LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Braves’ third-base competition has been too close to call, so manager Fredi Gonzalez said Thursday that he doesn’t plan to call it anytime soon.
Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson will likely start out as a third-base platoon, with Johnson also serving as backup first baseman.
“I think both of those guys are playing such great baseball right now,” Gonzalez said, “so it would be unfair to say (to one of them) you’re the starter.”
Before Thursday night’s game against Washington, Francisco was hitting .353 (18-for-51) with five home runs, 11 RBIs and a .686 slugging percentage in 18 games, and Johnson was at .352 (19-for-54) with three homers, 11 RBIs and a .537 slugging percentage in 20 games.
Gonzalez said at the beginning of spring training that he hoped one of them would win the third-base job outright, but that a platoon would be a good option if they didn’t. The right-handed hitting Johnson and left-handed hitting Francisco have been two of the Braves’ most productive hitters all spring.
Francisco is a little better than Johnson defensively at third, but Johnson has surprised some with his solid play at first base. He only had six games of major-league experience at third, but Johnson played the position in college.
Johnson hit .281 with 48 extra-base hits (five triples, 15 homers), 76 RBIs and a .326 on-base percentage last season in 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, and worked to eliminate some of the pronounced inward turn of his right knee in his batting stance. In winter ball in the Dominican Republic, he hit .307 with nine homers, a .369 OBP and 29 RBIs in 34 games.
A conventional lefty-righty platoon isn’t ideal with Francisco and Johnson, because Johnson actually hits better against right-handers than against lefties. He has a .283 career average and .775 on-base plus slugging percentage against righties, and .255/.666 against lefties.
Francisco has a .190 average and no homers in 63 major league at-bats against left-handers, but working on his swing he went 20-for-60 (.333) against lefties during winter ball.
Gonzalez joked, “I’m going to do a reverse platoon — lefty against lefties and righty against righties.”