One of the biggest keys for the Phillies in 2004 is for left fielder Pat Burrell to bounce back.
And he thinks he will.
Apparently poised for a breakout year last season and armed with a new six-year, $50 million contract, he batted just .209 with 21 homers and 64 RBI and struck out 142 times. That helped contribute to the team's offensive problems.
Burrell, who will report early to spring training to work on his mechanics, now admits how difficult last season was for him. "Every day was a constant struggle, a constant grind," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I started second-guessing myself, and when you second-guess yourself in this game you're in trouble. It was embarrassing. I was under a lot more mental stress than I let on."
He says the big contract didn't cause him to put more pressure on himself.
"If anything, that should have taken the pressure away," he said.
Burrell also doesn't think his slump was tied to his lifestyle. "Basically, I haven't changed anything I do off the field since I've been in Philly. (But) that's my business. When things aren't good, people always have to look for a 'why.' It's never quite as simple as a guy had a (terrible) year."
He doesn't blame the hitting coach.
"Greg Gross is the best," he said. "He spent so much time with me. He was always upbeat even though there were probably times he wanted to throw his arms up. It's never about the hitting coach or the pitching coach. It's always about the player. I just didn't do it on the field."
He doesn't think his swing or stance were the culprits.
"I know I need to make some changes," he admitted. "But the biggest thing that happened was I never got that feeling, that confidence. This game is so mental. The best thing I can do this offseason is say, 'Hey, it was a bad season. What do I have to do to get back to being me?'"
To help Burrell get back to being himself, the Phillies had special hitting instructor Charlie Manual visit him in Arizona. And he also had a couple phone conversations with retired slugger Mark McGwire, who went through a similar slump early in his career.
Said Burrell confidently: "I have no doubt I'll get it back."
Things you need to know:
--The Phillies added four players to the 40-man roster: First baseman Ryan Howard, the Paul Owens Award winner as the top position player in the system, will be in big league camp next spring along with right-handers Keith Bucktrot, Elizardo Ramirez and Alfredo Simon.
--The Phillies will look at top free agents such as right-hander Bartolo Colon but are reluctant to give up the compensatory draft choices they would forfeit if they sign somebody in that category. Last June, the Phillies didn't have a first or second round pick after signing Jim Thome and David Bell.
--Speculation that the Phillies could end up trading for Diamondbacks righthander Curt Schilling has increased although there are still three major obstacles that must be cleared. The teams must agree on the players Arizona will get in return. They must agree on how to deal with the $6 million deferred money Schilling will be owed after this season. And the pitcher has indicated he wants a contract extension in return for waiving his no-trade clause.
--It is expected to be announced shortly that veteran left-hander Dan Plesac, 41, has agreed to return to the Phillies for another season.
The Numbers Game: 3 Spots left open on the 40-man roster after four players were protected. That gives the team flexibility to fill needs (starting pitcher, bullpen, backup catcher) with veterans.
He said what? "That's over. Larry got frustrated sometimes, but I guarantee you he was never as frustrated as I was. There was a lot of stuff going on. Larry and I have talked. We're good." -- LF Pat Burrell, insisting that he's settled his differences with manager Larry Bowa.
BIGGEST NEEDS: The Phillies must add a starting pitcher, and nothing has been ruled out, including re-signing RHP Kevin Millwood. They have also inquired about the availability of Montreal RHP Javier Vazquez and Arizona RHP Curt Schilling, talked to the agent for free agent RHP Bartolo Colon and explored a variety of second-tier free agents, such as RHP Miguel Batista and RHP Pat Hentgen. They could address their bullpen by bringing back RHP Terry Adams and have also considered free agents LaTroy Hawkins, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Paul Quantrill and Curtis Leskanic.
Polanco, Padilla and Rollins are all integral parts of the roster, and manager Larry Bowa has said he definitely wants Ledee back as well. Telemaco is expected to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation next spring.
LHP Valerio De Los Santos is not expected to be offered arbitration.
The rest of the division…
No sooner had Time Warner announced it was divesting itself of non-core assets than people started wondering, hey, what happens to Stan Kasten?
Well, maybe they thought about what that meant for the Braves' payroll first. But the two are linked: If the Braves weren't under severe payroll restrictions, Kasten wouldn't be riding off into the sunset.
Kasten is a unique figure in professional sports. He's the only person to be president of three major professional sports teams -- the Braves, NBA Hawks and NHL Thrashers -- simultaneously. His Time Warner title, president of Turner Sports Teams, included those duties and running Turner Field, the Braves' home, and Philips Arena, where the Hawks and Thrashers play. The arena is also Atlanta's prime concert venue.
Time Warner, trying to trim roughly $24 billion in debt, put its sports teams on the market. The Hawks, Thrashers and arena operating rights, as a package, have found buyers in a group of eight men, half of whom are local, including Ted Turner's son-in-law, Rutherford Seydel.
