Both the Cincinnati Reds and the Atlanta Braves entered the season as contenders in their respective divisions, but both also began the year with similar concerns at third base. At this stage of their careers, Chipper Jones and Scott Rolen are incredibly similar players. While they still are capable of providing value to their teams when healthy, neither of them are exactly iron men anymore; both Jones and Rolen have bodies that are breaking down after long, illustrious careers in the big leagues. However, both teams decided to go into the year hoping that their aging stars at the hot corner would produce and be able to stay on the field, as neither team has much in the way of in-house alternatives.
Unsurprisingly, both players have already dealt with injuries this season. Rolen spent time on the disabled list with a strained left shoulder, while Jones is attempting to play through a small tear in his knee. Both teams knew the risks involved in employing such fragile players, but neither team seemed to have much of a backup plan if and when Jones and Rolen suffered injuries.
With the Reds and Braves expected to be battling for their division crowns all season long, that oversight could be the difference between making the playoffs and watching them from home.
Atlanta and Cincinnati must overcome some tough competition if they hope to win their respective divisions. The Braves, who currently trail the Philadelphia Phillies by 3.5 games, must find a way to beat one of the strongest pitching staffs in recent memory. The Reds, on the other hand, are in a three-way dogfight for the division with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers.
In both situations, one game could ultimately decide who takes home the division crown. In other words, the difference in value between Jones/Rolen and their potential replacements could be the deciding factor behind whether either team returns to the postseason.
The failure to act is even more incredulous considering both players were dealing with injuries at the conclusion of last season. Jones suffered a career-threatening ACL tear in August, while various injuries led to a poor second half for Rolen, in which he completely stopped hitting for power. Their injury history reads much deeper, of course, as neither player has played 150-plus games in a season since 2003.
While the free-agent class wasn’t particularly strong at third base, neither team even elected to test the waters. Cincinnati may have considered other options at the position, but ultimately settled on re-signing Miguel Cairo, who experienced a fluky rebirth in 2010. Atlanta chose to stand pat, hoping that Chipper would recover from his injury in time to contribute once the season started. If injuries struck again, both teams seemed comfortable sticking with their internal options at the position.
Unfortunately, this strategy may not work for either team. Cairo had a nice year filling in for Rolen last season, but he’s a career journeyman who benefited from good luck on balls in play. In 83 plate appearances this season, Cairo has gotten off to a strong start once again. He’ll be exposed if he’s asked to play every day, however, as his strong start has small sample size fluke written all over it.
Along with Cairo, the Reds have also used Paul Janish and Juan Francisco in Rolen’s absence. While Francisco has displayed power in his minor league career, he has virtually no plate discipline. If pressed into a starting role, major league pitchers would quickly expose Francisco as a free-swinging hacker; Janish’s bat barely plays at short, and profiles even worse at third. Moving Janish over to third also exposes Cincinnati’s lack of depth at other positions, as it forces Edgar Renteria into a full-time role as well.
While the Braves entered the season with a stronger backup plan, their situation is also far from ideal. Martin Prado can play third effectively if Chipper goes down with an injury, but Atlanta was initially counting on Prado to play left field this season. Brooks Conrad would be the next logical option to replace Jones, but pitchers could exploit Conrad’s high strikeout rate if he is pushed into a full-time role, and his high-profile defensive lapses have given the Braves fits.
Both teams are currently experiencing the dangers of relying on injury-prone players. While neither Jones nor Rolen is currently on the disabled list, it’s not encouraging that both players have already dealt with injuries this season. Based on their injury history, it’s more than likely their backups will be pushed into important roles as the season progresses. Due to the perception that few games will separate the division winners in the NL East and NL Central, the performance of those backups could play a major role in whether the Reds or Braves are playing in October.