Who should fill the three-hole when Prado returns?
When the Braves needed a leadoff hitter in May, Martin Prado stepped in and filled the role in stellar fashion. Now that they need a three-hole hitter, he’s once again a primary candidate to fill this role.
There has been reason to believe that Jason Heyward would eventually force himself into the three-hole at some point this season. But while opting to bat Alex Gonzalez third and keep Heyward in the two-hole during this series against the Dodgers, Bobby Cox has showed he’s not quite ready to give the phenom this role.
Heyward, who has missed three of the past five games because of a sore right knee, is back in the lineup tonight. When asked about the ailment yesterday, he essentially said he just wants to make sure he’s healthy and strong down the stretch.
As the Braves head down the stretch without Chipper Jones, they’re going to need Heyward to move away from his rookie inconsistencies and regain the form that he had while belting 10 homers and compiling a 1.017 OPS through the first 46 games of his career.
When Heyward batted .389 with a .992 OPS in the first 14 games he played coming out of the All-Star break, he provided indication that he was no longer bothered by the right thumb injury that plagued him throughout June and sidelined him during July’s first two weeks.
But while hitting .140 and striking out 10 times in his past 43 at-bats, Heyward has provided the reminder that he just celebrated his 21st birthday last week. There’s no doubt that he and Brian McCann are still the most intimidating figures in the Chipper-less lineup. But at the same time, the kid is still gaining the experience necessary for to find success in this three-hole for many years to come.
Instead of putting added pressure on Heyward, it might make more sense to put Prado in the three-hole when he returns to the lineup during this week’s series against the Nationals (I’m guessing he’ll be playing in Tuesday’s series opener).
Well it does, until you look at the fact that Prado has hit .242 with runners in scoring position this year. Making matters worse, he has hit a team-worst .156 w/RISP dating back to May 30.
Meanwhile Omar Infante has hit .338 w/RISP this year. This hasn’t been a fluke. Since the start of the 2008 season, Infante has also hit .338 w/ RISP — the seventh-best mark among all Major Leaguers with at least 200 plate appearances in this situation during this span.
While showing increased power with the six homers he hit during the 19 games played before he fractured his right pinky, Prado hit just .250 with a .305 on-base percentage. In his absence, Omar Infante has provided the kind of production you would want from a leadoff hitter.
Infante has hit .378 with a .403 on-base percentage in his past 17 games (all starts) and .360 with a .380 OBP over the course of his past 55 games (40 starts). Throw in the fact that he has the ability to occasionally steal a base and it’s easier to see why I think he would be the better option to bat leadoff in the Chipper-less lineups that will be constructed the rest of this season.
So Prado possesses the power potential you would want in the three-hole and lacks the speed you would want at the top of the order. Infante possesses the clutch hitting potential you want in the third spot of the lineup and lacks the power.
With all this being said, it only makes sense to give Brooks Conrad an everyday role, right? I mean he has homered seven times in 112 at-bats and batted .324 w/RISP this year. If he continues to thrill in the late innings, Webster’s will soon place his picture beside the word “clutch.”
Now that I’ve allowed loyal blogger “billreef” to get excited, I’ll return to reality and confirm that I realize that now is not the time to place a 30-year-old with 185 career at-bats in the third spot of the lineup of a team with World Series aspirations.
In some ways, I think Heyward is still the best option to place in the third spot of the lineup. But with Brian McCann continuing to struggle against left-handers this would leave the Braves susceptible to be doomed by late-inning matchups against top left-handed relievers.
So I say give Prado a chance to further enhance his team MVP credentials by proving that he can end his RISP struggles while hitting in the third spot of the lineup. His presence there would at least allow Cox to alternate left-handed and right-handed hitters through his lineup.
Here’s how tonight’s lineup looks: