MLB Insider: National League East Notes

As 2003 winds down, the National League East has undergone a lot of changes. The Braves lost big names like Gary Sheffield, Greg Maddux and Javy Lopez. The Marlins claim to have reloaded with new, cheaper players. The Mets went overseas for their main acquisition and the Expos...well, they're the Expos. Meanwhile, the Phillies continued their offseason manuevering well into the calendar year.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

There doesn't figure to be much intrigue when the Phillies gather for another spring training in Clearwater, Fla., next February.

After general manager Ed Wade moved methodically to address the team's needs, there appeared to be only two openings on the roster. Both are in the bullpen, both are likely to be filled internally and there are even leading candidates for both spots: RHPs Amaury Telemaco and Eric Junge.

"We may do a couple minor things. If not, I think we're prepared to take this team into spring training and say a lot of novenas that we stay healthy," Wade said.

The starting eight will return intact. The keys will be a healthy 3B David Bell -- he was nagged by back and hip problems last year -- and having LF Pat Burrell rebound from a disappointing offensive season.

The bench will also be virtually unchanged. OFs Ricky Ledee and Jason Michaels, INFs Tomas Perez and Chase Utley and catcher Todd Pratt will be joined by free agent 3B-1B-C Shawn Wooten.

"No doubt this is the best bench since I've been here," said manager Larry Bowa. "In the National League, you have to use everybody. We have a very deep roster. We have a very good roster."

The rotation features four former All-Stars who are under 30: LHP Randy Wolf (2003), RHP Vicente Padilla (2002), LHP Eric Milton (2001) and RHP Kevin Millwood (1999).

The fifth starter is 23-year-old RHP Brett Myers, who is considered to be on the fast track to becoming one of the league's best starters.

The bullpen has been almost completely revamped. Gone is closer Jose Mesa. Gone are veterans like LHP Dan Plesac and RHPs Turk Wendell, Terry Adams and Mike Williams.

Getting LHP Billy Wagner from the Astros to be the closer is clearly an upgrade. He'll be set up by free agent Tim Worrell and returning LHP Rheal Cormier. Free agent Roberto Hernandez, 39, adds some veteran depth.

Concluded Bowa: "On paper, we have a very good baseball team."

Things you need to know…

  • Newly acquired free agent Shawn Wooten said after signing a one-year, $575,000 free agent contract that he's content to be a role player with the Phillies. That's different from what the former Angel told the Los Angeles Times about an offseason conditioning program that helped him lose more than 20 pounds: "I'm in the best shape of my career. I'm not busting my butt so I can come in and sit."
  • OF Ricky Ledee avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $1.225 million contract.
  • LHP Valerio De Los Santos and 3B Travis Chapman became free agents when they were non-tendered. De Los Santos then signed with Toronto.
  • LHP Victor Alvarez was claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Dodgers. He'll compete for a spot in the bullpen but is more likely to open the season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
The numbers game: .359: Newly acquired Shawn Wooten's career batting average as a pinch-hitter.

He said what? "He's not talking about getting to the playoffs. He's talking about getting to the World Series. You can't have enough players like that." -- General manager Ed Wade, on Shawn Wooten.


Now, for a look at the rest of the National League East…

ATLANTA BRAVES

Manager Bobby Cox is mourning the loss of Greg Maddux. He loved the veteran's intelligence, consistency and willingness to tutor his fellow pitchers.

But general manager John Schuerholz didn't even pretend to make an offer to retain Maddux after initial conversations with agent Scott Boras indicated that $15 million a year for four years was the neighborhood they were cruising in.

"We really wanted Doggie back," lamented Cox, "but we just couldn't get anywhere with the agent."

Boras is a juicy target, all right, but don't forget that he works for Maddux, not the other way around. If Maddux's priority was staying in Atlanta, that's where he would be.

Still, it's curious that after Boras's contract specifications fell flat last year, causing Maddux to accept the Braves' offer of arbitration (he was awarded $14.75 million to pitch last season), he tried to float the same deal again this year.

The latest news is that Maddux may talk to some teams himself. Hmm ...

