LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Bobby Cox has been mulling the leadoff question all winter, and he still doesn't have an answer.
"I play with it; fans play with it; it's fun," the Atlanta Braves manager said. "I haven't made my mind up. We'll have to take a look at it all spring."
The question has three parts:
1. Should rookie of the year Rafael Furcal be the leadoff hitter and Quilvio Veras bat second?
2. Should Veras lead off and Furcal hit No. 2?
3. If Veras or Furcal leads off, should the other hit in the No. 8 spot?
"I don't think you lose either way," Cox said. "They're both tough outs. They work pitchers, they can bunt, and they can hit. It would be dynamite with those two at the top of the lineup."
Arguments are solid for all three scenarios.
Furcal hit .293 and had a .401 on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter last season. He ignited the lineup after Veras' season-ending knee injury in July and finished with a .295 average and 40 stolen bases.
Based on his stats, Furcal probably will start the spring as the leading leadoff candidate, but the top of the lineup probably will have a handful of different looks this spring.
Hitting coach Merv Rettenmund favors Furcal as the leadoff hitter, with Veras following him.
"Rafael can do everything Quilvio can do, and he'll steal more bases," Rettenmund said.
"As long as I'm in the lineup, I don't care where I hit," Furcal said. "I can hit leadoff or second; it's the same to me."
Without Furcal's emergence last season, Veras' injury would have been devastating to a team trying to hold off the Mets. He was hitting .309, had a .413 on-base percentage and was well on his way to topping his 1995 career-high stolen base total of 56 when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Veras, who turns 30 on April 3, can make a solid case for returning to his old job atop the lineup because of his experience and willingness to accept walks. However, an equally strong case can be made for hitting him behind Furcal.
Furcal works pitchers as well as Veras, and he's faster. Hitting the pair 1-2, then following with Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Brian Jordan, B.J. Surhoff, Javy Lopez and Rico Brogna would give the Braves a lineup with explosive potential.
"It's going to present a lot of RBI opportunities for whoever is hitting No. 3, 4 or 5," Chipper Jones said. "While I think I'm better suited for the three-hole, there's going to be a lot of opportunities for the cleanup hitter."
While it seems unlikely, Cox might return to the lineup he used during the first half of last season, with Veras at leadoff, Andruw Jones second and Chipper Jones third. That would mean Furcal would return to the No. 8 spot, where he hit .307. Cox might go in that direction to lessen the pressure on Furcal, though the opportunity to create a track team at the top of the lineup could prove too hard to resist.
"I think we need to really be aggressive on the bases this year," Chipper Jones said. "The first five hitters have the potential to steal 20 bases each, and that's potentially another 100 runs. When you think about the number of one-run games we'll play, a stolen base is crucial."
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