too. In 49 at-bats he has hit .324 (17 hits) with two home runs, a .551 slugging percentage and only seven strikeouts.

Francisco has flashed a fine glove at third base, with Gonzalez noting that he has snagged some tough grounders on weird bounces in Champion Stadium’s infield. But Gonzalez said Johnson has been solid at third, too, and is making a smooth transition to playing some first base.

In a certain respect, the focus on whether Francisco or Johnson opens the season as the everyday third baseman is moot. Both are assured of making the roster and still figure to get opportunities, even if there is no platoon.

Gonzalez said Francisco can serve as a “dangerous” left-handed bat off the bench when Johnson is playing. Johnson can pinch hit or, Gonzalez said, fill in at first base “so you can give (Freddie) Freeman a day off against a tough lefty.”

“It’s not like one is going to go away and we’ve got to make a decision and one goes down to minor leagues or disappears forever,” Gonzalez said.

The competition between Francisco and Johnson probably is drawing more attention than it otherwise would because of their position. Braves legend Chipper Jones retired after last season, and fans are eager to see who will be the team’s new third baseman, in addition to what that player will bring to the lineup.

But Gonzalez has made it clear from the start that new additions Justin and B.J. Upton, as well as Freeman, will pick up the slack in the lineup from Jones. In the meantime, Johnson and Francisco keep making their case to replace Jones’ position, if not his production.

Their major-league numbers are comparable, too, though Johnson has the longer track record.

In 1,229 major league-at bats Johnson has hit .276 with 33 home runs and a.315 on-base percentage. He had a career-high 488 at-bats between Arizona and Houston and hit 15 home runs with a .777 OPS.

Francisco has posted .744 OPS in 386 career plate appearances. He has struggled in limited at-bats against lefties.

“I think the regular season will take care of that, all the questions that we have,” Gonzalez said. “But what I see right now is a guy who’s been able to take advantage of some playing time and getting the most out of it.”

The same can be said for Johnson, and so the wait continues to figure out who will be the Braves’ new third baseman.

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