LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Signing Emilio Bonifacio in December was a bit of a head-scratching move by the Braves, considering he wasn’t good the first time they had him in 2014 and was far worse during 2015 with the White Sox.
If there wasn’t an obvious need for the (very) light-hitting utility man then, there’s even less now after the Braves have seen him this spring and don’t seem at all impressed.
Braves manger Fredi Gonzalez has even started veteran right fielder Jeff Francoeur in center field once this week and plans to try him out there a couple more times. The reasoning: He’d give the Braves a right-handed hitting backup right fielder/pinch-hitter who could play some center along with lefty hitter Michael Bourn.
Ender Inciarte is the primary center fielder to start the season, but Inciarte can play all three positions at a high level and will get some starts in left field when Gonzalez wants to rest Hector Olivera.
The Braves have a glut of veteran outfielders, but three’s a possibility, maybe more like a probability, they’ll get rid of Nick Swisher one way or another – trade him if they can find a taker to pick up any portion of his $15 million salary, or just bite the bullet and release him if they have to. They just don’t need him on their 25-man roster.
Bourn is making $14 million in the last year of his deal, but he’s shown he still has something left. He can still run, hit a little, play center and left field, and also – no insignificant matter – he’s been a good mentor for up-and-coming center fielder Mallex Smith, who’s very talented and could be ready for the big leagues by mid-summer.
As for Bonifacio, 30, if he were still a good infielder, it’d be one thing. But he’s not. He’s not good enough defensively to warrant playing time ahead of the Braves’ other backup or platoon infielders at any position, particularly given his lack of offense.
Did we mention that Bonifacio hit .167 (13-for-78) with two doubles and a .198 on-base percentage in 47 games in 2015 for the White Sox before being released in August? And that he then caught on with the Cubs, signing a minor league deal and not getting a major league callup before the season ended?
The best thing about Bonifacio’s deal? It’s only for $1.25 million, so the Braves could eat it and release him if it comes to that and they decided to keep Francoeur, which at this point seems a distinct possibility.
Francoeur, 32, played nearly five seasons with the Braves, including consecutive 100-RBI seasons, before being traded to the Mets in 2009. But that connection to the Braves and his popularity among many of their fans isn’t why some with the Braves would like to keep him over Bonifacio.
Francoeur bounced back from a season in Triple-A with the Padres in 2014 to hit .258 with 13 homers and 45 RBIs in 343 at-bats last season for the Phillies. That included .367 (11-for-30) as a pinch-hitter, ith 11 pinch-hit RBIs, one shy of the major league lead. If he’s on the team he’ll do plent of pinch-hitting for the Braves.
And though he’s a righty hitter, Francoeur had 10 homers and a .477 slugging percentage in 202 plate appearances vs. right-handed pitchers last season.