MLB Insider: The NL East

The Winter Meetings are over, players have been non-tendered and general managers are trying to put finishing touches on their teams as spring training draws near. The NL East has seen a lot of changes during the offseason and there are likely still more to come.


The Phillies didn't come home from the winter meetings empty-handed.

Hours before general manager Ed Wade flew home from New Orleans, it was announced that the team had signed free agent right-hander Roberto Hernandez.

The Phillies had been looking for a veteran reliever to fill out the back end of the bullpen. Hernandez, who pitched for the Braves last season, had been looking for a team with a chance to win.

When those two interests converged, the 39-year-old agreed to a one-year free-agent contract. He'll make $750,000 plus performance bonuses, contingent on passing a physical.

He joins closer Billy Wagner, setup man Tim Worrell and left-hander Rheal Cormier in the bullpen. The remaining two or three spots, depending on whether the Phillies decide to carry 11 or 12 pitchers, will most likely be filled from within the organization. Candidates include Eric Junge, Amaury Telemaco, David Coggin, Josh Hancock and Bud Smith.

The Phillies have one more opening to fill. "At this point, we'll probably focus our attention on finding a bat for the bench," Wade said. "That's something that could happen fairly quickly, or it could drift into spring training."

The profile the team is trying to fill is for a right-handed hitter who can play first base and some outfield. He should have some power, and it would be a plus if he runs well. Players the Phillies could look at include Eric Owens, a free agent who played for the Angels last season, or Brian Buchanan, who could become available if he isn't offered a contract by the Saturday deadline.

Hernandez, once one of baseball's best closers, was 5-3 with a 4.35 earned run average pitching middle relief for the Braves last year.

"At first, I thought I'd like to go anywhere that I could close," he said. "But at the cost of pulling my hair out and not having fun going to the ballpark? I'd rather go to a team that can go to the postseason."

He said he was miserable pitching for last-place Tampa Bay in 1999 even though he had a career-high 43 saves that season.

"I'm looking at what the Phillies have done this offseason and what everyone else has done," he said. "It's going to be tough for them not to win. People are going to have to go through Philadelphia to make the playoffs if everyone does his part."

Hernandez said his age shouldn't be an issue.

"I'm disappointed to leave Atlanta, but I knew there was going to be a change in direction," he said. "They're going younger. I may be 39, but I can still go toe-to-toe."

In the news…

  • RHP Kevin Millwood accepted arbitration, meaning he'll return to the Phillies for a second season. While it could never be confirmed that he had interest from any other team, he insisted that he was happy with the way things worked out. "I wanted to play in Philly. It wasn't a tough decision," he said.
  • OF Ricky Ledee received a one-year contract from the Phillies.
  • The Phillies avoided arbitration with RHP Amaury Telemaco by agreeing to a one-year contract worth $525,000 plus performance bonuses. Telemaco is expected to compete for a spot in the bullpen.
  • The Phillies exercised their option on manager Larry Bowa's contract for 2005 and added option years for 2006 and 2007. "We're happy to have that stability moving forward," Ed Wade said.
  • Manager Larry Bowa said that even though the reports he's gotten about third baseman David Bell's recovery from back problems have been positive, he remains cautious. "We have to be concerned a little," Bowa said. "He feels great, but he hasn't done any baseball skills yet."
  • RHP Bobby Korecky has been sent to the Twins as the player to be named later in the deal that brought Eric Milton to the Phillies. Korecky, 24, was 5-4 with a 2.26 ERA for single-A Clearwater. He led all Phillies minor leaguers with 25 saves and was a Florida State League All-Star. Korecky pitched for Mesa in the Arizona Fall League.
The numbers game: 1,064 Games pitched by newly retired LHP Dan Plesac, fourth on the all-time list.

He said what? "Go ahead, Joe Willie." -- Phillies general manager Ed Wade, to manager Larry Bowa, after Bowa had been asked if the Phillies should be considered the team to beat in the NL East.


