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2011 Atlanta Braves Spring Training: Sifting Through Utility Infielder Candidates

Omar Infante was shipped to Florida this offseason, creating a hole on the bench for utility infielder. However, the return was pretty well worth it. Even so, the trade left a spot that will be filled in house, and Spring Training seems like it could determine who takes the spot.

The first name that popped into minds and blogs was Diory Hernandez. Diory is a soon-to-be 27-year-old who has yet to stick on the Braves bench, due in part to poor play in call ups and in part to not having a spot. Hernandez hit .319/.344/.414 in 122 plate appearances at AAA last season, walking just four times. He has never had good plate discipline and he doesn't walk, but his on-base numbers are decent enough to keep around.

Hernandez won't win a job due to his hitting, but winning a utility infielding job isn't based entirely on offense. He has a good enough glove to pass as a defensive replacement, flashing decent hands and a good arm, but his range is not quite as good as you would like. He has major league experience at all three positions, which is a big plus for his case.

Brooks Conrad is option No. 2. He hit .250/.324/.487 with eight homers, .237 ISO and .356 wOBA in 177 plate appearances last season. He provided good value as a pinch hitter with power from the left side and solid stick from the right, as well. It also helped that he had a 2.24 WPA, showing his immense value as a hitter late in games. Obviously, he won't repeat his crazy late-innings heroics so often.

The problem with Conrad lies with his defense, which rose to epic proportions during the playoffs in just pure terribleness. He has good range but terrible hands, and he has yet to prove he can bounce back from a mistake. It's not his fault in that he shouldn't have even been out there in the late innings of the playoff games, but that in itself shows he isn't capable of being a defensive replacement. Added to that is the fact that Hernandez was the option that should have been in for Conrad.

Brandon Hicks pretty much proved his worth is nothing more than a solid defensive infielder with no bat. He barely hit .200 last season in 287 plate appearances at AAA. When he was a highly regarded prospect a couple years ago, he relied on power to overcome a poor on-base ability and high strikeout rate, but the power disappeared in the upper levels while the poor plate discipline remained.

Hicks has always flashed good defensive ability across the infield, but especially shortstop. He could easily handle the position as a defensive replacement, and he has nothing more to prove in the minors. But if offense has any impact on the decision, it will show when Hicks is held down. It's bad to say, but I would trust 15 days of Hernandez's bat over Hicks'. But one good thing I have noticed so far this spring is the Braves are giving Hicks some work at third base in an attempt to broaden his value, which shows they still have faith in him providing value to the big league club.

The Braves are also carrying Shawn Bowman, Ed Lucas, Mycal Jones and Tyler Pastornicky this spring. I know absolutely nothing about Bowman and Lucas and can't even provide an opinion, but I will guess they won't make the club. Jones and Pastornicky will both begin 2011 at AA and are just getting experience in big league camp. Pastornicky could play for a big league spot as soon as next year, and so could Jones, though I have the opinion that he may take a tad bit longer.

There really isn't a lot to sift through regarding the utility infielder role. Hernandez is likely to be the favorite at this point, with Hicks and Conrad about the same. If it was up to me, I would take the safe route and go with Hernandez out of the gate, but Hicks should be very close by throughout the season.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.