Time Warner is not as gung-ho to rid itself of the Braves, however. The team still represents programming for TBS -- that's the reason Ted Turner bought them to begin with -- and Time Warner executives do love sitting in that Turner Field owner's box.
So long as Kasten was under contract to Time Warner, he could not in good conscience negotiate a position with the Hawks' and Thrashers' new owners. Right now, he is making noises about possibly devoting himself to charitable work or community service, but he clearly is a sports junkie (not to mention a stress junkie) and the Gang of Eight will just as clearly be more fun to work with than Time Warner execs (Kasten's longtime friend Terry McGuirk, TBS vice chairman and CEO of Turner Sports Teams, excepted).
Kasten will say only, "Three of the four units I've been running are being sold off, and an inevitable metamorphosis is going on at the Braves as we try to retool that. Would I have been at my happiest, at my most effective going on with that? I thought, on balance, I'd be better off making this change now.
"I consider myself a leader of people. I build things. That's what I like to do, building the Hawks of the '80s, the Braves of the '90s and the Thrashers of the 2000s. It has been an amazing company to allow those things to happen. But we all know the last couple of years, and particularly the last year, has been very, very difficult for [Time Warner]."
Lopez was on his way out anyway, and Maddux was iffy because of his age, his likely salary and his performance this year. The Braves want to keep Sheffield, but they are no longer in a position to offer multimillion dollar, long-term contracts -- especially not to a player who just turned 35.
Things you need to know:
--RF Gray Sheffield came in third in the voting for NL MVP, behind Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols.
--Brian Jordan, Dodgers free agent and former Braves outfielder, was courtside with his family at the Nets-Hawks game Nov. 15.
The Numbers Game: $70-75 million -- Could that really be the Braves payroll for 2004?
He said what? "We were willing to pay the price to get where we wanted to go and to keep the guys that we wanted to. However, over time, what has happened is that our payroll is way in excess of what we can justify. We need to get it down, and we're doing that." -- Stan Kasten, two days before resigning as Braves president (and president of the Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers as well).
BIGGEST NEEDS: A good defensive catcher who can hit (that's not asking too much, is it?) to back up expected starter Johnny Estrada. And, possibly, one more veteran starting pitcher, in the event young guns LHP Horacio Ramirez, RHP Trey Hodges, LHP Jung Bong and RHP Jason Marquis can't hang with LHP Mike Hampton and RHP Russ Ortiz.
RHP Justin Wayne will pitch in winter ball and hopes to make the team in spring training. Wayne struggled in Triple-A Albuquerque last season in part because he lost command of his two-seam fastball (or sinker).
Regaining his form is an offseason priority. Wayne was 4-12 with a 4.24 ERA pitching in the high New Mexico altitude. In 136 innings, opponents hit .266 against him. Of the 81 runs he allowed, 64 were earned. He recorded 82 strikeouts and 40 walks.
Wayne is in the process of fine-tuning his mechanics, and in December he will travel to Puerto Rico to take part in some winter league games.
"We're trying to get his sinker back," said Marlins pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal. "He has been throwing bullpens the last few weeks. We'll work with his two-seam fastball."
Wayne, a former first-round pick out of Stanford, has been highly regarded. He is not overpowering, with a fastball in the 88- to 90-mph range. When he is on, he has a quality curveball. Rosenthal would like to see him get his sinker working again, giving hitters something else to handle.
Wayne was 0-2 (11.81) in two major league starts in 2003, giving up seven runs in 5 1/3 innings, with one strikeout and five walks.
In 2002 he showed some promise as a September call-up. In five starts he was 2-3 (5.32), with 16 strikeouts and 13 walks.
Things you need to know:
--C Pudge Rodriguez and the Marlins are working toward a Dec. 7 deadline, the last day teams can offer their free agents salary arbitration. Under the one-year, $10 million deal he signed in January, the Marlins agreed not to offer him arbitration. The Marlins were believed to have offered a two-year deal worth $15 million.
Despite the looming deadline, the team feels no urgency in part because Rodriguez isn't getting a lot of offers from other clubs. He turns 32 on Nov. 30, and catchers historically don't hold up into their thirties.
But Florida may be forced to work out a deal with Rodriguez because of backup catcher Ramon Castro's legal problems. Castro is facing trial on rape charges, and his future is uncertain.
--The Marlins have discussed offers with free agent 2B Luis Castillo and All-Star 3B Mike Lowell but haven't finalized deals yet.
--The Marlins may make a pitch for Korean League first baseman Seung-Yeop Lee if they can't retain Gold Glover Derrek Lee. Lee is eligible for arbitration and could get $7 million in 2004.