Don't spend too much time wondering why the Braves, whose decade of division titles has been built on pitching, traded right-hander Jason Marquis to the Cardinals in the J.D. Drew-Eli Marrero deal.

Sure, Marquis has shown flashes of brilliance and mental toughness, but the Braves' veteran pitchers, not to mention pitching coach Leo Mazzone and manager Bobby Cox, got tired of his refusal to take their advice.

Plagued by a lack of consistency last season, Marquis found himself shipped back to Triple-A Richmond after he thought he'd be in the starting rotation. Beaten out in spring training for the fifth spot by Double-A pitcher Horacio Ramirez, Marquis slumped in the bullpen.

You'd think that lockering a few cubicles from Greg Maddux would lead a struggling pitcher to pick the certain Hall of Famer's brain.

You'd think that if another Cy Young winner, now mega-closer John Smoltz, spent 45 minutes after a game going over a CD of that very evening's shaky start with that struggling pitcher, the advice would be embraced.

You'd think that, wouldn't you?

Sure you would.

Marquis didn't.

In the news…
  • RHP Antonio Alfonseca signed a one-year contract with the Braves. He is expected to be a setup reliever for closer John Smoltz.
  • 1B Julio Franco, 45, has rejected arbitration, as previously agreed upon. The Braves are expected to sign Franco to a contract by the January 8 deadline.
The numbers game: .338 J.D. Drew's batting average with runners in scoring position last season with the Cardinals.

He said what? "Drew is the perfect answer to our right-field situation." -- GM John Schuerholz.


With the trade of left-handed starter Mark Redman, the Marlins have lost six key players through trades or free agency since the season ended.

Florida signed third baseman Mike Lowell and second baseman Luis Castillo to multiyear deals before the winter meetings. But gone are Redman, 1B Derrek Lee, C Pudge Rodriguez, RF Juan Encarnacion, RHP Ugueth Urbina and RHP Braden Looper.

The loss of Lee (traded), Encarnacion (traded) and Rodriguez (free agency) represents 271 RBIs. RF Miguel Cabrera, 20, and LF Jeff Conine will be called on to fill the bulk of that void. Cabrera was a rookie last year, and Conine is 37.

Unless the Marlins make a play for Paul Lo Duca or Javy Lopez, unproven catcher Ramon Castro and veteran backup Mike Redmond will replace Rodriguez.

GM Larry Beinfest said Redman was traded, in part, because right-hander A.J. Burnett is expected to return from Tommy John rehab by May or June. Until then, they will rely on a middle reliever as the fifth starter -- perhaps right-handers Justin Wayne and Nate Bump or left-hander Michael Tejera.

That increases the likelihood of adding to the workload of the bullpen, an area Beinfest has made a priority. The Marlins fulfilled their need for a closer by signing free agent RHP Armando Benitez to a one-year deal worth a reported $3.5 million.

Right-hander Chad Fox will return as the setup man, and right-hander Mike Neu, acquired from Oakland in the Redman trade, will pitch in middle relief.

The Marlins also are assuming that left-hander Dontrelle Willis, the National League rookie of the year, will prove he is not a one-year phenom and that right-hander Carl Pavano will improve on the career year he had in 2003.

In the news…
  • The Marlins tendered contracts to pitchers Brad Penny and Carl Pavano and will continue negotiating with them to avoid arbitration. Signed to a two-year contract was SS Alex Gonzalez. Signed to one-year contracts were RHP A.J. Burnett, C Mike Redmond, C Ramon Castro, LHP Michael Tejera and UTIL Brian Banks.

    They non-tendered three relievers: former closer Braden Looper plus Armando Almanza and Toby Borland.
  • GM Larry Beinfest said the Marlins have no interest in signing two of the most prominent free agents still available, RF Vladimir Guerrero and C Javy Lopez.
  • RHP Jason Grilli was one of the bright spots for the Marlins in 2000, defeating the Atlanta Braves in an emergency start before injuring is elbow. Grilli, the son of former Tigers pitcher Steve Grilli, came back from reconstructive elbow surgery and went 6-2 with a 3.38 ERA for Triple-A Albuquerque last year. But the right-hander didn't fit into the club's plans.

    Grilli's career with the Marlins ended when he was selected by the White Sox in the major league portion of the Rule 5 Draft.
  • The Marlins didn't add anyone in the major league portion of the Rule 5 Draft. In the minor league portion, they drafted infielder Chris Bass (Pirates system), right-handed pitcher Peter Bauer (Toronto), outfielder Adam Bonner (Tampa Bay), infielder Mike Krga (Tampa Bay) and shortstop Jimmy Goelz (Boston).

    Florida's lone loss in the minor league draft was left-handed pitcher Chris Key to Seattle.
  • The Marlins completed last month's Derrek Lee deal with the Cubs by accepting Double-A right-hander Mike Nannini, 23, who led the Southern League with 158 strikeouts last year while going 10-9 with a 3.62 ERA with West Tennessee.
  • OF Travis Ezi was obtained from the Dodgers to complete the trade of Juan Encarnacion. Ezi, 22, a 12th-round pick of the Dodgers in 2000, hit .259 with seven home runs and 42 RBIs at Class A South Georgia.
  • Former Marlins manager Jeff Torborg and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg were fired on May 11, but each received a quarter-share of the team's World Series payments. Dale Torborg, the team's former strength coach, also received a quarter share, worth $76,537.

    A full share is worth $306,150, and the players voted to create 37 full shares, 29 partial shares and 11 cash awards.

    Jack McKeon, who replaced Torborg, received a full share along with each member of his coaching staff.
The numbers game: 6 Key players the Marlins have lost, via trade or free agency, since the World Series ended. The 1997 Marlins traded seven key players by December 31, 1997.

He said what? "I'm encouraged by the things we've been doing in the offseason. I said we wouldn't dismantle, and we didn't." -- Owner Jeffrey Loria at baseball's winter meetings last week.


The fact they didn't tender RHP Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez doesn't mean the Expos have switched from their pitching-first philosophy.

There will be a tendency to think that way since Expos traded RHP Javier Vazquez to the Yankees shortly after the end of the season.

But there are several reasons the Expos believe they can get the job done and stay within budget.

Remember, more than most general managers, the Expos' Omar Minaya has to balance what's best for the team with what's best for the books -- accounting books.

Minaya engineered a three-team deal with the Yankees and White Sox last January in which he secured El Duque and the Yankees paid the bulk of Hernandez's $4 million salary. Hernandez came up lame in spring training, eventually needed shoulder surgery and never made a pitch.

With arbitration the 34-year-old might get a raise. And the Expos would be responsible for the full freight this time.

The Expos are counting on younger men to come back from arm and shoulder woes. Tony Armas Jr. is 25, Zach Day is 26 and Claudio Vargas is 24.

El Duque's brother Livan is expected to be the ace of the staff after leading the NL in innings (233 1/3) and complete games (eight). Tomo Ohka has been a model of consistency.

The Expos' fortunes will still rest with the rotation.

As Minaya scans the names of those who were non-tendered December 20th, he will have his eyes open for another starter.

In the news…

  • RHP Wilton Chavez was obtained from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for OF Jose Macias.
  • OF Carl Everett, favored to take Vladimir Guerrero's place in right field after the latter opted for free agency, has signed a two-year contract. Everett is joining his seventh big-league club.
  • As the Expos broke for the holiday season, they had only one catcher, Brian Schneider, on their 40-man roster.
  • The Expos did not tender RHP El Duque Hernandez, a five-year veteran who did not throw a pitch during the 2003 season after undergoing shoulder surgery in May.
The numbers game: 68 Of the 144 home runs hit by the Expos last season, 68 were hit by players no longer on the roster.

