Braves keep firm mid-section

At a glance, it might appear that the key to the Atlanta Braves' surprising ability to score runs is the trade John Schuerholz made with St. Louis last December, landing J.D. Drew for pitchers Jason Marquis and Ray King.

"They got high-quality pitchers that didn't cost them a lot, and we got high-quality hitters that fit into our payroll," said Schuerholz, also referring to utility man Eli Marrero. "I think the results are pretty well proven."

While Drew has not been Gary Sheffield, the muscular slugger he is replacing in right field, he is leading first-place Atlanta with 28 home runs and 76 RBI. That production has been vital considering the Braves also allowed catcher Javy Lopez, third baseman Vinny Castilla and first baseman Robert Fick to exit as free agents during last winter's payroll reduction.

Sheffield, Lopez, Fick and Castilla combined for 115 homers and 397 RBI last season. That represented 49 and 46 percent, respectively, of the Braves' prolific 2003 totals.

It was this purge, more than the departure of Greg Maddux, that led most forecasters to be so pessimistic about Atlanta's hopes for a 13th consecutive division championship.

But many of us overlooked a strength that might have more to do with sustaining the Braves than the Drew trade. It is their solid collection of players up the middle, all of whom should have been projected for solid seasons.

Most people would probably tell you that St. Louis is the strongest team in the National League up the middle. Others might argue that the Cubs have moved to the front with their trade for Nomar Garciaparra, the emergence of Michael Barrett and the second-half improvement by Corey Patterson.

But in catcher Johnny Estrada, second baseman Marcus Giles, shortstop Rafael Furcal and center fielder Andruw Jones, the Braves have consistently had the most productive hitters in the National League at the middle positions this season.

This group is as invaluable as it is easy to overlook.

Here's a breakdown of these guys in the middle of the Braves' success:

  • Estrada -- It turns out that Kevin Millwood trade wasn't so one-sided after all.

    Give the 28-year-old catcher credit for perspective. A Triple-A veteran and sometimes backup for Mike Lieberthal, he says he was as stunned as anyone to learn he had been dealt from Philadelphia to Atlanta even up for Millwood after the 2002 season, in which Millwood won 18 games for the Braves.

    But Jim Fregosi and Atlanta's other scouts had recognized the potential in this switch hitter, who had hit only .222 in 99 games for the Phillies. Estrada hit .328 at Richmond in Triple-A last season and has just kept hitting, batting .330-8-62 for the Braves in 104 games. His on-base percentage is .387, and, unlike Lopez, he is tough to strike out.

    Estrada gained a huge shot of confidence when he was selected to be Atlanta's one representative in the All-Star Game in Houston. He wasn't a token, either, getting voted in by the league's managers, coaches and players.

    Had someone suggested that scenario in spring training, he says he "wouldn't have believed it.''

    Estrada opened the season batting seventh, but has moved up to fifth in the order. He's proven to be a clutch hitter, batting .375 with men in scoring position, including a 21-for-51 performance with two outs and runners in scoring position.

  • Giles -- There's no questioning his toughness, but it might be a good idea for him to avoid collisions.

    Giles had a huge second half in 2003 after suffering a concussion when Mark Prior ran into him on the bases. He broke his collarbone and spent two months on the disabled list after smacking into Andruw Jones on May 15. This time the returns haven't been as good.

    Giles was hitting .339 with 18 RBI in 32 games before getting hurt. He's batted .266 with two homers and 16 RBI in 36 games since returning to the lineup on July 16. His season average dropped to .295 before a three-hit game on Sunday in Los Angeles got it back above .300.

    "I'm just not strong," Giles said during last week's road trip. "That's the thing. I'm physically weak. Just sitting around, being pretty much [immobilized] from the waist up, you get pretty weak, soft."

    Giles believes he needs a winter in the gym to regain the strength he lost while allowing his collarbone to heal.

    "But I can still help us in plenty of ways,'' Giles said. "There's no excuse for not driving in guys. I can still hit a single up the middle, and I can still play good defense.''

    Giles was 5-for-14 with one homer and two walks in the Braves' first-round loss to the Cubs in the 2003 playoffs. It won't be a surprise if he defines this season with a big October.

  • Furcal -- He's become one of the best table-setters in the NL.

    Jason Kendall and Juan Pierre were the only primary leadoff hitters who topped Furcal's .359 on-base percentage through Aug. 24. His .798 OPS was the best among NL shortstops.

    Furcal has cut down his strikeouts a lot over the last two years, cutting down the size of his swing at the behest of hitting coach Terry Pendleton. He set his career high for walks (73) during his Rookie of the Year season in 2000, but this season has only eight more strikeouts than walks.

    His power totals have gone up greatly over the last two seasons, with 15 homers in 2003 and 12 already this season.

  • Jones -- He's only 27 and has already played 1,258 career games -- the equivalent of almost eight complete 162-game seasons.

    The only question for Jones is whether he peaked too early in his career. Some believe his skills are already eroding, pointing to low stolen-base totals as proof, but he is still on pace for 27 homers and 89 RBI.

    Never a high-average hitter, Jones was hitting .248 on July 17 but has slowly raised that average into the .260s. The improvement came after Bobby Cox had Jones flip balls to himself and hit them up the middle and to right field, pulling none to left.

    Jones has hit .304 in 33 games since then. It has quieted talk that the Braves would like to trade him, which would make it easier to sign Drew to a contract extension that would keep him from free agency.

    Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.