Left fielder Jeff Conine is likeliest to move to first base, but the Korean Lee made an impression with the Marlins at spring training last year. And he set a record with 56 home runs for the Samsung Lions. He is a free agent and reportedly hopes to get $2 million per season.
--RHP David Manning will get a shot with the Marlins this spring after signing a minor league contract.
Manning, 31, had played 12 years in the minors before getting called up by the Milwaukee Brewers in August. He went 0-2 with a 16.20 ERA in two starts and went 6-8 with a 4.91 ERA in 23 starts for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians.
"He had pitched in winter ball (before the 2003 season) and was a little tired. This will be a fresh start for him," said Mark Delpiano, the Marlins' director of player development.
Manning is among at least five players who signed minor league contracts and will be designated in February as non-roster invitees. The others are outfielder Ryan Christenson, right-handers Bryce Florie and Delvin James and first baseman-outfielder Felipe Crespo.
Christenson, 29, hit .176 with two homers and 16 RBI in 165 at-bats with Texas last season. He could compete for a fourth outfielder job since free agents Todd Hollandsworth and Lenny Harris are not expected to return.
--The Marlins met a deadline Thursday (Nov. 20) to file their 40-man roster, a formality that protects those players from being lost next month in the Rule 5 draft.
Five minor league pitchers were added to the roster: RHPs Kevin Cave, Michael Flannery, Lincoln Holdzkom and Ronald Belizario and LHP Franklyn Gracesqui.
--Former Marlins third-base coach Cookie Rojas interviewed Friday (Nov. 21) for the same position, which was vacated earlier this month when Ozzie Guillen was hired to manage the Chicago White Sox. Rojas is one of a half-dozen candidates for the job, which the Marlins hope to fill by Thanksgiving.
--CF Juan Pierre earned a $400,000 bonus by finishing 10th in the MVP voting. RHP Braden Looper earned $800,000 in incentive bonuses during the season by finishing 64 games.
The numbers game: 2.13 -- ERA in 2003 of RHP Chad Fox, who could become Florida's closer in 2004.
He said what? "Every time I try to relax, something happens where you relive it and I get all excited again. I'm still in a whirlwind." -- CF Juan Pierre, on how strangers stop him in public in the offseason to talk about the Marlins' championship season.
BIGGEST NEEDS: Money. Depending on what happens this offseason, Florida's biggest need figures to be a closer in the bullpen. RHP Ugueth Urbina, a free agent, is considered a goner, and the team may shop RHP Braden Looper during the winter meetings. The team isn't convinced Looper is a bona fide closer, and may opt to go with free agent RHP Chad Fox. If Luis Castillo signs elsewhere, they will need a second baseman, and there is no one in the minors ready for promotion to the bigs.
ARBITRATION ELIGIBLE: 3B Mike Lowell, 1B Derrek Lee, RHP Brad Penny, RHP Carl Pavano, LHP Mark Redman, RF Juan Encarnacion, RHP Braden Looper, C Mike Redmond, SS Alex Gonzalez, RHP A.J. Burnett, OF Brian Banks, RHP Toby Borland, LHP Michael Tejera.
The team made a multiyear offer to Lowell, but that may be lip service after the Marlins publicly said in July they would do so after the season. The emergence of rookie Miguel Cabrera makes Lowell expendable, but he is a hometown favorite who wants to stay. If he does - and if the team keeps 2B Luis Castillo or C Pudge Rodriguez - Lee could be a goner. Jeff Conine could go to 1B if Lee is traded. If Lowell stays, Encarnacion will become serious trade bait, with Cabrera moving to RF. Looper and Pavano also may be dealt, but all of the others are likely to return.
The won-lost numbers have been the same (83-79) during his two years as manager of the Expos, but Frank Robinson goes along with the suggestion by general manager Omar Minaya that he did a better job this season than the year before.
That's because while the Expos had a relatively injury-free season in 2002, they had trouble fielding a healthy roster at any time during the recently completed season.
In fact, they were never injury free in 2003. "El Duque" Hernandez, acquired from the Yankees in a three-player deal on Jan. 15, came down with a lame shoulder during spring training. Subsequent surgery meant that Hernandez never did make a regular-season pitch for the Expos.
Add to that the prolonged time RF Vladimir Guerrero, the team's best player, spent on the disabled list, and the fact that RHP Tony Armas Jr. missed most of the season, and it becomes clear that injuries hurt the Expos as much as any other major league team.
There were other factors this year that make the job Robinson did that much more commendable. The Expos had to play 22 "home" games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which left them stuck with several brutal road trips.
In addition, because they're owned by Major League Baseball, the Expos weren't allowed the normal number of September call-ups -- they were forced to save the money instead. That left Robinson with a depleted bench at a time when other teams could substitute freely.
