The key to this lineup being productive remains the top two in the order. Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles are the table-setters. The lineup follows their lead more often than not, and both are capable of getting better.
Furcal had a great 2003 season, but his on base percentage can improve. .352 is not bad, but if he could get it closer to the .390 OBP Giles had last season, the Braves would really be in business. Giles should only get better. Forget about his cameos in 2001 and 2002, last season was his breakout year. Now he's counted on to at least duplicate his .316 batting average. There's no reason to believe he won't do it.
Last season Gary Sheffield hit third, followed by the Jones boys, Chipper in the cleanup spot and Andruw fifth. Now with Sheffield in Yankee pinstripes, Chipper moves back to his more comfortable number three spot in the order. Chipper's power decreased over the last two years with Sheffield around, so now he'll be counted on to repeat his power from 1998-2001 when he averaged 38.25 home runs a year. Chipper has already said he's glad to be back hitting third, so we'll see if his happiness will result in better power production.
As for Andruw, well we're waiting. Waiting for the season the kid will finally bust out and have a monster season. That's kind of hard to say since he's averaged 35.25 home runs and 104.5 RBI over the last four seasons. But the talent is definitely there for him to have even better numbers. Sooner or later, everyone believes, Andruw will hit 45 home runs and drive in 140. This might be the season. He's hit fifth for most of his career, but he will now move up into the cleanup spot in 2004. If the top three are able to get on base consistently, Andruw should surpass his 116 RBI total from a year ago.
But Andruw must be that unbelievable threat in the lineup now that Sheffield is gone; the type of player feared by pitchers like Sheffield was. That was part of the reason our offense was so good last season. Pitchers hated facing Sheffield. He'd burn them no matter where they threw the ball. Most pitchers think they can throw a slider and get Andruw to imitate "The Old Man in the Sea." But he can't go fishing for pitches like he has in the past and be a productive and dangerous cleanup man.
J.D. Drew will bat fifth in the lineup, and there's no doubt what his big question mark will be: Can he stay healthy? Well we're going to hear that until he proves he can, so let's just assume for this prognostication that Drew will be the Braves regular right fielder. If you look at his career stats, you wonder what the guy will do if he does get 500 or more at bats. Cox has already predicted Drew can hit 40 home runs if he plays full-time. That would be awesome, and it might not be too presumptuous to say that if he can do that, the Braves will be in the thick of things in the National League East. Don't expect Drew to automatically duplicate Sheffield's numbers, but be optimistic of what might happen if he does get those 500 at bats.
Who will bat sixth? That may be the million-dollar question going into spring training. Knowing Bobby Cox's history, Mark DeRosa might be the favorite. DeRosa has been around longer than Adam LaRoche and Johnny Estrada, and Cox usually relies on ones he's most comfortable with. The presence of Russ Branyan will put DeRosa on his toes, and if Mark is unable to produce from that third base spot, Branyan, if he makes the team, will get some opportunities.
But DeRosa is going to get the first shot, and the Braves are curious to see what he can do playing full-time. He hit .263 with six home runs and 22 RBI last season in 266 at bats. Doubling his at bat total and doubling his HR and RBI production won't cut it. "DeRo" must show he can produce at least 15 home runs and 70 RBI. Third base is a position that must produce offensively, and while we're waiting on Andy Marte, DeRosa must plug the hole with a solid season.
Here's saying he'll do it. The thought here is that DeRosa will improve on that .263 average from a year ago. Consistent playing time will allow him to get into a rhythm. DeRosa is in great shape; he's powerful for a little guy. Maybe he'll follow the lead of Joe Randa, Kansas City's third baseman. Randa came up in 1995 with the Royals. He had four seasons with less than 460 at bats before finally getting a full-time opportunity in 1999. When Randa played everyday, he did well hitting .314 with 16 home runs and 84 runs batted in. Before 1999, Randa had two abbreviated seasons where he hit 7 and 9 home runs. So more playing time resulted in better numbers for Randa, and the Braves hope the same will happen to DeRosa.
If DeRosa hits sixth, Cox will have Johnny Estrada and Adam LaRoche to fill out the lineup. This might simply be a spring training battle: the one with the better spring will hit seventh and the other will hit eighth. Estrada has more major league experience, so that might make him the favorite. Please do not be disappointed when Estrada does not duplicate Javy Lopez's numbers. He is not that type of hitter. Estrada finished 2003 with a .328 average in AAA after being above .350 for most of the year. Back in 2001, when Estrada became the Philadelphia Phillies starting catcher after the injury to Mike Lieberthal, he hit .228 with 8 home runs and 37 RBI in 298 at bats. The average must be better, and Estrada showed last season he's not a bad hitter. But if Estrada could put together a 12 home run, 60 RBI season, the Braves will be happy. Again, it's not Lopezian numbers, but it is productive.
Eddie Perez and Eli Marrero will spell Estrada at times behind the plate. It might be a scenario where you need to count the entire production of the position instead of simply one player. This is the first time since 1994 Javy Lopez has not been Atlanta's starting catcher. Replacing him will be difficult. It might take a committee to do it.
As for Mister LaRoche, well we can look at his minor league numbers and predict what he will do in the big leagues. Last season he hit .290 with 20 home runs and 72 RBI in Greenville and Richmond. If he can do it again this season in Atlanta, he might be rookie of the year. The average will be the thing to watch. He had a career .288 average in the minor leagues, and the Braves would love for him to be in that neighborhood in the big leagues. His power will come. Expect at least 10 home runs this season, with the potential for him to hit over 20 as he gets more experience.
There will have to be an adjustment period for LaRoche. While it is possible for him to succeed early, don't be disappointed if he struggles at times early this season. He is a rookie. But there is no doubt the kid can hit. He will simply have to make the adjustment that all rookies must make. Can he do better than Robert Fick's .269 average, 11 HR, 80 RBI? Oh yea. Give him time and he'll produce. Plus, even though this is an article on offense this must be said: LaRoche sure as hell won't bobble a ball in Game One of the Division Series!
Bobby Cox loves to juggle his lineup. So we'll probably see Julio Franco, Eli Marrero, Russ Branyan or Mike Hessman play first. Hessman, Branyan, and Marrero can also play third. Cox loves Eddie Perez, so don't expect him to simply be a backup. Even though Estrada is a switch hitter, expect Cox to get Perez playing time against lefties. It's just the way Cox is. He usually prefers more versatile players, and this season may give him the perfect options.
The lineup is more balanced with the additions of Drew, LaRoche, and Estrada. The Braves did have three tough right-handed hitters in the middle of their lineup last season (Sheffield, Andruw, and Lopez), but now with Drew being a lefty, there is more balance.
B RAFAEL FURCAL R MARCUS GILES B CHIPPER JONES R ANDRUW JONES L J.D. DREW R MARK DEROSA B JOHNNY ESTRADA L ADAM LAROCHESee the balance. Against right-handers, it's a L-R-L-R-L-R-L-L order. Not bad.
So it will be interesting to see how the Braves replace the most productive lineup in franchise history. It might take time, but the elements are in place to have a lineup that can keep the Braves at the top of the National League East.
Bill Shanks hosts "The Braves Show," a weekly television show on the Atlanta Braves. He can be reached at email@example.com.