MLB Insider: Touring The NL East

In addition to Gary Sheffield being a free agent, the Atlanta Braves may put a marquee player on the block. The Marlins have some big questions to answer behind the plate. The Mets shuffle staff and the Expos wonder just who they can afford to keep. Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, is there any way that the Billy Wagner trade could go bad? Well, maybe, if...

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

The Phillies addressed their most pressing offseason need by acquiring left-handed closer Billy Wagner from the Astros for RHPs Brandon Duckworth, Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio.

Naturally, Phillies fans have two questions.

What's the catch? And; What will the team do next to try to strengthen its chances of making the playoffs next season for the first time since 1993?

For starters, it doesn't appear there's any need for undue suspicion. Wagner is apparently healthy. The Astros simply needed to trim their payroll -- one rumor has them making a run at free agent LHP Andy Pettitte.

That isn't to say the deal is a steal, however. In fact, it mirrors the trade the Phillies made a year ago when they got RHP Kevin Millwood from the Braves for minor league catcher Johnny Estrada.

That appeared to be a lopsided swap at the time. But the Braves, without Millwood, made the playoffs. The Phillies, with him, didn't. Now Millwood is free to leave as a free agent, and Estrada figures to be Atlanta's No. 1 catcher in the likely event that Javy Lopez departs as a free agent.

Similarly, the ultimate success of the Wagner deal will hinge largely on whether he helps the Phillies get to the postseason. If he does, it probably doesn't matter much what the three pitchers the Astros got end up doing.

But, if the Phillies don't make the playoffs, and Wagner, who has the right under the Basic Agreement to demand a trade at the end of the season, exercises that option, the trade may not look as good. And if one or more of the former Phillies blossoms into a star, Houston will be seen as having gotten the better of the transaction.

In the immediate future, the Phillies are looking for relief help and another starter, assuming Millwood won't be back. And they also have several holes in the bullpen that must be filled.

General manager Ed Wade continues to caution that the starter might not be a staff ace type of pitcher. And if the team doesn't acquire an ace, you can bet that Phillies fans will have a lot more questions.

Things to know…

LHP Billy Wagner said he's happy to have been traded from the Astros to the Phillies because the Phils have "obviously made a commitment to winning a world championship." That's ironic considering that it was just a year and a half ago that 3B Scott Rolen used his impending free agency to force a trade to St. Louis. His reason? That the Phillies weren't sufficiently committed to winning.

LHP Billy Wagner has had a better percentage of save opportunities converted than the Phillies closer every year since 1998 except 2000, when he missed the final three months of the season with an elbow injury.

LHP Billy Wagner doesn't foresee any problem going from pitching in front of laidback Houston fans to more rabid crowds in Philadelphia. "I can't see them being any more demanding than I demand of myself," he said. "I can't imagine them saying anything about me I wouldn't say myself if I don't get the job done."

The Phillies will open the 2004 season on the road at Pittsburgh and Florida before opening new Citzens Bank Park against the Reds on April 12.

The Phillies will be home against the Orioles, Royals and Tigers in interleague play and will travel to Boston, Minnesota and Chicago to play the White Sox.

The Phillies already have sold out the 3,800 available premium seats for next season.

Playing the numbers: 102 The highest known radar gun reading for LHP Billy Wagner's fastball last season.

He said what? "I hope he's as happy to be here as we are to have him." -- Manager Larry Bowa, on the trade that put LHP Billy Wagner in a Phillies uniform. Under terms of the Basic Agreement, he can demand a trade at the end of the 2004 season.

ATLANTA BRAVES

Whatever else happens this offseason, you can count on the Braves reducing payroll. That will happen without them lifting a finger, considering the salaries of the players who are free agents. Expect all of the club's free agents to be replaced by younger (cheaper) players.

The roster intrigue centers on whether one or both of the Jones boys, Chipper or Andruw, should be traded.

Andruw just won his sixth consecutive Gold Glove award; manager Bobby Cox is fond of saying he saves at least one run a game, sometimes two.

Andruw showed flashes of patience at the plate in 2003, to the immense relief of hitting coach Terry Pendleton, but none of those flashes came in the postseason. He'll be 27 near the beginning of the 2004 season; can he still become a better hitter, or is this as good as is gets?

One thing there is no doubt about is that Andruw gets chunkier every year. It runs in the family, and he has not shown an inclination so far to dedicate himself to getting in better shape.

The other Jones, Chipper, isn't bad enough in left field to be called a defensive liability; he's average. His offense has been critical during the regular season, but he, too, disappeared in the Division Series. Literally. After failing to deliver at the plate, he left the ballpark without speaking. As trade material, though, Chipper seems to have limited value, given his age and salary.

Things to know:

RHP Russ Ortiz's $6.2 million option was picked up by the Braves.

LHP Mike Hampton won his first Gold Glove award, ending teammate Greg Maddux's 13-year run as the National League's best fielding pitcher. Hampton won a Silver Slugger award last week, making him the first pitcher to both awards in a season. Hampton had two home runs and eight RBI to go along with his .985 fielding percentage. Hampton committed only one error in 68 chances.

RHP John Smoltz has been named the Marvin Miller Man of the Year by the major league players in the Players Choice awards.

RF Gary Sheffield finished second to Albert Pujols for the Players Choice National League Outstanding Player.

He said what? "I felt comfortable from the first day I walked into the clubhouse." -- Russ Ortiz, on being traded to the Braves from the Giants.

FLORIDA MARLINS

Already faced with the possibility of losing their starting catcher to free agency, the Marlins may start the season without a key backup catcher because of legal problems.

Ramon Castro, Florida's third-string catcher, was ordered to stand trial in Pennsylvania on rape charges. But Castro's availability for spring training, which starts in February, was in question because the trial was not immediately scheduled.

Starting catcher Pudge Rodriguez filed for free agency, and it's uncertain whether Florida will be able to afford him in 2004.

Asked if he still wants to be a Marlin in 2004, the 10-time All-Star with the Rangers told reporters: "I don't know. We will see later what is going to happen."

Rodriguez also became a free agent after the 2002 season. When he didn't find a deal to his liking, he agreed Jan. 20 to a $10 million, one-year contract with the Marlins. He collected $3 million of it this season, with $7 million deferred over the next two years.

If Rodriguez doesn't return, the Marlins will want Castro to be their starting catcher. Now, the uncertainty will force the Marlins to hold onto veteran backup catcher Mike Redmond, who made $1.05 million in 2003 and is due for a pay raise through arbitration.

Last offseason, Castro was designated as the starting catcher for 2003 until Rodriguez was signed in January to a one-year deal. Castro went on to hit .283 with 5 home runs and 8 RBI in just 53 at-bats.

Castro, 27, was accused of raping a woman in a Pittsburgh hotel room in August during a Marlins series against the Pirates.

Castro was released on his own recognizance and was allowed to remain free until trial. His attorney, J. Alan Johnson, said no rape took place and that hotel surveillance tapes will eventually prove that his client is innocent.

The rape charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 to 40 years in prison, though under state sentencing guidelines it's unlikely Castro would receive such a sentence if he were convicted.

First baseman Derrek Lee and second baseman Luis Castillo each won their first Gold Gloves, an award for fielding excellence voted on by coaches and managers. They are the first Marlins to win the award since catcher Charles Johnson won three straight from 1995-97.

"It's something I've been striving for," said Lee, who committed just five errors in 1,381 chances over 155 games. "This year has been great with the World Series and the birth of the baby, and now this is just the icing on the cake."

When Lee learned he won, one of the first people he told was Perry Hill, Florida's infield coach.

"I told him, 'It's probably two years too late, but now you can start your own streak,' " Hill said, referring to Lee getting passed over and Colorado's Todd Helton and San Francisco's J.T. Snow getting the award in previous years.

"There's a quiet confidence about him. Derrek's never going to talk about himself, so I had to do it for him. I told him all season, 'You're the best I've seen. You're going to win that thing.' "

Castillo, who led second baseman with 386 putouts and was second with 433 assists, overtook St. Louis' Fernando Vina. He had a .986 fielding percentage and helped turn 99 double plays while starting 151 games.

"Luis and Derrek, they're like vacuum cleaners," Hill said. They've made so many great plays to keep us in games so that the late inning heroics actually meant something. They save so many runs, I call them defensive RBIs."

Like his teammates, Castillo's disadvantage was playing in a small market with minimal national exposure. But Florida's surge in the second half forced other teams to take notice of the team's talented defense.

"I told him, 'Luis, people are going to notice you. Just keep it up,' " said Hill.

Florida had what many considered to be the best infield in the National League even though shortstop Alex Gonzalez and Mike Lowell didn't win Gold Gloves. Two St. Louis Cardinals got the awards -- third baseman Scott Rolen and former Marlins shortstop Edgar Renteria, whose trade to St. Louis made way for Gonzalez's promotion from the minor in 1998.

"Mike Lowell has some tough competition, but I think he'll get it someday," Lee said.

Things to know…

Third base coach Ozzie Guillen was named manager of the Chicago White Sox, but Marlins manager Jack McKeon apparently will get the rest of his coaches back next year. Candidates to replace Guillen include Cookie Rojas, Florida's infield and third base coach from 1993-96; and former outfielder Tim Raines, who retired after playing the 2002 season with the Marlins.

Pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal, third base coach Perry Hill, hitting coach Bill Robinson, bench coach Doug Davis and bullpen coach Jeff Cox all are expected to accept the team's offer for them to return in 2004.

As expected, second baseman Luis Castillo became the last eligible Marlin to file for free agency. This is Castillo's first year as a free agent. He made $4.85 million in 2003 and could command $8 million.

He said what? "If he doesn't win the Gold Glove this year, I think it's a little bit of a joke because I think hands down he is the best first baseman in the league." -- 3B Mike Lowell, talking about 1B Derrek Lee before the Gold Glove were announced.

MONTREAL EXPOS

It is difficult to imagine any club having to hurdle more obstacles than those confronting the Expos.

Owned by MLB, the Expos operate with a tight budget. That doesn't make their situation unique. Many teams can't leap into the free agent market with both feet because they simply don't have the wherewithal.

But think for a moment of the Expos' plight. Even if they are in the money range to sign a player, they then have to sell him on the matter of playing 22 more "road" games than other teams. Then, of course, they can't assure the player Montreal will be home base a year from now.

Think of the problems trying to secure sponsors or advertisers. Many large corporations plan budgets a year in advance, but less than four months from spring training Expos can't tell a would-be sponsor how many games will be at home or give absolute home dates.

Claude Delorme, the Expos' vice president of business affairs, has had discussions with RDS (the French television sports network) to show 20 games next year. He has had discussions with Team 990 (Montreal's sports radio station) to broadcast the full 2004 schedule. But nothing is definite yet.

As far as fielding a competitive team, the Expos believe they're heading in the right direction. General manager Omar Minaya is back on the job after testing opportunities with three clubs. Manager Frank Robinson is expected back after working with the United States team that failed to qualify for the Olympics.

The Expos aren't clinging to hope they might have RF Vladimir Guerrero back after the superstar opted for free agency. "I don't think so," Expos president Tony Taveras said when asked if he thought Guerrero's people might get back to the club to let them know what other teams are offering. "Usually when a player and his people reject your offer, it means they expect to move on. I've seen stranger things happen. There are occasions when a guy might go back to his club because he wants to renew negotiations, but I'm not optimistic."

Taveras might be disappointed at the turn of events that finds the club almost certain to lose its best player as he heads into what could be his greatest years -- Guerrero will turn 28 in early February. But Taveras is satisfied the Expos gave it their best shot.

"We made a very aggressive offer," Taveras said. "I don't fault a player for not accepting, but once it has been turned down my gut feeling is that somebody will pay more."

Things to know… LF Mack Jones, an Expos original and one of their first big stars, is being treated for stomach cancer. Jones was the Expos' second choice in the expansion draft of 1968. In the first major league game played outside the United States -- the Expos' home opener at Jarry Park in 1969 -- Jones homered, tripled and drove home five runs in an 8-7 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

LF Brad Wilkerson's stats this season were almost identical to his rookie year of 2002. He hit .268 compared to .266. In three less at-bats he had an identical 135 hits. He had 19 homers compared to 20.

SS Orlando Cabrera, voted the Expos' Player of the Year, hit well at home no matter where "home" was. He hit .329 with 37 RBIs at Montreal's Olympic Stadium and .342 with 11 RBIs at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico.

Playing the numbers: 4 RHP Livan Hernandez is one of four pitchers who have made at least 30 starts in each of the last five seasons. The others are Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Mike Hampton.

