01/14/2004 1:02 PM ET
Winter a springboard for Furcal
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
ATLANTA -- While producing one of the finest seasons of his career last year, Gary Sheffield was always quick to point out that much of his success stemmed from Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles' ability to get on base with frequent regularity.
|Rafael Furcal will attempt to do anything he can to improve on the All-Star campaign he enjoyed last year. (John Bazemore/AP)
Now as the Braves enter the 2004 season without Sheffield and Javy Lopez, who provided most of the power in last year's explosive lineup, Furcal's role as the team's leadoff hitter becomes even more important.
Thus, Furcal will attempt to do anything he can to improve on the All-Star campaign he enjoyed last year. The 26-year-old shortstop played 19 games for Escogido in his native Dominican Republic this winter and hit .310 with five homers and produced a .417 on-base percentage.
If the Braves are going to continue to once again possess one of the game's most productive offenses, Furcal will have to continue getting on-base with regularity and then use his speed in order to manufacture some of those runs that last year came courtesy of the long ball.
In terms of speed there are few who can match Furcal, who was named the National League's Rookie of the Year after swiping 40 bases during the 2000 campaign. But in order for the Braves shortstop to match those numbers again, he must continue to show better strike zone discipline and continue to find multiple ways to get on base.
After producing a .394 on-base-percentage in his successful rookie campaign, Furcal saw that number dip to .321 during a 2001 season that was cut short because of a separated shoulder he suffered while sliding into second base at Fenway Park.
When Furcal returned in 2002, he produced just a .323 on-base-percentage which, combined with some precaution to protect his shoulder, caused him to be successful in just 27 of 42 stolen base attempts.
Many of Furcal's struggles during the 2002 season stemmed from his lack of discipline at the plate. He struck out a staggering 114 times, while drawing just 43 walks.
Last year was a different story for Furcal. He got on base at a .353 clip, which came courtesy of him drawing 60 walks and striking out just 76 times. The power sitting behind him limited him to just 27 stolen base attempts. But impressively, he was successful on 25 of those occasions.
If Furcal is able to make similar improvement this year, he may finally live up to his potential as one of the game's best leadoff hitters and help the Braves prove they can continue to win without the power of Sheffield and Lopez.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for
MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or