He said what? "If you check with baseball people, they'll say he's a guy that brings people together, a leader in the clubhouse." -- GM Omar Minaya on OF Carl Everett, who signed a two-year, $7 million contract with Expos, his seventh big-league club.


General manager Jim Duquette and his staff have worked diligently trying to find a team willing to take outfielder Roger Cedeno.

"There have been a lot of discussions trying to clarify things," Duquette said. "But nothing seems close."

Thanks to the misguided largesse of former GM Steve Phillips, Cedeno still has two years and $10 million on his contract. To lose him, the Mets will likely have to take on another team's overpaid and unwanted player.

The Mets have negotiated with the Padres (outfielder Terrence Long), the Mariners (third baseman Jeff Cirillo) and the White Sox (closer Billy Koch) to no avail.

There are also reports of talks with Cleveland for outfielder Matt Lawton that proved unfounded.

But Duquette remains confident a deal will get done eventually. The Mets would even be willing to pay a portion of Cedeno's contract if they get a better player in return.

"There's a lot of motivation to do something," Duquette said.

If Cedeno exits, the Mets would likely try to sign a free-agent outfielder to take his place although they did not choose to outbid Anaheim for Jose Guillen.

The Mets might look into former Dodger Brian Jordan, assuming he is healthy and reasonable with his salary demands.

Duquette also doesn't plan to rush his search for a closer. The best free agent available, right-hander Ugueth Urbina, has not budged from wanting a three-year worth at least $12 million. The Mets do not plan to spend nearly that much.

One possibility is RHP Braden Looper, cut loose by Florida. If other second-tier closers such as Rocky Biddle or Matt Mantei become available, the Mets would be interested. Otherwise they will try to fill the spot from within the organization.

In the news…

  • The Mets re-signed veteran reliever John Franco. The 43-year-old left-hander agreed to a one-year deal worth $1 million, a cut in pay from the $3.8 million he made last season.
  • Affable utility player Joe McEwing also took a pay cut. After making $600,000 last season he agreed to a two-year deal worth at least $1 million. McEwing, 31, hit .241 last season. Next season would be his fifth with the Mets. He gets a $100,000 signing bonus and $400,000 next season. The Mets have a $700,000 option for 2005. McEwing has a $500,000 player option for 2005 if the club declines its option. "Joe can help you in so many different ways," Mets general manager Jim Duquette said. "His versatility allows Art to have many different options throughout a game."
  • The Mets decided to keep reserve outfielder Timo Perez, signing him to a one-year deal worth at least $850,000. Perez, 28, hit .269 with four homers and 42 RBI in 346 last season. He can make an additional $150,000: $25,000 each for 400, 450, 550, 600, 625 and 650 plate appearances.
  • Thanks to their poor record last season, the Mets had the fourth pick in the annual Rule 5 draft. They selected left-hander Frank Brooks out of the Pittsburgh organization, then immediately traded him to Oakland for a player to be named later.
  • The Mets lost two pitching prospects in the Rule 5 draft. The Cincinnati Reds selected right-hander D.J. Mattox with the seventh pick, and the Red Sox took left-hander Len DiNardo. The Mets did not project either player as being ready for the majors next season. Mattox was the organization's pitcher of the year in 2002. He was 8-7 with a 3.49 ERA in Double-A last season. "You can't protect everybody," farm director Kevin Morgan said.
  • The Mets selected outfielder Eric Valent from Cincinnati in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. A former first-round pick, he has appeared in 47 big-league games over the last three seasons. He will get a chance to compete for an outfield job in spring training.
The numbers game: 7 Number of positions Joe McEwing played for the Mets last season -- everywhere but pitcher and catcher. McEwing, for the record, has catcher's gear and has worked behind the plate in spring training just in case.

He said what? "I'm taking it one month at a time, one year at a time. I'm not looking down the road. I'm just concerned with the 2004 season." -- Mets reliever John Franco, who signed a one-year contract to return for his 15th season with the Mets.

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