"The Replacements" Carry a Heavy Load

Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, and Vinny Castilla are gone. J.D Drew, Johnny Estrada, and Mark DeRosa are in. How will these "Replacements" fill the offense void left behind? Jason Walker talks with Chipper Jones, Mark DeRosa, and others about how the club plans to win in 2004.

JD Drew, Mark DeRosa, Johnny Estrada, and every other Braves fan need to take a collective deep breath.

Exhale. Repeat.

When the Braves made it known that they would be replacing Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, and Vinny Castilla after an incredible offensive season for the Braves in 2003, everyone knew the task would be daunting. Between the three of them, the 12 time All- Stars accounted for a combined 104 home runs, 317 runs batted in, and 280 runs scored last season. They averaged an incredible .311/.369/.530 and Sheffield and Lopez were both considered contenders for the NL MVP, finishing 3rd and 5th respectively.

It was apparently so hefty a task that the team dealt one of its brightest pitching stars, Adam Wainwright, to the Cardinals over the offseason to get JD Drew to begin to plug the holes, but the question remains…how will the Braves and these "Replacements" fill this offensive void?

"We're going to have to win a lot more games 4-3, 5-4 as opposed to 10-9, 9-8," Chipper Jones told BravesCenter.

Marcus Giles agreed, stating that "I think there will be a shift. Obviously, we don't have the power we used to, we're just going to have to play baseball .Most teams don't have the luxury to sit back and wait for big home runs all the time. Most teams have to rely on bunting, hit and running, getting guys over when you need to, scoring runs when you have the opportunities to do so."

"I think it's going to be more exciting, to be honest with you."

Exciting? Maybe. But when there are significant departures on a team, it can be a burden for those who attempt to fill those large shoes.

As for Drew, it's a chance he has never had before, an everyday spot in a lineup after spending five seasons in St. Louis either battling injuries or Tony LaRussa's fickle lineup card.

"That consistency is a good thing, being out there on an everyday basis, that's something I am really looking forward to," said Drew, obviously excited about the level of lineup stability in Atlanta.

Though he says he is not trying to step into the numbers that Gary Sheffield left behind, Drew admits he doesn't know what kind of numbers are possible for him for a full season in the lineup, as he averaged 117 games over his five regular years as a Cardinal due to his own injuries and the impatient treatment he seemed to receive from LaRussa.

Under LaRussa, Drew never took more that 65 percent of his swings in the same spot in the lineup during a season. For comparison, Chipper Jones batted 4th 94% of the time last season, and Andruw Jones hit 5th 88%. Andruw, in fact, had a similar season in 2001 as Drew in that he was moved around the lineup all year, hitting the most at the 3 spot, 41 percent of the time. It may be no coincidence that 2001 was Andrew's worst OPS in the last six seasons since he became a full time starter. It's conceivable that the consistent playing time for JD could lead to best season ever, just in time for free agency.

"It's definitely what I am shooting for," said Drew about his career high goals. "It's going to take a lot of hard work off the field, keeping in shape, etc., to stay on the field all the time (to accomplish that)."

For Mark DeRosa, there could be the pressure to believe that, being a third baseman, he may need to suddenly be a slugger, going for the fences every time up to the plate. Though Vinny Castilla was past his prime last year, he still put up a .461 SLG on the board, 32 points higher than DeRo's career high in 2002.

"I know my limitations," DeRosa told BravesCenter. "I would love to become one of those guys, but I'm not going to put that extra pressure on myself to be it if I am not."

That the Braves are giving DeRosa the chance to be the full time third sacker might indicate that they either believe he'll develop into a little more of a slugger or they are fine with his current hitting skill sets.

"I don't think I am being asked to become someone I am not," explained Mark about the team's approach to him this spring. "I am being given this chance based on what I have done in the past, what I have been, so I don't think they are asking me to suddenly be something different."

Like Drew, DeRosa's 162 game stat line is an unknown, lending hope to a potential career year. Unlike Drew, it's never been expected that Mark play an entire year in the lineup, at the same position.

"I've come in here in past years with a chance to win a position battle and I've come out on the short end of the stick," chuckled DeRosa about this spring and the potential for his best season. "(I've) tried to put on a few extra pounds, hoping to stay physically and mentally strong throughout the course of the season, because I haven't had the luxury of being out there every day. I have always had time between starts for the body to rest."

That said, Mark does have one request in his attempt to bolster his attempts to fill out the hot corner this season, "I would love to be in the 6 hole and drive in some runs. With Furcal, Marcus, Chipper, Andruw, and JD in the top 5…yeah, definitely would like batting sixth."

If Drew is the one who is expected to hit, and DeRosa is the one who may be expected to be an effective hitter, then Johnny Estrada is the player of whom little is expected of, at least offensively.

"Of the guys who are coming in who might press, Johnny could run into to some of that," commented Chipper on the new catcher. "It's because Javy was so well liked, a crowd favorite, and the guy who, frankly, had a MVP type season last year. But Johnny and Javy are kind of two different players."

Says Estrada, "This first mistake, the mistake I won't make, is trying to replace a guy like Javy Lopez. He was the starter here for the last 10 years, a fan favorite, and he had a career year last year. I am not going to come here and try to replace the year he had last year. I want to come in and do a solid job as an everyday catcher in the big leagues."

That is easier said than done, at least offensively, where Lopez hit the most home runs ever by a catcher, finished fifth in the MVP balloting, and posted a ridiculous 1065 OPS. Estrada, while having a nice season at Richmond, has never seen those kind of accomplishments at the plate in his career, sporting a 624 OPS for his young career.

But while Johnny is not the slugger Javy was, Estrada hopes to make up for the lack of pop at the plate by being more effective than Lopez was behind it.

"That's my job and I take that personal," says Estrada. "I take a lot of pride in my defense, and take it as a challenge to get the best out of these guys every night. I have to get in their heads a little bit, know their personalities."

"Last year, they kind of got away from the pitching carrying the hitting. I'm looking forward to getting the pitchers back to the league leaders that they have been. They've shown a lot of faith in me. I've worked hard to get to this point, and I am not ready to let it go."

And what does Estrada think of the people who think that he, DeRosa, and Drew having to replace these three big bats in the lineup is going to cause the Braves to lose their stranglehold on the Eastern Division title?

"It's unbelievable that this team gets written off every year. I don't know how you win 12 years in a row and still get considered an underdog in your division," laughed the confident catcher.

"We're working on 13 starting right now."

Jason Walker will be providing profiles, features and commentary on the Braves this season. He can be reached at jwalkr72@bellsouth.net or leave a message on the BravesCenter Message Board

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