More players should be like Martin Prado. That's not to say that all players should be like him -- certainly the league is big enough for the speed of Mike Trout and the slugging of Miguel Cabrera as well, but there should be more scrappy utility guys that serve actual purposes, as Prado does, rather than serving as human pit stops for better players who need a breather.
The Braves have used Prado in a variety of roles since his call up in 2006, not because he's a sub-replacement-level substitute, but because he's the Swiss Army knife of the Braves organization. Prado can play second, third, or the outfield with above-average offense and defense (with one possible caveat: UZR hates him at second base). Though he's been the hidden gem of their roster for years, the (possible) loss of Michael Bourn to free agency and Chipper Jones to retirement means that the organization will actually have to clarify his role for 2013 -- or will they?
First, the Braves have to make a decision about Bourn. Despite having Scott Boras as his agent,the outfielder is still out there on the free agent market. It doesn't seem out of the question that after conjuring up Rafael Soriano's deal with Washington, Boras's next magical trick will be making Bourn reappear in Atlanta. The market for outfielders has essentially collapsed around Bourn; the teams that were most in need of outfield help have already found solutions. That may mean that he'll entertain an offer with the Braves, the one team that won't have to surrender a draft pick to sign him. Getting Bourn for a bargain would be great for the organization, especially given there are no real outfield prospects in sight, but they might already have a bigger bargain on hand, an opportunity to save the money next season and still get similar offensive results in a three-way platoon of Juan Francisco at third, Reed Johnson in left field, and Prado floating between the two positions based on pitching matchups.
Elaborate platoons went out of fashion (if they were ever in) when pitchers began dominating rosters, but they actually have a wonderful efficiency that is hinted at, in all places, Saturday morning cartoons. The only cartoon I liked as a kid was "Yogi's Space Race", but sometimes our babysitter made us watch "Captain Planet" (which originally aired on TBS if you were looking for a Braves tie-in immediately), a series in which four righteous "Planeteers" combined to form a single powerful hero who looked like he was suffering from oxygen deprivation. The Braves have a sort of Planeteers situation with Francisco, Johnson, and Prado. Alone, they are mediocre. Fused into a super-platoon (I guess Fredi Gonzalez has the fourth ring to complete the circuit, but it's obviously not a World Series ring) they could actually be quite productive given their splits.
Juan Francisco can't be trusted to serve as an everyday third baseman until he figures out left-handed pitchers, something which may never happen. In his brief major league career, Francisco has hit .272/.320/.487 against right-handers, but only .190/.224/.222 against lefties. The versus-left-handers numbers represent a small sample of just 67 plate appearances, but given just how helpless he has been against them (taking one walk against 24 strikeouts) there's no margin for error. Meanwhile, the Braves activated their left-field emergency plan by re-signing Reed Johnson to a one-year $1.6 million dollar deal, a good insurance/depth move. Like Francisco, Johnson isn't meant to be everyday solution as his .266/.323/.380 rates versus righties and .311/.367/.461 rates against lefties testify.
Neither Francisco nor Johnson would have much of an impact if they were platooned with the typically ineffectual utility guy, but when you add in Prado, a career .295/.345/.435 hitter who can mash no matter which hand a pitcher uses, he's the perfect fit for completing a three-way platoon, making starts for Francisco at third base against lefties and starting in left-field against righties in place of Johnson. Projecting stats is a difficult thing, especially when dealing with Francisco's lack of history, but it's still worth an attempt nonetheless. For demonstration purposes, I explored what Francisco-Johnson might look like in 500 plate appearances by combining their typical platoon stats. The result is a bit better than you might expect: .275/.331/.472 with 16 home runs. Admittedly, that line is probably a bit optimistic. Still, while the combination might not be as productive as Bourn would be on his own, the three-man platoon would give the Braves power from both sides of the plate, a decent on-base percentage, and solid defense. The only thing Francisco-Johnson can't closely approximate is Bourn's 42 stolen bases from last season.
This plan sounds awfully perfect, but admittedly there are a few obstacles that stand in the way. As much as we like to label things as platoons (I even write for a site called The Platoon Advantage), teams don't often deploy true two-man platoons, let alone three-man platoons. Saying that a team should rotate three players through two positions while looking closely at match-ups sounds like something that Casey Stengel might have done, but even when you look back over history, such arrangements have been few, and the most elaborate combinations remain the fever-dreams of the number-crunchers. There are a variety of reasons this is true -- lack of roster spots, not having the right players, player-resistance, and managers not wanting to think that hard come to mind-but the Braves could be sitting on the latest market inefficiency, the full-time outfielder-third baseman. By deploying Francisco, Johnson, and Prado in this manner not only would they cushion the blow of losing Bourn and Jones, they might have finally figured out how to best use Prado before he hits free agency in 2014.
It's hard to know what the Braves will actually do, especially since the return of Bourn is still a possibility, but this inventive three-man platoon would save the organization a considerable amount of money next season: Prado-Johnson-Francisco would cost less than $5 million total, whereas Bourn is expected to make at least twice that much. There's an obvious financial tradeoff there -- the Braves would surrender the certainty Bourn provides in favor of an improvisation; given that they barely reached the playoffs there may be value in the former. On the other hand, this isn't a team that has a lot of depth in the form of non-pitching prospects; there will be continual need to spend money in the coming seasons, so it makes sense to test a creative solution for a season.
I may be the only person excited by the fact that the Braves could be sitting on a cost-effective solution to the void left by Jones and Bourn, but if this rotation is tried I won't be alone for long - as with any innovation, the successful platoon will have its imitators. Of course, it will take a good deal of patience and number crunching on Gonzalez's part to make this three-man platoon work over the course of the season, but it should be worth the effort for everyone involved.