Bill Shanks

Shanks: Left field continues to be a mess

When the Atlanta Braves signed left fielder Garrett Anderson in February, it looked like a good move. They only had to pay him $2.5 million for this season. Anderson was a veteran player with a .296 career batting average going into 2009, and he hit .335 after the All-Star break last year.

But things have not turned out well so far. Anderson pulled his quad muscle in his first Grapefruit League game in March. He returned three weeks later, enough to get in a few at-bats and make the opening day roster. But Anderson’s quad continued to act up, and the Braves placed him on the disabled list last week.

OK, he has been hurt. So Anderson might have an excuse for hitting only .200 in his first 25 at-bats. But what’s the excuse for him looking so miserable? He’s known as a quiet guy, but there’s more to it than that. Have you ever seen a player look like he’d rather be somewhere else?

Anderson did not want to leave the Los Angeles Angels. He was a California kid signed by the Angels in the 1990 draft and then made it to the big leagues in 1994. For 15 seasons, Anderson was an integral part of the Angels’ roster, including being a leader on their 2002 World Series championship team.

When the Angels told Anderson in October they wanted to move in another direction, he was hurt. He had still been productive, but yet they just didn’t want him anymore. Anderson then found himself caught in the bad economy of the baseball offseason as talented players found themselves facing tremendous pay cuts.

Anderson made $12.6 million last season but had to settle for $10 million less from the Braves. Now, it’s not like he is worrying about paying next month’s power bill. He has made more than $73 million in his career. But is the pay cut the reason he looks so miserable?

Matt Diaz has not helped things in left field. He’s hitting only .227 through Monday’s game, and his defense has just not been very good. Brandon Jones was brought up to replace Anderson on the roster, but Jones is projected as only a fourth outfielder.

The problems in left field this year represent the continuation of a larger issue for the position for the Braves. While Andruw Jones held down center field for a decade, and Jeff Francoeur has been the right fielder since the middle of 2005, left field has just been one big problem.

In fact, you have to go back to Ryan Klesko to find a player who actually held down left field for an extended period of time. And remember, Klesko was a first baseman who moved to left field only because the Braves acquired Fred McGriff during the summer of 1993.

Klesko was the Braves’ regular left fielder from 1994 (after Ron Gant broke his leg and was released) through the 1998 season. Klesko then moved back to first base when Andres Galarraga was diagnosed with cancer. And since 1999, left field has just been a mess.

In those 10 seasons, nine different players have led the Braves in games started in left field. Only Chipper Jones, when he moved to left for the 2002 and 2003 seasons, led the Braves in games started in left for consecutive seasons.

Gerald Williams led the Braves in games started in left field in 1999 with 78, followed by Reggie Sanders in 2000 (62) and B.J. Surhoff in 2001 (120). Those three unproductive seasons forced the team to move Chipper Jones to left field, where he amazingly started 152 games in 2002 and 149 games in 2003.

Since Chipper Jones moved back to third base, the Braves have not had one player start more than half the season in left field. Charles Thomas was the leader in games started in left in 2004 with 61, followed by Kelly Johnson in 2005 with 73. Ryan Langerhans took over in 2006, but he started only 78 games. Diaz had 77 games started in left to lead the team in 2007, but he was hurt last season and Gregor Blanco was the leader with 55 games started.

That is horrible.

Atlanta could have an answer in Jason Heyward, who is considered one of the top position player prospects in baseball. Heyward is in High Single-A Myrtle Beach, and the Braves believe he could be ready as soon as next season. He’s more of a right fielder, but if Jeff Francoeur continues to prove he’s back on track, Heyward might be more of an option for left field.

But that’s for the future. Right now, left field is still a nightly dilemma. If this team is in the race in the second half of the season, general manager Frank Wren might have to go out and find another bat. And the obvious spot to look for a replacement is left field.

Until then, we’ll just have to suffer through the revolving door every night. Maybe Anderson bounces back and becomes a force in the lineup. But don’t count on it. He looks as miserable as we do every night having to watch him and the others try to play left field for the Atlanta Braves.

The Bill Shanks Show airs weekdays from 3-6 pm on WFSM Fox Sports 1670 and online at www.foxsports1670.com.

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