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6/21/2007 10:36:00 AM

NL East: Salt in the Wound

By Ben Reiter

Jarrod Saltalamacchia remains best known for making William Van Landingham, Todd Hollandsworth, Tim Spooneybarger and 11 others eat his 14-lettered dust when the Braves summoned him from Double-A Mississippi on May 2, his 22nd birthday. In the seven weeks since, however, baseball's answer to T.J. Houshmandzadeh has assaulted far more than the tongues of neophytes who attempt to pronounce his last name. After 68 at-bats, Salty's hitting .324 with an OPS of .841, with 2 home runs and 8 RBI.

So far, the only team that's been able to consistently stop Saltalamacchia has been his own. Atlanta is presently the second-worst organization after Minnesota in which to be a hot, young catching prospect; just like Joe Mauer, 23-year-old rising star Brian McCann isn't going anywhere soon. But the Braves, unlike the Twins, don't have a reigning MVP manning the position to which an athletic catcher has traditionally best been able to switch: first base.

Current starter Scott Thorman may rank fourth among Canadians with 30 RBI (after Justin Morneau, Jason Bay and Russell Martin), but he's only 12th among NL first basemen, and his .718 OPS is 15th among NL 1B's with more than 120 at-bats. While Thorman, who's hitting .235 overall, is basically a rookie himself (he had 128 at-bats last season), he has yet to demonstrate the type of run production the Braves need from the first base position. His defense alone hasn't been nearly good enough to merit keeping him in the everyday lineup.

Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz have proven themselves willing to gamble that a player will be able to pick up a new position in order to get his bat in the mix. They've had great success so far this year with outfielder-turned-second-baseman Kelly Johnson, whose talents have been mentioned before in this space and who continues to play above-average defense. And, they have begun experimenting with putting Saltalamacchia next to Johnson on the right side of the infield. He started there on back-to-back nights last week, against two of baseball's best lefties in Johan Santana and C.C. Sabathia, and made it through both games without an error.

The thinking seems to be that the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia will play first against southpaws, and will otherwise spell McCann behind the plate once a week or so. Thorman has indeed been terrible against lefthanders, against whom he's hitting .189 with no homers and 3 RBI in 53 at bats, while Saltalamacchia has hit .324 with 2 homers and 4 RBI in 34 similar at bats. But it's not as if Thorman has been giving righthanders bad dreams -- he's at .262 with a sub-.300 OBP against them, while Salty's at .303/.395.

Unless Saltalamacchia's first base defense proves to be a complete disaster (and it might) his bat's too good for him to remain a backup catcher and lefties-only first sacker. He should, in the next few weeks, work his way into the lineup nearly every day, even with McCann a mainstay behind the plate.

As for Thorman? Well, Cox sure could use a fifth starter...

  • The banged up McCann went to a secret weapon to bust out of a slump: his dad, Howie.

  • Washington Post beatman Barry Svrluga, who knows something about challenging last names, gives us the very different stories of the Nats‚ trio of ex-Tigers.

  • Ozzie Guillen, whose judgment often seems to be, well, questionable, offered some sage advice to Marlins slugger Miguel Cabrera: drop the arepas. "If he keeps getting bigger, his future is in the Mexican League," says Ozzie.

  • Phillies blog The Good Phight considers whether Alfonso Alfonseca could remain the closer once Tom Gordon and Brett Myers return.

  • Finally, check out New York's most beloved recurring in-stadium video feature since the Great Subway Race.

  • The NL East Fungoes will feature a guest blogger next week, as I'll be off in Croatia researching the ancestry of baseball's most famous Croat-descended player, Mr. Roger Eugene Maras (you might know him as Roger Maris) -- although Adriatic beaches may also be involved. Anyone know of a good spot to catch the Nats/Pirates series in Dubrovnik?


    posted by SI.com | View comments |  


    Salty is going to Houston.
    So my friend Matt and I are both big Braves fans, and the other day we were talking about what they should do with Saltalamacchia. He's a good hitter and catcher, but with McCann in the way he's been taking balls at first. Then Matt came up with, what we think is, a good idea.
    Why not have Salty and McCann platoon between catcher and first? They're both good defensive catchers, and with some work I believe they could both be good defensive first basemen. It would get them both in the lineup, and, more importantly for the long-term, it would save their knees. They could divvy up the catching responsibilities by pitcher, so the starters would still have the stability of having the same catcher.
    How is this a bad idea? The only drawback we found is that the Braves would possibly lose a little defense at 1b, but so many teams get by with bad defensive 1b (Phillies and Mets just to name teams in our division).
    And do you think something like this would ever happen?
    Posted: June 24, 2007 6:18 PM   by Hugh Ashmead
    Alfonseca should definitely remain the closer.
    Posted: June 24, 2007 8:59 PM   by Anonymous
    from da boy vince

    yo Daniel, you and your lovemonkey Matt can sleep on this ideaand suck on this - Ryan Howard is better than a catcher at first and can hit better,too. The Braves suck as always, Smoltz and Chipper cant get along, Andruw Jones couldnt hit if you offered him a hoagie for it and the Phils own them.Your idea blows just like your buddy and you

    trhow some d's on that
    Posted: July 6, 2007 9:31 AM   by Josh
    Vince, you say that Braves suck as always? Well, I guess it's hard to keep up with all those Phillie teams with their tradition of winning. I mean, they haven't been to the plyoffs in the last decade and a half, but hey, that's just minor details, right?
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