When Otis Nixon joined the Braves in the spring of 1991, he gave the team its best leadoff man since the early 1980s, when Brett Butler excited the crowd with his speed and enthusiasm. But after Nixon left the Braves, the team went several years without your typical, speedy leadoff man.
That all changed in 2000, when a young shortstop named Rafael Furcal caught Bobby Cox's eye in spring training. Furcal split time with Walt Weiss that first season, but the next year he entrenched himself as the Braves' shortstop and leadoff hitter. For the next five seasons, he wasn't just any leadoff hitter, but the one of the best in the game and the best in Braves' history.
But Furcal cashed in on that success and bolted for the big bucks and glitter of Hollywood, signing a huge deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers over the winter. His successor at shortstop, Edgar Renteria, is a better second place hitter in the lineup. So the Braves have decided their former second place hitter, second baseman Marcus Giles, is the new man at the top of the order.
"Right now, it‘s Giles," said Manager Bobby Cox. "I talked with Marcus. Right now, unless it changes. We haven't seen anybody out there yet, but right now if we had to open, probably (Marcus). "
"Just excited," Giles said, describing his new role. "It's just another challenge. I'm ready to get it started. I'm not going to change anything. I'm going to stay the same. It's just another challenge, and therefore it's motivational. It'll just make you work a little extra harder. It's going to be a lot of fun."
There is no way Giles will steal as many bases as Furcal, who averaged 31.5 steals per season since 2000, while Giles best mark was 17 swipes in 2004. Giles main task it to not try and be Furcal, which means he'll be a different type of leadoff man for the Atlanta offense.
"TP (Hitting coach Terry Pendleton) and skip (Cox) made it real clear that just cause it's leadoff, it's just a number," Giles explained. "They don't want me to change anything. I think if I try to change my style or change the way I play the game, it's going to go south. So I think all I've got to do is stay the same and just work harder to get better."
While the Braves do not want Giles to change the way he plays, they do feel he has the ability to steal around 25 bases, and the second baseman is confident he can add the speed element to the top of the lineup, even if he won't steal as many bases as Furcal.
"I don't think it'll be pressure," Giles said. "I'm just going to take off a lot more. I'm not going to feel any pressure, but I'm going to take my chances a lot more than I used to. I think I'm just going to be a little nervous when the pitcher's hitting, I'll probably be down here putting my batting gloves on thinking I'm in the hole, and I'm really suppose to be on deck. I've just got to get used to when the pitcher's hitting, I've got to be on deck. So I'll figure it out."
Some believe Giles' impressive on base percentage will compensate for the decreased speed at the top of the order. He has historically gotten on base even more than Furcal, and he believes that's the key to his new role.
"Obviously, I think the most important thing for a leadoff hitter is on base percentage," Giles admitted. "But I think at the same time, my style of hitting is as an aggressive hitter. I always have been, and I don't think I can go up there and try to take extra pitches just because I'm in the leadoff spot. I think I'll find myself digging myself a hole in that situation."
"Gilly's on base percentage was better than Furcal's," said third baseman Chipper Jones. "Whether he does that out of the leadoff hole remains to be seen. But I think with the amount of doubles that Giles hits, it could offset the amount of stolen bases, the disparity in stolen bases between Furcal and Giles. I feel the guys in the middle of the lineup are still going to get their fair amount of RBI's opportunity."
With Giles' high on base percentage at the top of the lineup, followed by the perfect number two hitter in Renteria, the Braves do have chance to generate a lot of offense at the top of the order. It will be a different lineup without the threat of Furcal there, but both Giles and Jones believe it could be equally effective.
"I think it's just totally different," Giles said. "I don't think we need to compare it. We've got our hand, and we have to play the hand we're dealt. That's what we're dealt. It hasn't been any different in the past for us to work it out and find a way. That's the key - find a way and get it done. I think we're going to do that."
"I think it's going to be an excellent lineup," Jones admitted. "Offense should not be a problem for our ball club. I think we're going to score a good amount of runs and give our pitching staff some support."
And if Giles does his part at the top of the order, Jones might just prove to be right.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. You can email Bill at email@example.com.
Braves' leadoff man ready for the challenge
Atlanta Dugout Top Stories
Toronto expected to exercise option on GrilliJust as the city had figured, veteran right-hander Jason Grilli is expected to return to Toronto for 2017.
Hardball ScoopSunday at 2:47 PM
Braves sign Sam Freeman to minor-league dealSam Freeman has found a new home for next season, as reports indicate that Freeman has signed with the Atlanta Braves in a minor league deal.
Hardball ScoopFriday at 2:08 PM
MLB Ballpark Experience RankingsThe Stadium Journey staff fanned out to all 30 MLB ballparks to establish this year’s rankings. Each stadium was evaluated based on our FANFARE scale which includes 1) an…
Stadium JourneyWednesday at 8:27 AM
Unbeaten streak ends, Tribe falls 5-1 in ALCSA nine-game winning streak and unbeaten October came to a screeching halt on Tuesday afternoon when the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Cleveland Indians by a score of 5-1 from…
Indians Baseball Insider10/18/2016