Things you need to know…
  • SS Rafael Furcal, who is arbitration eligible, has been offered a contract.
  • INF Mark DeRosa, who is arbitration eligible, has been offered a contract. DeRosa is expected to be the Braves' starting third baseman.
  • OF Gary Matthews, Jr., who was arbitration eligible, has signed an $800,000 contract. Matthews was claimed off waivers from San Diego.
  • RHP Will Cunnane, who is arbitration eligible, has been offered a contract.
  • LHP Armando Almanza has agreed to terms of a one-year contract.
  • LHP Chris Waters has been designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster for LHP Armando Almanza.
He said what? "He has always provided exceptional leadership and quality." -- GM John Schuerholz on C Eddie Perez, whom the Braves reacquired last week.

FLORIDA MARLINS

A series of moves before the Dec. 20 arbitration tender deadline placed the Marlins within their operating range. The Marlins' payroll is less than $60 million, and it took some tough decisions to reach that point.

Holding together everyone from the title team would have rung up a total of about $90 million.

Trimming, however, came with the price of being minus catcher Ivan Rodriguez, left-handed pitcher Mark Redman, Gold Glove first baseman Derrek Lee, right fielder Juan Encarnacion and relievers Braden Looper and Ugueth Urbina.

"We are within our operating range," GM Larry Beinfest said. "There are not big parts of this team to address."

To get within budget, the Marlins signed shortstop Alex Gonzalez to a two-year, $6.2 million contract and pitcher A.J. Burnett for one year at $2.5 million.

Both deals are significant.

Gonzalez is the third multiyear signing since Jeffrey Loria assumed ownership in February 2002. The slick-fielding shortstop joins All-Stars Mike Lowell and Luis Castillo as players under contract for more than one season.

Essentially, the entire infield will be intact for at least a couple of years. The team concentrated on going more than one year on Gonzalez after Rodriguez's contract talks broke down at the December 7 deadline.

Gonzalez is a premier fielder who many believe will win his share of Gold Gloves. While his hitting can be erratic, Gonzalez placed himself in World Series lore by lining a walk-off homer to beat the Yankees in Game 4 of the World Series. Gonzalez's shot off Jeff Weaver evened the Series at 2-2.

In Game 5, Gonzalez added a key double, and it was the shortstop's two-out single and sensational slide at home in the decisive Game 6 that gave Florida a 1-0 lead. Gonzalez, who ironically was not one of the team's best baserunners all season, avoided Jorge Posada's swipe tag attempt by wiggling away and grazing the plate with his left hand.

With Gonzalez and Castillo together, the Marlins have arguably the best double-play combination in baseball.

Things you need to know…
  • SS Alex Gonzalez's signing means the entire infield will be under contract for at least two more seasons unless All-Star 3B Mike Lowell uses his escape clause should the team fail to finalize funding for a new stadium by November 1, 2004. Lowell has a player option to return should a stadium deal fall through. In that scenario, if he stayed anyway, he would be a free agent in 2006. Plus, it's unclear if the Marlins could afford him in 2005 without a stadium on the horizon.
  • Stadium negotiations are ongoing with Miami officials. The latest option for a stadium location is the Orange Bowl, home of the University of Miami football team. The City of Miami is discussing restructuring the 66-year-old Orange Bowl to make it a football and baseball complex. The latest proposal would not include a retractable roof, meaning the project could cost $200 million.
  • The Marlins addressed some needed left-handed minor league pitching depth by acquiring Bill Murphy as the player to be named in the deal that sent Mark Redman to Oakland. Murphy, 22, was Oakland's third-round pick in the 2002 free agent draft. The left-hander was 7-4 (2.25) in 14 games with Class A Kane County. In 92 innings pitched, he struck out 87 while walking 32. At Double-A, he was 3-3 with a 4.09 ERA. In 11 games, he pitched 55 innings, striking out 34 and walking 26. The Marlins are in need of left-handed pitching throughout their organization. Ryan Snare, a promising lefty prospect, was traded to the Rangers as part of the Ugueth Urbina deal on July 11.
  • Two days after being non-tendered, Toby Borland signed a one-year minor league contract. The veteran sidearm reliever, who broke into the league with the Phillies in 1994, will be invited to spring training with the Marlins. Borland appeared in seven games without a decision and posted a 1.86 ERA in the Marlins' World Series championship season. His season was cut short in May after he had a bout with appendicitis.
He said what? "I don't see how players of that caliber can fit in our range." -- Larry Beinfest on the chances of signing a top free agent like Vladimir Guerrero.

