My focus in this column will be on fantasy baseball, particularly as it pertains to the Braves.
The Braves have relied on pitching to carry them to the NL East pennant. Could the scenario change for 2003? John Schuerholz revamped the pitching staff with only making one change to the lineup, the addition of first baseman Robert Fick. I thought I would take a close look at the offense in my first column, looking at the fantasy baseball ramifications as well as the implications for the team's chances in the potentially more competitive NL East. In my next column, I will examine the pitching.
The lineup looks stronger to me this season, yet several players need to stay healthy and reach their potential for the team to compete. In fantasy baseball, where a player hits in the lineup can greatly impact their value. Rafael Furcal will bat leadoff, as expected. Bobby Cox has suggested Robert Fick might bat in the second spot. This would be great for Fick, as he would be batting in front of Chipper Jones and Gary Sheffield, and should see quite a few fastballs. Fick also knows how to work counts and has a good eye. He also has decent power, and should still hit at least 20 homers in that spot. Sheffield will probably bat third, followed by Chipper, Andruw Jones, and some combination of Javy Lopez, Vinny Castilla, and Marcus Giles. Giles could also bat second on days Fick is not in the lineup (which hopefully won't be too often). Batting eighth will be bad for Giles, so hopefully Cox will realize the second baseman is a better hitter than Castilla, and probably Lopez, and move him up in the lineup.
I am actually excited about the addition of first baseman Robert Fick, who signed after reaching the majors with the Tigers. A shoulder injury held him back and helped force a move to first base or the outfield from catcher. He is not much of a fielder, but will hit much better than the alternatives, such as Julio Franco. For fantasy purposes, in mixed leagues he is less valuable, but in NL only leagues he will be a nice addition to the pool. He is a professional hitter and will give you solid numbers, especially at a corner infield slot. I would think moving on from a bad clubhouse situation in Detroit, from what I have read, to a winning team like the Braves, should help. Consider him a sleeper. I think he will hit .290 with 25 homers. Yes, I have high expectations for Fick!
Will Rafael Furcal ever fulfill his potential? His main problem has been a complete lack of plate discipline as well as some serious injuries. I have always been a fan of the little guy, and he is capable of turning his career around. In his first major league season, Furcal walked 73 times and struck out 80. That is still too many strikeouts, but the 73 walks point to his ability to practice patience at the plate. This spring he has already suffered a sprained ankle, which kept him out of action for over a week. The ankle could be an ongoing problem. If Furcal can stay healthy and regain his plate discipline, look for a season with a .280 average, 8 homers, and a good possibility of 40 stolen bases. However, the ankle injury makes it more likely his stolen base total will be around 20-25.
Chipper Jones and Gary Sheffield should continue producing similar numbers, and they have both had outstanding springs. So has Andruw Jones, whose power numbers have been consistent, though he has yet to hit for average on a consistent basis. My instincts tell me he will raise his average this season, perhaps up to the .280 mark. Meanwhile, Javy Lopez has tons to prove this season. He lost weight over the off season and has been making a concerted effort to hit to the opposite field this spring. Lopez has been in a steady decline for the past three years, hindered by injuries and poor plate discipline. He should rebound somewhat this season, but it is hard to imagine more than 15 homers from Lopez. If he gets plugged into the seventh spot in the lineup, that will be enough to help the team in the lower part of the batting order.
Vinny Castilla should lose his third base job in 2003. He is not someone you want on your fantasy team, nor is he someone the Braves should be starting. I think Mark DeRosa deserves a chance to play regularly. If he can't handle it, then the team needs to make a trade for a third baseman or hope Wilson Betemit can put it all together in Triple A this season.
Fantasy Watch: Fick to produce big offensively?
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