National League East Update

With the Marlins in the World Series, Jack McKeon gets the honor of managing in next year's All-Star Game. Only problem is, he might not be at the helm of the Marlins to cash in on the honor. Plus, changes are coming in Atlanta, who knows what's up with the Expos and the Mets continue to look for a new GM. Plus, we've got notes from around the rest of the National League in our Insiders Update.

ATLANTA BRAVES

If spring training were to start now, here is what the Braves' roster of holdover pitchers would look like:

Rotation: RHP Russ Ortiz, LHP Mike Hampton, LHP Horacio Ramirez.
Bullpen: RHP John Smoltz, LHP Jung Keun Bong, RHP Kevin Gryboski, RHP Trey Hodges, LHP Ray King, RHP Jason Marquis.

And that's even a stretch. King has an option for 2004 that the Braves have yet to exercise, or else he will becomes arbitration eligible. Marquis is also eligible for arbitration, as are Will Cunnane and Jaret Wright, who were both on the postseason roster.

The upshot is this: For all the ink dedicated to the host of position players whose contracts are running out, the Braves' pitching staff needs a lot of upgrading itself. RF Gary Sheffield, C Javy Lopez and 3B Vinny Castilla are all up for free agency, and with the Braves' pledge to hold the line on payroll a chance exists that none of them will be back.

The pitching staff appears substantially weaker, and this group ended the season ranked ninth in league ERA at 4.10. If management needed any refreshing, the Braves' elimination by Chicago in the League Division Series reminded them how far Atlanta's staff had slipped.

For 12 seasons dating to 1992, Atlanta finished either first or second in the NL ERA standings, with the 3.13 posted two seasons ago the lowest of the bunch. The offensive break-out of the 2002 team reflected a concerted effort by general manager John Schuerholz to push for bigger run production over the top-notch pitching stats that had brought the franchise a host of Cy Young awards but only one World Series title.

Schuerholz is re-reviewing that choice this month. With Greg Maddux all but certain not to re-sign with the team and Smoltz coming off his fourth elbow surgery, the Braves staff needs help both in the rotation and the bullpen.

The club is hopeful that RHP Paul Byrd, who sat out all of 2003 after Tommy John surgery, may be able to rejoin the rotation next season, though no one knows when. But can Ortiz and Hampton lead the starters the way Maddux and Tom Glavine did in the 1990s?

The club needs another front-line starter. While RHP Kevin Millwood will not come cheap, the Braves have to inquire.

FLORIDA MARLINS

One night earlier, veteran outfielder Jeff Conine was joking that his young Marlins teammates were so relaxed that many of them probably didn't realize they were playing in the World Series. Sunday, the Marlins couldn't get comfortable in chilly Yankee Stadium and played as if they didn't belong in the World Series.

After snapping the Yankees' record streak of 10 straight home World Series victories Saturday night, the Marlins struggled in 40-degree temperatures with one of their most lethargic performances of the year.

Marlins left-hander Mark Redman, starting on three days' rest for the first time this season, allowed a three-run home run to Hideki Matsui in the first inning, and the Yankees easily rolled to a 6-1 victory.

"Obviously, you'd like to out of here 2-0, but they weren't just going to roll over," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "They understood the magnitude of this game. They wanted it, also."

"It was cold," third baseman Mike Lowell said, "but I don't think it had a factor in the game.

Redman, who hasn't won in four postseason starts, lasted just 2 1/3 innings and allowed four earned runs. His postseason ERA rose to 6.50.

MONTREAL EXPOS

The compelling championship series in both leagues kept Expos fans intrigued enough for 10 days that they hardly realized they'd learned absolutely nothing about what the future holds for their franchise.

Cubs and Red Sox fans can talk about curses and hexes and whatever, but at least their teams were in the postseason. The powers that be seemed to assure that the Expos didn't get that chance.

The key unanswered questions include:

How many of the Expos' home games will be played in Montreal next year? Is Vladimir Guerrero going to be part of the Expos' future? If the Expos do have to deal away proven stars to stay within a budget, will general manager Omar Minaya be able to secure young talent that can help the team immediately?

Then again, there is the question of whether Minaya will still be in charge of putting the team together - or will he find an opportunity elsewhere that he finds too interesting?