MONTREAL EXPOS

During the winter meetings, the most common questions Expos vice president and general manager Omar Minaya had to field concerned how he was planning to replace Vladimir Guerrero's production.

The 27-year-old Guerrero opted for free agency. Through his agent he was allegedly asking for a lengthy multiyear deal averaging more than $15 million. MLB, which owns the Expos, could not consider getting into that kind of bidding.

Minaya stayed cool.

"You don't replace a Guerrero," Minaya said. "That's impossible. We'll try to balance our offence, try to pick up some of those numbers he can give with several players."

Minaya is starting to get the job done. After 3B Tony Batista agreed to a 2004 contract December 26, Minaya had added two home run producers to the lineup.

During the winter meetings he announced the signing of Carl Everett, who is expected to replace Guerrero in right field.

The switch-hitting Everett had 28 homers and 92 RBIs with the Rangers and White Sox last year. The right-handed-hitting Batista had 26 home runs and 99 RBIs with Baltimore.

"We have added a much needed right-handed bat to our lineup with the addition of Batista," Minaya said. "Tony's presence provides us with a veteran glove at third base, and his bat provides balance to our lineup."

The 30-year-old Batista, an eight-year major league veteran, has averaged 31 home runs over the past five years, hitting at least 25 in each of those seasons.

Things you need to know…
  • RHP Jeremy Fikac signed a minor league contract with the Expos.


NEW YORK METS

The Mets did not offer Scott Strickland a contract by the December 20 deadline, temporarily making him a free agent.

But general manager Jim Duquette did not let the hard-throwing right-hander get away.

The Mets re-signed Strickland a day later, getting him to accept a one-year deal worth $650,000. Strickland made $950,000 last season but appeared in only 19 games before needing Tommy John surgery on his elbow.

By initially non-tendering Strickland, the Mets were able to get around the rule prohibiting teams from cutting a salary by more than 20 percent.

"I'm glad we were able to work something out with Scott," Duquette said. "He is expected to pitch again around the middle of June and, knowing Scott, I'll bet it will be sooner."

Strickland could be a key piece to the team's future. While Duquette and manager Art Howe do not envision him as a closer, he could become one of the primary setup men if David Weathers is traded.

Weathers enters 2004 as one of Duquette's best bargaining chips. He will be in the final year of his contract and is the kind of veteran pitcher contenders love to pick up at the July 31 trade deadline.

If the Mets are out of it, Weathers could be dealt for some prospects -- particularly if Strickland is able to return to form.

Strickland, 27, was 0-2 with a 2.25 ERA in 19 games for the Mets last season before undergoing surgery June 17.

He can make an additional $300,000 in performance bonuses: $25,000 each for 35, 40 and 55 games; $35,000 for 45 games; $40,000 for 50 games; and $50,000 each for 60, 65 and 70 games.

Strickland is 12-21 over his career with a 3.28 ERA in 231 games with the Mets and Montreal Expos.

Things you need to know…
  • The Mets signed lefty reliever Pedro Feliciano to a minor league deal. The 27-year-old was 0-0 with a 3.35 ERA over 23 games last season. He rarely pitched over the final two months of the season, but left-handers are hard to come by.
  • Right-hander Jeremy Hill, whom the Mets acquired from Kansas City for Graeme Lloyd in July, agreed to a minor league deal. Hill, 26, pitched one game for the Royals last season. The Mets assigned him to Double-A Binghamton after the trade.
  • The Mets are considering giving one-time major leaguer Ricky Bottalico a minor league contract. He recently worked out at Shea Stadium.


He said what? "I feel great about things. I'm getting married in January, and then I go right down to Florida to continue my rehabilitation. I hated not being able to pitch last season." -- Mets reliever Scott Strickland, who had elbow surgery last June 17 and didn't pitch again.

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