Originally created 02/25/03

Battle of Braves spring: Castilla tries to hold on to third base



KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Atlanta Braves rarely go to spring training with a lot of uncertainty. The biggest question is usually something like: Who's going to be the backup middle infielder?

That's what makes third base so interesting.

Vinny Castilla, an established player coming off a miserable season, returns for another year with the Braves.

During infield practice, however, he's sharing grounders with up-and-comer Mark DeRosa. The Braves are giving the 27-year-old infielder every chance to become a regular - even if it means sending Castilla to the bench.

"I'm going to push to get an everyday job," said DeRosa, a backup the last two seasons.

DeRosa hit .297 with five homers and 23 RBIs last season, though he was limited to 72 games by an ankle injury. Castilla, bothered by a sore wrist, hit just .232 with 12 homers and 61 RBIs in 143 games.

"I didn't hit the way I know I can hit, but we had a great year as a team," the 35-year-old Castilla said. "Winning cures everything."

Heading into the final year of his contract, the two-time All-Star isn't ready to concede his job to a younger player. He intends to be the starter on opening day.

"That's what they signed me for," he said. "I plan on hitting good and helping the team win, somehow, some way."

The Braves signed Castilla before the 2002 season, a move that required Chipper Jones to move to left. Castilla made only six errors and set a franchise record for third basemen with a .982 fielding percentage.

"Nobody talks about defense," manager Bobby Cox said. "We won 101 games. Without him, it would have been 91 or 92."

But the Braves also know they must upgrade their offensive production at the corners of the infield. No NL team got fewer homers from its first and third basemen last season than Atlanta's 32.

Robert Fick, an All-Star with Detroit last season, was signed to upgrade first base. While DeRosa isn't the classic power hitter, the Braves are impressed with his offensive potential.

DeRosa had a .429 slugging percentage last season, while Castilla's .348 was the worst among Atlanta's starters.

At one point, Castilla went more than three months without a homer - a stretch of 256 at-bats that marked the longest power outage of his career.

He blames an ailing right wrist, hurt in April. Castilla never fully recovered, but Cox kept putting him in the lineup because of his defensive excellence.

"I took three cortisone shots to get through the pain and keep playing," Castilla said.

He insists that his wrist is back at 100 percent. He even played 14 games in his native Mexico during the winter to make sure the pain was gone.

"Before I got hurt last year, I was having a good year," Castilla said. "After that, I couldn't get healthy because I was diving for balls and kept hurting the wrist."

Castilla much overcome the perception that he's a product of where he plays. His best seasons came in the thin air of Colorado's Coors Field, where he averaged 38 homers and 112 RBIs from 1995 through 1999. He slumped badly after being traded to Tampa Bay, which wound up cutting him shortly into his second season. Castilla moved to Houston, where he revitalized his career (23 homers and 82 RBIs in 122 games) playing in another great hitters' park. Now, he's on the spot again at Turner Field, known as a pitcher's paradise.

DeRosa, who came through the minor league system as a shortstop, has bulked up to 205 pounds and is starting to look more like a third baseman. He played the position in college, but most to shortstop after being drafted.

DeRosa must prove he can be just as productive as a regular as he was coming off the bench, where his ability to play second, third, shortstop and outfield made him invaluable.

"Sometimes, when you're in that situation, they don't think of you as a starter," DeRosa said. "They think of you as a utility guy. There's not too many other guys who can play all those positions."