Guerrero, of course, has completed the final season of a five-year contract. He earned $10.5 million during the final season and is eligible to test the free-agent market. When the Yankees fell behind in their ACLS with the Red Sox, speculation ran wild among baseball fans in Montreal about how much the Yankees would offer to pay Guerrero if owner George Steinbrenner ordered major changes.

Minaya has been given permission to pursue the signing of Guerrero, but there has been no indication as to how high he can go. It is easy to suppose that one of the large-market teams would offer an annual salary amounting to half the Expos' payroll to sign the 27-year-old.

If the Expos have not managed to come to terms with Guerrero two weeks after the end of the World Series, he will become a free agent.

Meanwhile, Expos executive vice president business affairs Claude Delorme keeps a brave face on the home front and keeps plugging away.

"We're preparing our business plans for both an 81-game home schedule and a 59-game schedule (with 22 home games played elsewhere, as was the case this year)," DeLorme said. "It makes things more difficult, but as soon as we find out -- hopefully by the end of the month -- we'll accelerate those plans.

"We're talking with firms about a new surface for the stadium and we're taking about TV and radio possibilities, and we'll accelerate those negotiations as soon as we get word. "We're telling season-ticket holders as much as we can, but we just have to wait on a lot of things right now."

Asked if the team has asked Minaya to let it know his plans, Delorme said, "Minaya has a window in the terms of his contract where he can look around. Meanwhile, he has shown he's an absolute professional, and he won't let any of that sidetrack him from doing what is best for the Expos now. He's done an excellent job, and we know that will continue."

Manager Frank Robinson is busy with his winter assignment of helping put together the team that will represent United States in next year's Olympics at Greece.

NEW YORK METS

The flirtation between the Mets and Houston Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker officially came to an end when Hunsicker accepted a contract extension from Houston.

Hunsicker interviewed with Mets owner Fred Wilpon in Florida and one of the ideas reportedly discussed was making Hunsicker the team's senior vice president in charge of baseball operations and leaving Jim Duquette as general manager.

Hunsicker, a former assistant GM with the Mets, hired Duquette as Houston's farm director in 1996, and the two have maintained a good professional relationship. Hunsicker, who has been the GM in Houston since 1995, was apparently only investigating his options and wasn't as intent on leaving Houston as some reports suggested.

"I am excited to have the opportunity to continue working toward our goal of bringing a World Series to Houston," Hunsicker said. "I appreciate the confidence that (owner) Drayton (McLane Jr.) has shown in me."

With Hunsicker out, the Mets are likely to officially promote Duquette. He has spent more than four months as the interim GM. The entire "search" for a GM is likely little more than a dog-and-pony show designed to show that Wilpon is covering all his bases before hiring Duquette.

Other news from the NL:

Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks are seeking to land a power hitter but are restricted by a player payroll projected in the $80 million range for next season. They've already earmarked $65 million to 10 players and have saved nearly $5 million by not picking up the option on RHP Miguel Batista.

Chicago Cubs: The Cubs' run in the playoffs gave the players even higher profiles than before, and that may not always be a good thing. RHP Kerry Wood was not happy when a Chicago paper ran pictures of his house.

"That's not good for people to know where you live," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "I've had my house broken into. And then your wife's home by herself. It's not good for your family."

Cincinnati Reds: While the club has a GM search down to three men, interim manager Dave Miley twists in the wind.

Miley, a member of the team's organization for 24 years as a player, coach and minor league manager, was managing at Louisville (AAA) when the Reds fired Bob Boone on July 28.

COO John Allen called Miley and asked if he would be the interim manager, and Miley said yes.

"He was upfront with me and made no promises," said Miley. "But I'd sure like to get the job and begin spring training with the chance to put together my own team."

Colorado Rockies: The Rockies have decided their payroll will go up only slightly during the offseason, and the small increase won't offset the built-in raises, which means the Rockies won't be big players in the free-agent market. Ownership is going to increase the payroll by more than 10 percent, but the Rockies also have $51.1 million committed to five players: OFs Larry Walker and Preston Wilson, LHP Denny Neagle, first baseman Todd Helton and C Charles Johnson.

