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one-down-five-to-go | May | 2004 Articles

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One Down, Five To Go

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It's been one month, and the Braves have played 25 games -- not quite one sixth of the season, but a solid checkpoint with enough data to yield reasonable extrapolations for the rest of the season. Last night's win over the Padres put the Braves at 13-12, which is good for second in the NL East, 1.5 games behind the Marlins and 1.5 games ahead of the Phillies. First thing's first: let's check the progress of our potential all-stars. Catcher. I'll begin with Johnny Estrada, whose .347 batting average and 20 RBI are leading the team. Among catchers, no one in the NL has a higher OPS (.950) or more RBI (20) than Estrada. Only Paul LoDuca (.388, LA) and Ivan Rodriguez (.374, DET) are hitting for higher average, and only Rodriguez (21) and Jorge Posada (21, NYY) have knocked in more runs. He's made a name for himself in Atlanta as a clutch hitter, batting .538 (14/26) with runners on base and .588 (10/17) with runners in scoring position. Braves fans who miss Javy Lopez should be thrilled with the two catchers' comparison after a month of baseball. Estrada is outperforming Lopez in nearly every offensive category, including a higher batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average (347/417/950 to 333/406/500). After a hot start which saw Lopez bat .500 (18/36) and hit 3 home runs in his first nine games with the Orioles, he has since batted .222 (12/54) with no homers and 6 RBI in 15 games. In that same span, Estrada has batted .395 (17/43) with 10 RBI. Estrada may not be a lock for the all-star game, as it would be tough for anyone to outperform Mike Piazza's reputation, but considering all-star managers' tendency to take three catchers to the mid-summer classic each year, you should expect to see Estrada make his first all-star appearance in July. (For comparison to other NL catchers, see ESPN's top catchers ranked by OPS.) First Base. At first base, Adam LaRoche and Julio Franco are splitting the job, with LaRoche getting a majority of the playing time since Cox only likes to let him hit against right-handed pitching. Combined, LaRoche and Franco are batting only 260/335/385 with only 1 homer. While their numbers aren't impressive, they are holding their own at first with good defense (no errors at 1B so far) and clutch hitting (.375 in 48 at-bats with runners on base for 20 RBI between them). Franco will be recognized again and again this season as the oldest position player to get regular playing time in decades. However, as a rookie, LaRoche will need to step it up a notch soon. Right Field. Out in right field, newcomer J.D. Drew has played reasonably well. In fact, he is leading all major league rightfielders in OPS (.987), just ahead of Vladimir Guerrero (ANA, .981) and Richard Hidalgo (HOU, .974), and his OBP of .438 makes him the only rightfielder with an OBP above .400! Since April 20, his first day back after a mild hamstring injury, Drew is hitting .381 (16/42) with 9 walks and 8 RBI in 11 games. Leading the team in walks (18), OBP (.438), SLG (.549), and, of course, OPS (.987), Drew only needs to stay healthy and keep producing to prove himself worthy of his contract. Third Base. The last major change to this year's starting lineup is with Mark Derosa at third base, who replaced Vinny Castilla. Derosa was having a decent year with the glove until last Sunday's game, when he committed four errors in nine innings in perhaps the worst game of his career. That game aside, his glovework has been very good, but his bat still leaves more to be desired. He is batting only .226 with 2 homers, though he is batting .324 (12/37) with runners on base to give him 15 RBI. It isn't fair to compare Derosa to Castilla, who was always a fastball hitter, giving him an extra advantage for returning to the thin air of Colorado. His .315 average and 7 home runs are inflated due to the Coors Field effect, but he's still performing well on the road. At this point, many Braves fans may be wondering why we let go of Castilla in favor of Derosa. But it's only been one month, and an otherwise disappointing season can be overlooked if Derosa continues to manufacture runs. Left Field. Left field is a special situation right now, because Chipper Jones is actually having a good year (314/415/600), but injuries have reduced his playing time to only 10 of 25 games so far, allowing rookie DeWayne Wise to step in. With several doubles and triples (mostly with no runners on base), Wise has proven that he is capable of hitting the ball, but with only 1 walk in 22 games and a .254 OBP, he has also proven that he is not yet a productive leadoff-type hitter. Chipper is scheduled to join the Rome Braves for a rehab assignment Thursday (May 6), and hopefully he'll be back in the lineup by the weekend. Second Base, Shortstop, Center Field. We know what to expect from Marcus Giles, Rafael Furcal, and Andruw Jones. Giles is content to stay among the best second-basemen in the majors; Furcal has had a slow start, but he will steal bases, make great defensive plays, and get on base; and Jones will hit somewhere around .280 with about 35 home runs. I'm not concerned with any of these three as long as they stay healthy. Health is a key concern right now. With Furcal, Drew, and Chipper having missed a total of 29 games, Braves fans have good reason to be optimistic about better performance down the stretch when/if all of our regulars are healthy. I don't expect a repeat of last year's offensive numbers, but the team will hit the ball and be productive if we have our A-lineup. Pitching. Pitching is our other concern. John Smoltz still has an ERA near 4.00, and our surprising ace Horacio Ramirez is stuck with no wins and 3 losses despite a 2.43 ERA -- this can be blamed partly on Bobby Cox's decision to use Eddie Perez every time Ramirez starts, putting an offensive black hole in the middle of our lineup. John Thomson and Jaret Wright have been surprisingly effective, and Mike Hampton has been surprisingly not. Russ Ortiz is doing about what I expected: supporting my hypothesis that he is overrated and that he only earned about 15 of his 21 wins last year. Most of the bullpen (with the exception of Antonio Alfonseca) has pitched well, if you exclude Will Cunnane's one bad outing April 11 against the Cubs. I'm not concerned. If Mike Hampton figures out what he's doing wrong, and if the Braves score runs when Horacio Ramirez pitches (hint: start Estrada, not Perez!), and if our regulars regain and maintain their health, then the Braves are going to win enough games to earn another division title. If any of these things goes wrong, however, then the Braves' streak of division titles is definitely in jeopardy, and at season's end they could be left in second place -- or worse.
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