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LaRoche strolls into Atlanta’s spotlight

February 14, 2004
By Bill Ballew

It didn’t take Adam LaRoche long to realize he had made his first major league faux pas. The leading candidate to stop the carousel that has defined first base for the Braves in the recent past, LaRoche arrived in Atlanta on Feb. 2 to work out at Turner Field for a couple of weeks prior to reporting to spring training. Shortly after tossing his gear in the first available locker, the rookie was introduced to some of the expectations in the major leagues.

“With that locker you have to put up numbers like Sheff,” said one teammate. After a handful of reporters mentioned either in print or during conversations that he now inhabited the former digs of ex-Brave Gary Sheffield, LaRoche decided a change of scenery would be most sensible.

“I had no idea who had been in which empty locker,” said LaRoche, who arrived in Atlanta without so much as a big league at-bat. “When the word started getting around that I was in Sheffield’s old spot, I realized it was time to get my stuff out of there.”

Void To Fill

If that proves to be the biggest blunder LaRoche makes this year, the Braves should be in solid shape to compete for a 13th straight division title. Though somewhat unlucky with his initial selection, LaRoche had several lockers from which to choose. The Atlanta roster again went through heavy turnover during the offseason, with the likes of Sheffield, Javy Lopez, Vinny Castilla, Robert Fick and Greg Maddux gone.

The proposed replacements include a handful of low-salaried players with minimal experience as starters at the major league level. Joining LaRoche on this list are catcher Johnny Estrada and third baseman Mark DeRosa. Righthander Bubba Nelson also could compete for a spot in the rotation.

Those moves have critics bellowing their annual bluster regarding Atlanta’s imminent demise. While the Braves are confident about the changes, including the addition of right fielder J.D. Drew, LaRoche is deemed a key component after surprising more than a few Braves front office personnel with his rapid ascent over the past two years.

The son of former major league hurler Dave LaRoche, Adam was considered a decent lefthanded pitching prospect coming out of Seminole State ( Okla.) Junior College in 2000. His heart, however, leaned heavier toward hitting.

“I agreed with the scouts, because he was a lefthanded pitcher who could throw strikes,” Dave LaRoche said. “At the same time, I also understood Adam. He told me that if he couldn’t hit, he could go back to pitching. It rarely works the other way.”

Tracing Bloodlines

Adam had a good example to follow. His father signed as an outfielder with the Angels and manned the position for two years before turning his attention to the mound. The Braves, meanwhile, were one of the few teams to give Adam LaRoche serious consideration as an everyday player before drafting him in the 29th round.

After solid, albeit unspectacular showings during his first two professional seasons, LaRoche blossomed in 2002 during his second stint at Class A Myrtle Beach. He paced the organization with a .317 average and then answered those critics who questioned his power potential by topping the farm system with 20 home runs and 72 RBIs last year between Double-A and Triple-A.

LaRoche credits increased confidence and comfort level for his steady improvement. He also believes that battles with his dad as a teen helped him learn how to make necessary adjustments.

“He’d throw to me in the cage we had in the backyard and if I pulled anything to the right side, he’d get upset with me because he always stressed hitting to the opposite field,” said LaRoche, a lefthanded hitter. “I’d get mad at him and want to quit before I’d stop and realize he knew what he was talking about. He took it seriously when I got older, but he’s always been great with his support.”

Despite possessing a stiff, upright stance at the plate, LaRoche’s bat and power output can be compared favorably with that of the Giants’ J.T. Snow, pre-SBC Park. The Braves also believe LaRoche’s advanced skill with the leather is an upside much like Snow’s Gold Glove-winning defense.

Helping matters further is the projected platoon of LaRoche and 45-year-old Julio Franco. “I think we’re going to have a great combination of young guys and veterans on the team,” LaRoche said. “The opportunity is there, and I think it’s a perfect situation for me to step in.

“(Julio) helped me every way he could last spring. Plus, somebody told me that when he started playing pro ball (in 1978), I wasn’t born yet (on Nov. 6, 1979). With that experience, I try to pick his brain every chance I get.”

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