The first candidate, in April 2006, was Marcus Giles. He lasted the better part of four months, replaced in late July by Willy Aybar, who lasted all of two weeks. Then it was back to Giles, who was replaced again, in 2007, first by Kelly Johnson, then by Willie Harris, then back to Johnson.
In all, since Rafael Furcal’s departure after the 2005 season, the Atlanta Braves have cycled through 18 hitters in an attempt to replace him. Or at least that’s how many names have been penciled into the leadoff spot in their lineup for a minimum of three games, including such luminaries as Pete Orr, Gregor Blanco, Josh Anderson, Ryan Church, Chris Woodward and, most recently, Jose Constanza.
By the end of this week, there will be a 19th — except this one, Michael Bourn, is different. He is the real thing: a true, classic, get-on-base, havoc-on-the-basepaths, steal-50-bags leadoff man. Acquired by the Braves on Sunday from the Houston Astros, he joined his new teammates on their charter flight to Washington that night and was in their lineup Monday night as the Braves opened a three-game series at Nationals Park.
“That’s what we’ve lacked here for a long time. It’s where we’ve struggled,” Braves veteran Chipper Jones said. “We’ve struggled with it since [Furcal] left. Some of our trouble scoring runs has been some inconsistencies at the extreme top of the lineup. But he’s going to give the middle-of-the-lineup guys an abundance of RBI opportunities.”
The Braves were the last of the three National League titans to make their move at the trade deadline. The NL West-leading San Francisco Giants struck first, getting Carlos Beltran, a slugging, three-month rental, from the New York Mets. The NL East-leading Philadelphia Phillies were next, prying right fielder Hunter Pence from the Astros.
The Braves, who entered Monday trailing the Phillies by six games in the East but up by 31 / 2 games over Arizona for the wild card, were considered suitors for both Beltran and Pence. But internally, the Braves knew the guy they really wanted was Bourn, who over the past few years has developed from a one-dimensional speedster into a well-rounded, two-way force — a two-time Gold Glove winner in center field, a two-time stolen base champ with a .352 on-base percentage since the start of 2009.
“As we got [close to] the trade deadline and started looking at our team, there were corner [outfielders] who would make us better,” Braves General Manager Frank Wren said. “But the more we talked, the more we thought this could be the one thing that could transform our club and make it more complete.”
But from the Braves’ standpoint, the best part of the Bourn deal may be this: While the Beltran and Pence deals both cost the Giants and Phillies their top pitching prospect, the Braves managed to pry away Bourn without sacrificing any of their top four pitching prospects. This despite the fact Bourn actually rates as a better all-around player than Pence, according to the Wins Above Replacement metrics at both Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs.com — both of which rate Bourn as being worth at least one win more than Pence so far this season.
“It was difficult to pull off, because the first thing everyone wanted to talk about were those pitchers,” Wren said. “So to make this deal and not have to give up one of those players was important to us.”
With a deep pitching staff that features three 2011 all-stars and a lineup that will be as potent as any once catcher Brian McCann returns from injury, the Braves arguably have an even better team than their 2010 edition, which won the wild card and fought the Giants for four games before losing in the first-round series.
“Position by position, maybe other teams are better,” Manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But the overall thing: I like our club. Some of that stuff you can’t even measure, [such as] resiliency, and the way they play the game.”
During their unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005 (excluding the strike-shortened 1994 season), the Braves almost always had an elite leadoff man and a defensive wizard in center field, and often — as in the cases of Otis Nixon, Marquis Grissom and Kenny Lofton, it was the same player. It may be more than coincidence the Braves’ glory run ended in 2005, the last season with Furcal, a shortstop, as the everyday leadoff man.
This year alone, the Braves have gone through four regular leadoff men, beginning with Martin Prado, then Jordan Schafer, then Nate McLouth and finally, in the three games preceding the trade deadline, Constanza.
Center field has been a similar black hole for the Braves since Andruw Jones’s departure after the 2007 season. In the four years since, nine players have played at least 10 games there for the Braves.
“It’s been an area that’s been a revolving door over the years,” Jones said. “And center field is not a place you want to have a revolving door.”
With Bourn, who is under team control through the 2012 season, the revolving door has stopped. It took them nearly six years to find Furcal’s replacement at leadoff, and nearly four years to find Andruw Jones’s heir in center field. But he is here now, and the Braves, for once, are complete.