Originally created 03/06/03

Castilla continues to work on his hitting



TAMPA, Fla. - There was a brief sighting of Vinny Castilla's bat last year, but it also might have been an illusion.

Blaming a sore right wrist for offensive production that went south long before the winter birds, the Atlanta Braves third baseman said he wasn't healthy until just before the start of the postseason. Maybe there's something to his claim. He led the team with five runs, seven hits, a .389 average, and tied for the club-high with four RBI in five games in the National League Division Series loss to the San Francisco Giants.

Even if you count Castilla's bat last October, his offensive contributions were negligible. In his first season with the Braves, he batted just .232, .200 with runners in scoring position and knocked in 61 runs. His on-base percentage plus slugging percentage was a sickly .616, tied for worst among NL hitters with former New York Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez.

One might think that a hitter who struggled to drive in runs last year might report early for practice every morning. But one thing the Braves haven't witnessed this spring is Castilla in the batting cages at 8 a.m. with the other hitters.

It would be fair to say that Castilla, 35, isn't bowling over anyone in camp with his work ethic.

"Well, he swung the bat well against Houston the other day," hitting coach Terry Pendleton said, choosing his words carefully when asked how Castilla's swing looks this spring.

Castilla, who was paid $3.5 million last year and will make $4.5 million this season in the last year of a two-year deal, is off to a 3-for-9 start this spring. He said his wrist is completely healed, but his power has not returned.

So far, what the Braves have seen appears terribly familiar.

"I feel all right, not where I want to be right now, but (my wrist) is pain-free and that's the great thing," said Castilla, who was 2-for-3 and knocked in a run in Wednesday's 12-2 win over the New York Yankees at Legends Field. "You could see last year when it started getting better the ball started jumping off my bat."

Even as Castilla's numbers dropped, manager Bobby Cox continued to write his name into the lineup. Cox said Castilla probably won 10 games with his glove, which might be a bit of an exaggeration, although the veteran infielder was probably the league's best defensive third baseman, apart from St. Louis' Gold Glove winner Scott Rolen.

Castilla, who became the last regular NL third baseman to be charged with an error when he committed his first miscue on May 15 last year, led NL third basemen and set a franchise record with a .982 fielding percentage.

"It's hard to explain to fans how important a glove is," Cox said. "He was so good at third that I was willing to give up some hitting."

Or a lot of hitting. When the Braves signed Castilla as a free agent, they expected numbers on par with the 25 home runs and 91 RBI he produced for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Astros in 2001. What they received was some of the worst numbers produced by a third baseman in either league.

Castilla's contributions are one of the keys to the team's planned offensive renaissance. If he and Javy Lopez knock in 80 runs each in the bottom half of the lineup, it will lessen the pressure on the Chipper and Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield to put up eye-popping numbers.

"He's always been an RBI guy," Cox said, failing to keep a hopeful tone from his voice.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.