He said what? "It's back to business as usual." -- Expos president Tony Taveras after GM Omar Minaya tested three job possibilities but is staying in Montreal.

NEW YORK METS

Jim Duquette, once the loneliest man in baseball, finally has a staff.

The Mets have hired Al Goldis and Bill Singer as special assistants to the general manager, filling two key positions that had inexplicably been left vacant.

Duquette will add a third special assistant. Marlins vice president Fred Ferreira was interviewed and remains a candidate. The Mets initially planned to hire only two assistants. But owner Fred Wilpon then approved a third addition.

"We're showing a commitment we've been lacking the last few years," Duquette said.

The Mets will further bolster Duquette's staff with an analyst who will break down statistics. Now the new GM will have several opinions to consider before making moves.

"One of the things we've been lacking the last few years was special assistants," said Duquette, who worked almost alone after replacing Steve Phillips on June 12. "(Goldis and Singer) are guys I feel have suburb track records as evaluators."

Singer, 59, was an accomplished right-hander, winning 118 games from 1964-77, mostly with the Dodgers and Angels. A two-time All-Star who no-hit the Phillies in 1970, he got back in baseball as a scout for the Marlins in 1991.

He joined the Pirates as a special assistant to GM Dave Littlefield in 2002. Singer has extensive contacts in Japan and will likely become Duquette's point man on the Pacific Rim.

Goldis, 60, has deep ties to New York. After a brief minor league career, he was an unpaid assistant at St. John's and then head coach of Division II New York Tech from 1971-72. He also worked on the side as hitting instructor and once tutored Jeff Wilpon, now chief operating officer of the Mets.

Professionally, Goldis worked for the Angels, Brewers, Cubs, Orioles and White Sox before joining the Reds in 1996 as an assistant to GM Jim Bowden.

"The appetizer for coming back to New York is the commitment to being successful and having the resources," Goldis said.

Goldis and Singer, who both live in Sarasota, Fla., will have varied duties. They will watch 60-70 Mets game a season in addition to scouting other big-league teams. They will also have input on the first few picks of the amateur draft and minor league matters.

Bruce Benedict, who had been a special assistant under Phillips, will retain the title but become more of an advance scout.

Things to know…

C Mike Piazza said he's OK with the idea of splitting time between catcher and first base. Piazza played one inning at first base late last season.

The Mets made several other changes to the coaching staff. Matt Galante, the third base coach for two seasons, will become a bench coach. Bobby Floyd, who had been the manager of Triple-A Norfolk, will coach third.

Manager Art Howe said he wants Galante to be more readily available to talk to the infielders during games. The move also protects the Mets should bench coach Don Baylor have to miss games as he undergoes treatment for cancer.

Infield coach Juan Lopez was reassigned to the minor leagues.

The Mets replaced minor league pitching coordinator Ray Rippelmeyer with Rick Waits, who was Howe's bullpen coach last season. The Mets felt Waits was being underutilized.

"We've had some great conversations in the last two days. I can't tell you how excited I am to partner with Rick and implement the system," Peterson said. "Our core philosophy, we're on the same page. (Waits) has given me tremendous insight."

The Mets do not plan to replace Waits as bullpen coach. Bullpen catcher Nelson Silverio, who joined the organization last season, will assume more responsibility. "We have a veteran bullpen anyway," Howe said. "Nelson can handle the bullpen fine for us."

Both new pitching coach Rick Peterson and Howe spoke positively about LHP John Franco staying with the team. Howe said "there is no reason to believe" the team captain wouldn't be back. The 43-year-old free agent would likely have to accept significantly less than the $3.8 million he made last season. Negotiations are in the early stages. "We want him as an organization, and Johnny wants to be here," GM Jim Duquette said.

Former Met Fernando Vina is interested in returning to the team. Vina, 34, became a free agent when the Cardinals decided against picking up his $4.5 million option. A two-time Gold Glove winner at second base, Vina is the kind of defense-minded and inexpensive player the Mets say they are looking for. Vina hit .251 because a right hamstring injury last season. His agents, Seth and Sam Levinson, have a good working relationship with the Mets.

He said what? "These guys seem to have their act together and are headed the right way. Obviously, when you lose 95 games there's a lot of work to do." -- New Mets superscout Bill Singer.


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