Bill Shanks

Could Juan Francisco be an option for 3B in 2013?

There has been a question that has surrounded the Braves for several years, and we’re real close to getting an answer.

Who is going to be Atlanta’s third baseman once Chipper Jones retires?

Most believe it could be Martin Prado. The left fielder can play third base, and he’s got one year left on his contract. Even putting Prado at third base would simply give the Braves more time to perhaps find a true third baseman that can be at that position for the long-term.

Personally, while I know Prado can play third, I don’t think that necessarily means he should. I still believe Prado is a second baseman playing left, and if he played third full-time next year he’d be a second baseman playing third.

With Dan Uggla struggling at Prado’s natural position, it makes me want Prado back at second even more. And if Uggla doesn’t bounce out of his slump, you have to wonder if the Braves would consider seeing this winter if some team would take him off their hands.

The Braves would have to look for one of those deals where they take someone else’s problem for their problem, but would an Uggla-for-Alfonso Soriano deal make sense? How about an Uggla-for-Jason Bay trade?

Then the Braves could put Prado back at second base, where he maximizes his value as an offensive player, and at the same time find someone who could maybe provide power production for left field.

But for that to happen, someone else must be identified as a replacement for Jones. And while this would have been a dumb idea two months ago, you have to wonder if the Braves are starting to think more about Juan Francisco.

Yeah, the same Juan Francisco who has a .257 batting average and .295 on base percentage for the season. The same Juan Francisco who is out of shape and needs to purchase Nutrisystem. The same Juan Francisco who sometimes looks lost at third base.

The only reason this has come up as a potential option is Francisco’s work in July, as he hit .407 with three home runs and nine RBI. There’s little doubt the guy can hit, but it’s all about how often he’ll hit and what he could do in a full-time role.

It’s really hard to gauge statistically what he might do as a regular. You could take his career production in 309 major league at bats and simply double it, and you’d get 26 home runs and 110 RBI in 618 at bats. But you’d also get 196 strikeouts and only 36 walks.

Francisco has hit eight home runs and driven in 26 this season, a year when he’s gotten the most at bats in one season in his four years in the big leagues. If you took those two stats and quadruple them, giving him 560 at bats, that would be 32 home runs and 104 RBI.

But when Francisco has started at third base this season, he’s done pretty well. Francisco has started 30 games at third and has hit .290 with seven home runs and 23 RBI, along with a .319 on base percentage. Multiply those numbers by five, if he played in 150 games as a starter, and you’d have pretty good production.

But could Francisco hit a respectable .270 and hit 20-30 home runs, with 70-90 RBI with regular playing time? That’s the question probably being bounced around the Atlanta front office right now.

Obviously, Francisco is not a great defensive player. His arm is OK, and remember he was voted by International League managers as having the best arm in that league a year ago. His range is not good, but if Andrelton Simmons is to his left as the starting shortstop, that might not be such a bad thing.

Plus, if Atlanta decided to go with Francisco as a regular, they’d be smart to keep him locked in Fulton County this offseason and have him work with a personal trainer. Shed about 25 of those listed 243 pounds and his range may not be as bad as it is right now.

The biggest thing about Francisco, at least in terms of what he starting at third base could mean for the Braves, is that he’s cheap. He’s not even eligible for arbitration until after the 2014 season, so he could be a starter at third base making about $500,000 for the next two seasons. Francisco is under Atlanta’s control through the 2017 season.

So if Atlanta decided to give him a shot at third, they could then spend more money on retaining Michael Bourn, or maybe even making a decision on the future of catcher Brian McCann.

Francisco just turned 25 six weeks ago, so he’s still a young player with his peak seasons, at least age-wise, ahead of him. That also means he still has some potential to improve on his skills, especially with more regular playing time.

Look, I don’t even know if I’ve convinced myself this is the direction I would go in finding a new third baseman. But I’ve never been too excited about Prado being at third. Sure, he can play there, but having Uggla struggle this season has made me want Prado back where he started – second base.

The one thing Francisco’s recent offense has done is at least make the Braves think about him a little bit differently. It might be a gamble if they went with him as Chipper’s replacement, but it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve taken a shot with a younger player.

They gave Adam LaRoche a chance in 2004 to play first base. When they traded LaRoche, they gave Scott Thorman a shot. That didn’t work out too well, but it was worth a try. Even this past spring, the Braves gave Tyler Pastornicky a chance at shortstop. Once that didn’t work out, they went with another young player in Andrelton Simmons and hit pay dirt.

Giving Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman chances to start as regulars early on was not as much as a gamble, since they were very highly-regarded prospects. But the Braves have given chances to marginal prospects before, and that would be the case if they gave Francisco a shot as well.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind – there are some players in the Atlanta farm system that might be ready in another year or two to get a shot at third base. Joe Leonard has hit nine home runs in Double-A this season, with a .272 batting average and a .347 OBP. He’ll turn 24 later this month, and there’s a good chance he’ll be in Triple-A next season. But another solid season in 2013 might make him an option in 2014.

Edward Salcedo is in Lynchburg this season. He’s hitting .250 with 11 home runs and 43 RBI in 372 at bats. But the best possibility playing for the Hillcats might be Nick Ahmed, who is at shortstop now but some project as a third baseman. Ahmed, who is 22 years old, is hitting .271 with six home runs, 47 RBI, a league-leading 33 doubles, and a .335 OBP. Ahmed will be in Double-A next season, and it’ll be interesting to see if the Braves get him some time at third base.

These are the things the Braves must be thinking about, as replacing Chipper is not going to be easy, regardless of which direction they go and who they select. But Francisco is at least back on the radar as a possibility with his decent offensive production as Jones’ fill-in this season.

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