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Diaz may earn full-time starting job in left field for Braves

POSTED: March 30, 2008 5:01 a.m.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — A question about the outfielders fighting for a backup spot with the Atlanta Braves struck Matt Diaz as "really weird."

"Usually I’m in that field of guys struggling to make that 24th or 25th spot on the roster," Diaz said after batting practice Wednesday. "It’s really entertaining to be asked that question."

Diaz no longer is a bubble guy. He hit .338 in 2007, ending any speculation about his roster status.

And Diaz is no one-year wonder. He hit .327 in 2006.

Only one major league player can match those batting averages the last two years.

For players with a minimum of 600 at-bats since the start of the 2006 season, Ichiro Suzuki leads the majors with a .336 batting average. Diaz is second at .333, though his high averages came while sharing playing time in left field.

Now the question for this spring: Can Diaz, who added 12 homers and 45 RBIs in 358 at-bats last season, shake his tag as a platoon player?

Diaz, a right-handed hitter, shared the left-field job with Willie Harris last season. Harris, now with Washington, enjoyed a hot start before losing ground to the steady Diaz.

Diaz has hit right-handers when given the chance.

Diaz hit .356 against left-handers and .318 against right-handers last season. He hit .358 against right-handers in 2006. His 358 at-bats last year were split almost evenly, with 170 against right-handers.

"There’s nothing wrong with playing every day with Matt, that’s for sure," Braves manager Bobby Cox said Wednesday. "He’s earned it. What we’re going to do, I’m not saying, but he’s earned the right to play every day."

Cox insists Diaz, 30, also has the defensive skills to be a full-time starter. Though overshadowed by Andruw Jones’ glove and Jeff Francoeur’s arm, Diaz was solid last season. He committed two errors in 135 games.

"He’s playing great," Cox said. "He’s been a good defensive player. He just never had a chance to play every day, or as much as he’s played with us."

Diaz agreed to a one-year deal for $1,225,000 in January with $12,500 bonuses for 450 and 500 plate appearances.

He won’t speculate about what kind of salary he could command if given those extra 100 to 150 at-bats to qualify for those bonuses.

"We all get paid enough in this game," he said. "I got a pretty nice raise as it was.

"The reason we’ve all played ball since we’re 10 isn’t to make a million dollars. It’s to jump in a pile on the mound after Game 7 of the World Series or to be met at home plate after hitting the game-winner. You don’t want to lose sight of that."

After Jones signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Braves added Mark Kotsay as the new starter in centerfield.

Among the outfield candidates to join Francoeur, Kotsay and Diaz are Josh Anderson, Brandon Jones, Gregor Blanco and Joe Borchard. Jordan Shafer, also in camp, is seen as the centerfielder of the future, but he’s only 21 and hasn’t played above Class A.

Any of the candidates could cut into Diaz’s playing time. He says he trusts Cox to do what is best for the Braves.

"Once you sell out to the team concept, you really don’t care how it goes," Diaz said. "You just want to do your best.

"Bobby has had confidence in me hitting against righties. It was just a matter of what’s best for the team. If he feels it’s best to work in a bench guy with me in left field, I totally understand that. I would have never had a chance to play if he didn’t do that with me. That’s how I got my start. Whatever role he decides to put me in, it’s what’s best for the team and I know that."



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