Originally created 03/07/03

Trio will battle for at-bats



LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - According to the rules of mathematics, three doesn't go into one.

Consider Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox's dilemma as he wrestles with a Solomon-sized decision. How to divide first base among three players - Robert Fick and Julio and Matt Franco?

The simple answer appears to be, he will play all three, with the majority of at-bats going to Fick.

"Fick comes to the organization as a real quality hitter," Cox said. "He's younger and he's left-handed, but I still haven't forgotten what the two Francos did last year. They hit around .300 for us. But during the season it will be a little tough (to get everybody playing time)."

The Braves haven't had a regular first baseman since Andres Galarraga played 141 games in 2000. They haven't developed one of their own since Ryan Klesko. Last year, four different players started at first base, with the Francos starting 118 of 161 games.

Fick, who turns 29 later this month, can only hope it will be better in Atlanta. Hitting in the middle of a Detroit lineup that scored the fewest runs in the majors last year, he batted .270 and knocked in 63 runs. His performance would suggest that given a better group of hitters, Fick will improve his numbers.

Hitting coach Terry Pendleton thinks Fick can bat .300 if he's in the No. 2 hole ahead of Gary Sheffield, or could drive in 100 runs if he hits No. 5 behind Chipper Jones.

So, how many at-bats does that leave for the Francos?

They both had their moments last season. Matt Franco batted .331 in his 50 starts and wound up hitting a career-best .317. Julio Franco hit .312 in his last 72 games and picked up the 1,000th RBI of his career against the New York Mets.

Collectively, however, the pair hit just 12 home runs and knocked in 54 runs in 464 at-bats as first basemen. Fick was hired to significantly increase those numbers.

Although the left-handed-hitting Fick hits left-handers well, Cox is likely to sit him down against the toughest lefties and start Julio Franco.

"Julio hits anybody anytime, righty or lefty," Cox said. "I don't know how many hits he's got this spring, but he's hit the ball hard almost every time up."

Both Francos said last year's platoon worked well. Matt Franco got 205 at-bats and Julio received 338 at-bats. With Fick's arrival, those totals will decline.

"I imagine someone will suffer a little bit and if it's me, that's OK, I'm used to coming off the bench," Matt Franco said. "Obviously, I want to get as many at-bats as possible. It will also have to do with performance. If someone is doing good, he'll get the majority of playing time."

Said Julio Franco: "It's going to be tough fitting in three players. But Bobby (Cox) used us well last year. Every time he put us out there we did the job. He knows what he's doing."

Cox will have to do some nifty juggling to keep all three players sharp. Fick got 401 at-bats in 2001 and 556 at-bats last year. He will probably receive between 400 to 500 at-bats this season, which leaves few at-bats for the Francos.

"You've got to know the situation and be ready when (Cox) calls you," Julio Franco said. "Matt and I worked really well together last year, we helped each other as much as we could, and we'll do it again."