Braves’ third-base race still too close to call

JUPITER, Fla. — After more than a month of spring training workouts and games, the Braves’ third-base competition between Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson is too close to call, at least statistically.

And if team officials are leaning in one direction or the other, they aren’t letting on publicly.

Francisco was 10-for-34 (.294) with two doubles, two homers, five RBIs and a .529 slugging percentage in 12 games before Wednesday, when he was in the lineup against Miami. Johnson was 11-for-35 (.314) with a double, two homers, six RBIs and a .514 slugging percentage in 13 games before Wednesday, including a few games at first base.

Both have been prone to strikeouts and few walks during their careers, and that’s continued this spring: Francisco had nine strikeouts and one walk before Wednesday; Johnson had six strikeouts and no walks.

Although he said at the beginning of spring training that he hoped one of them would win the job outright, Gonzalez said Wednesday that it was preferable to have both playing well instead of one clearly ahead in the race at this point.

“Because that makes it a hard decision for us,” he said. “If one’s hitting .400 and one’s hitting .050 then it’s an easy decision. If it’s a competitive nature, it’s going to be one of those meetings for five hours to come up with the best solution. But I don’t see any downside – we can platoon them, or if somebody wins the job (outright) that means that guy is doing a good job….

“It’s not like if one’s playing the other guy is at the end of the bench. Chris Johnson has been able to play first base, and give (Freddie) Freeman a spell once in a while. He’s done a good job over there. It’s nice to have those options.”

The Braves have Johnson penciled in as their backup first baseman regardless of what happens with the third-base situation. He could win the third-base job and move over to first base to give Freeman a break against some left-handers or if Freeman just needs a rest.

Or, the Braves could go with a straight platoon of the left-handed-hitting Francisco and right-handed Johnson at third base, although they’re not well-suited for such an arrangement since both hit right-handed pitchers better than they hit lefties.

Most observers agree Francisco has looked better defensively. Neither is a threat to win a Gold Glove, to put it mildly.

“They’re both about the same (defensively), for me,” Gonzalez said.

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