Houston Astros: GM Gerry Hunsicker, who will have been with the Astros for a decade at the end of his newly extended contract, had discussions with the Mets, who are seeking a permanent replacement for fired general manager Steve Phillips. He said he decided to stay in Houston in part because he believes he has unfinished business with the Astros.

"Houston is home for Irene (his wife) and me," Hunsicker said. "I love the city. I love the organization. I feel that we haven't achieved what I want to accomplish. And, fortunately, now I have two more years to try to do that."

He declined to say if he was offered the Mets GM job by owner Fred Wilpon and said he agreed to "informal conversations" with Wilpon because of his ties to the team, with which he worked for seven years before coming to Houston.

Los Angeles Dodgers: RF Shawn Green underwent surgery Oct. 14 to repair a frayed labrum in the back of his right shoulder. No other damage was found during the 45-minute arthroscopic procedure. Green is expected to be fully recovered in 6-8 weeks. Green hit just 19 home runs in 2003 after averaging 45.5 homers the two previous seasons. He said shoulder pain prevented him from finishing his swing.

Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers are hoping that Brad Nelson, their minor league player of the year in 2002, can make up for lost time in the Arizona Fall League. Nelson had a huge year in 2002 at Class A Beloit, batting .297 with 17 HRs and 99 RBI before being promoted to higher Class A High Desert, where he batted .255 with three homers and 17 RBI. Add it all up and you have a very nice run-production year of 20 homers and 116 RBI, the highest total in the minors last year. Better yet, Nelson put up those big numbers at the tender age of 19.

A mere eight games into the 2003 schedule, Nelson felt "something weird" in his right wrist when taking a swing. He taped it and kept playing, but the next day the wrist was too swollen for Nelson to play. An examination revealed he had a broken hamate bone, a somewhat common but slow-healing injury for hitters.

Nelson had surgery to remove the broken portion of the hook-like bone and missed more than two months of the season. After he returned, he simply was not the same hitter.

Pittsburgh Pirates: After a season in which all six farm clubs qualified for league playoffs, the Pirates have made only minimal changes in their minor league staff for next year.

The biggest change is that Andy Stewart has been fired as manager at short-season Class A Williamsport after the Crosscutters won the New York-Penn League championship. Jeff Branson will replace Stewart after serving as Williamsport's hitting coach this year.

Two other managers, Tony Beasley and Dave Clark, will switch clubs. Beasley will take over high Class A Lynchburg, and Clark will manage low Class A Hickory. Two hitting coaches have also had their assignments flip-flopped, Jeff Livesey moving to Triple-A Nashville and Jay Loviglio moving to Lynchburg.

Greg Briley, who coached at rookie-level Bradenton this season, will be the hitting coach at Williamsport. Ramon Sambo, the Pirates' Latin American field coordinator, will double as Williamsport's hitting coach.

St.Louis Cardinals: Much of the Cardinals' bench talent is eligible for free agency, and there may be some changes because of cost considerations. The primary three reserves, INF-OF Miguel Cairo, OF Eduardo Perez and OF Orlando Palmeiro, are all free agents.

Cairo is key because he can play second base if Bo Hart proves that he is not ready. Perez, who had 11 homers and 41 runs batted in for 253 at-bats, may not be affordable, especially if he wants to play regularly somewhere.

Palmeiro, a solid .271 hitter, was the fourth outfielder and should be retained because he was nearly a .300 pinch hitter.

San Diego Padres: The city of San Diego is mourning the passing of former Padres owner Joan Kroc, who died Oct. 12 of brain cancer. Kroc inherited the team from her husband, Ray, when the McDonald's hamburger czar passed away in 1984. "For someone who wasn't really into baseball, she had a lot of enthusiasm and passion as an owner," said Padres manager Bruce Bochy, who was a player with the National League pennant winners of 1984.

San Francisco Giants: Jason Schmidt underwent elbow surgery to remove scar tissue and repair a tendon in his right elbow. The 40-minute procedure was done in Redwood City, California.

For now, the Giants hope he'll be ready for the 2004 opener.

"Initially, when they went in, they were concerned that the tendon was torn off the bone," trainer Stan Conte said. "However, it was not. It was just split with scar tissue. They sewed the tendon back together. The elbow will immobilized for a week. Following that, he'll be in rehab and is expected to be throwing in December and off a mound in spring training. If all goes as expected, he'll be pitching competitively in April."


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