Robinson was working in the commissioner's office when MLB, which had just purchased the Expos, asked if he'd manage the team for 2002. After a Hall of Fame playing career during which he was the only man to win MVP honors in both the NL (Cincinnati) and AL (Baltimore), Robinson managed at Cleveland, San Francisco and Baltimore. He was AL manager of the year in 1989 in his second year with the Orioles.
Things you need to know:
--SS Josh Labandeira, just added to the 40-man roster, was leading Class A Brevard County (Florida State League) in hitting with a .324 average when he was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg on June 28. The 24-year old was the Expos' sixth-round selection in the 2001 draft.
--2B Jose Vidro and SS Orlando Cabrera have started more games together (572) than any other current double-play combination in the majors and more than any combo in Expos history. 2B Mike Lansing and SS Mark Grudzielanek started 318 games together from 1995-97.
--RF Vladimir Guerrero missed 40 games because of a herniated disk in 2003. With Guerrero in the starting lineup, the Expos were 61-51 (.545). When he didn't start, they were 22-28 (.440).
The Numbers Game: 234 -- Career homers by Vladimir Guerrero, the Expos' all-time home run king with 234. Andre Dawson (1976-86) is second with 225, and this year's Hall of Fame inductee, Gary Carter, hit 220.
He said what? "It's just a matter of putting my name on the contract." -- Frank Robinson when asked if he will return to manage Expos for a third season.
BIGGEST NEEDS: A first baseman who can hit, a catcher (Michael Barrett is likely to be traded) and an experienced closer. There should be money available from Guerrero's departure with arbitration eligibles such as SS Orlando Cabrera, RHP Tony Armas Jr. and RHP Tomo Ohka getting raises.
ARBIRATION ELIGIBLE: RHP Tony Armas Jr., RHP Rocky Biddle, RHP El Duque Hernandez, RHP Tomo Ohka, LHP Scott Stewart, RHP Javier Vazquez, C Michael Barrett, SS Orlando Cabrera.
With money saved from Guerrero's expected departure, raises for Vazquez, Cabrera, Armas and Biddle should be available with something to spare.
NEW YORK METS
In the latest embarrassing incident to besmirch the franchise, newly hired Mets scout Bill Singer was fired on Nov. 18 because of his conduct during the recent general manager meetings in Phoenix.
Singer made a series of racially insensitive taunts to Dodgers assistant GM Kim Ng in the lobby lounge of the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman stepped in, but not before Singer loudly asked several times what Ng was doing at the meetings and where she was from. When Ng said her family was originally from China, Singer began to speak in a mocking Chinese accent.
Mets GM Jim Duquette, who was not in the bar, later apologized to Ng, a former assistant with the Yankees. After reviewing the case, the Mets fired Singer. He lasted 12 days on the job.
"As a matter of policy our organization cannot and will not tolerate any comment or conduct by an employee that suggests insensitivity or intolerance to any racial, ethnic or religious group," Duquette said in a statement released by the Mets. "Any deviation from this standard is not acceptable."
Dodgers GM Dan Evans told the Los Angeles Times that he "addressed the matter" with the Mets the next morning. Singer apologized to Kim later that day.
But the Mets did not publicly acknowledge the incident until three days later.
Said Evans: "(Singer's) conduct was inexcusable and extremely disappointing."
Ironically, one of Singer's strengths as a scout are his connections in Asia. The former big-league right-hander pitched in Japan at the end of his career and returned on several scouting missions.
Things you need to know:
--After firing Bill Singer, the Mets now need to hire two more assistants to the GM. Duquette has interviewed former White Sox GM Ron Schueler and Marlins vice president Fred Ferreira.
--In a story that proved to be much ado about nothing, Newsday reported that Mike Piazza would meet with the Mets to say he would welcome a trade. Piazza, on vacation at the time, sent word to the team that he did not want to be dealt. But there were several days of talk-show tumult in New York.
--The Mets barely reacted to Alex Rodriguez saying he was open to a trade. Owner Fred Wilpon has said he does not want to take on any long-term contracts.
--Mets 3B Ty Wigginton made the Topps All-Rookie team.
--RHP Len Dinardo, who ended last season with Double-A Binghamton, gave his career a boost by striking out 27 in 18 innings in the Arizona Fall League. The lefty was a third-round pick out of Stetson University in 2001.
He said what? "This is the future. We need to see these guys" -- Mets manager Art Howe, who attended several Arizona Fall League games to gauge the progress of the team's top prospects.
BIGGEST NEEDS: The Mets need, in no particular order, a second baseman, a closer, a starting pitcher and at least one outfielder. GM Jim Duquette has $30-35 million to spend and will fill the holes with free agents.
The Mets have not gone to arbitration with a player since the early '90s and won't break that streak with any of this crew. Perez, a sometimes productive player, could be a non-tender if the Mets find outfield help someplace else.