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Braves' Francisco, Johnson sizzle in third base battle

The SportsXchange

As they battle to replace Chipper Jones at third base for the Atlanta Braves, Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson keep one-upping each other.

Their spring success has left manager Fredi Gonzalez with a tough decision, but one on which he can hardly go wrong.

Surprisingly, it is starting to look as if replicating the offensive production of the retired future Hall of Famer might not be as hard as once feared.

Francisco homered in three of four games in mid-March, and he was batting .353 with five homers and 11 RBI after 51 at-bats through Tuesday. Johnson was hitting .347 with three homers and nine RBI through 49 at-bats.

Of course, it's just spring training, but Gonzalez certainly likes what he sees.

"They're both playing great," the manager said. "Juan has a big game, and then Chris follows him up. They're both swinging it. It's a good combination."

Since Francisco hits left-handed and Johnson bats from the right side, Gonzalez can always platoon the two.

Both, of course, would like to play regularly. Gonzalez is holding off on making a decision about playing time, letting Francisco and Johnson push each other.

"I'm open to a platoon situation, but I'm also open to whoever wins it," the manager said. "It's that close."

Johnson, acquired along with Justin Upton in the January trade that sent Martin Prado to the Diamondbacks, hit .281 with 15 homers and 76 RBI last season with Houston and Arizona. Francisco showed pop by hitting nine homers while filling in for Jones last season.

The Braves wanted to see Francisco, 25, get in better shape and have a good season in the Dominican winter league. He did both. However, Johnson, 28, has the more proven major league track record.

"If one is hitting .400 and one is hitting .050, then it's an easy decision," Gonzalez said. "If it's competitive, it's going to be one of those meetings for five hours to see what we come up with. But I don't think there is any down side really, for me."

Although neither Francisco nor Johnson is a Gold Glove candidate, each has made some nice plays this spring.

"They are better than average defensively," Gonzalez said.

No matter who gets the most playing time at third base, it could be a win-win situation for the Braves.

"They both bring other pluses to the team," Gonzalez said. "For example, if Juan is playing, Chris could be the right-handed bat off the bench. When Chris is playing, Francisco is a dangerous bat off the bench left-handed. Chris could play a little first base, so it gives you that dynamic where you could give (Freddie) Freeman a day off against a tough lefty. It gives you versatility. It gives you pretty good weapons."
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