Bill Shanks

Braves need right-handed bat

We all knew the offense could be the difference in whether or not the Atlanta Braves would be successful in 2009. The return of catcher Brian McCann has breathed new life into the batting order, but it doesn’t really eliminate a huge concern that could stick around all season unless something is done.

The Braves are in desperate need for a right-handed power hitter. They need power, in general, but they really need help from the right side of the plate.

Going into Tuesday’s game, six players were tied for the Braves’ team lead in home runs with only three. The Braves were tied for 21st in the majors with only 26 home runs in 32 games.

Power has always been important to manager Bobby Cox. His teams have relied on three-run home runs and good pitching. In his first nine seasons back as the skipper, the Braves were in the top four in home runs in the NL every season. The Braves led the league in homers twice this decade (2003 and 2006), but in the other years, they were in the top four only one time (2005).

Two seasons ago, the Braves fell to sixth in the NL, and then last year, Atlanta was 14th in the league with only 130 home runs. They are on pace for that same amount this season.

Atlanta’s falloff can be traced to the loss of Andruw Jones as the right-handed power hitter. Jones went from 51 homers in 2005 to 41 in 2006 to only 26 in 2007. Before Jones had that breakout power year in 2005, he averaged 32 home runs from 1998 through 2004.

The Braves have just been unable to replace that power source.

Chipper Jones is a switch-hitter, and the Braves really only have two full-time right-handed hitters in the lineup: Yunel Escobar and Jeff Francoeur. Escobar is more of a slap hitter, slotted perfectly in the No. 2 spot in the order. And Francoeur is on pace for only 15 home runs, only a slight improvement from the 11 he had last season.

That is why general manager Frank Wren desperately tried to acquire Jason Bay from Pittsburgh in August. He offered four young players for Bay, who is now with Boston and has nine home runs. Wren knew Bay was the best player available on the market, and he was a right-handed hitter, as well.

The Braves showed no interest in Pat Burrell during the winter because of his poor defense. He was about the only right-handed hitter on the free agent market. The other options (Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu, Ken Griffey Jr. and Garrett Anderson) were all left-handed hitters.

Even Atlanta’s top three hitting prospects are all left-handed hitters. Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman both have four home runs, while Cody Johnson has 11 to lead the Carolina League. All three are in Myrtle Beach, at least a year away from the majors.

Atlanta isn’t the only team with this problem. There just aren’t as many right-handed power-hitting outfielders in baseball as there used to be. Going into Tuesday, 56 players in the majors had six or more home runs, and only 17 were right-handed hitting outfielders.

While Cox has committed to giving Anderson a chance in left field, at least for now, you can only wonder if Wren is still looking around for a right-handed bat. And two former Braves might be his best options.

Cleveland is struggling, so Mark DeRosa might become available. He could play third base when Chipper Jones is out and then move to left field when needed. And the Chicago White Sox have flirted with trading former Macon Braves player Jermaine Dye, who has seven home runs and would be a huge threat in the lineup.

If you look around the majors, it’s just going to be tough to find many alternatives. Cox will have to rely on the doubles hitters like Anderson and Casey Kotchman and turn to McCann and Jones for the power.

But will that be enough to support an improved pitching staff? That answer, and whether Wren can find another bat, could be the difference in whether the Braves are contenders this season.

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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