MLB Insiders: National League East Report

David Bell's health has been a major offseason issue for the Phillies, so is he healthy and ready to go? Speaking of health, is John Smoltz ready to go in Atlanta? Plus, former Mets mourn the loss of Tug McGraw and the Marlins and Expos look toward the future with key young players.

Check out the news on David Bell

ATLANTA BRAVES

When last seen on the mound at Turner Field, John Smoltz was grimacing. When last seen standing by his locker, he was denying there was anything wrong.

And then he was off to Birmingham, Alabama to be operated on by Dr. James Andrews. That was no arthroscopic surgery, either; real cutting was required to clean out Smoltz's right elbow.

Smoltz has been throwing lightly for only a week; he's playing catch from about 90 feet. He says he is doing this without pain, but he has -- let's call a spade a spade -- lied about that before.

He says he'll be ready to do everything every other reliever is doing when pitchers and catchers report to spring training at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on February 19. The pitchers' first workout is scheduled for the following day. Smoltz will see Dr. Andrews again before he heads south.

And no, he will not be a starter. There is no emergency so great that he would be pressed into service in the rotation again. Period.

FLORIDA MARLINS

Rising star Miguel Cabrera is spending his offseason doing what he does best, playing baseball. The 20-year-old, a driving force in the Marlins' run to the World Series title, played 15 games in December for the Aragua Tigers in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Joining the team late in the winter season, Cabrera quickly regained his hitting eye, batting .327 (17-for-52) with four home runs and 11 RBIs. Playing third base and outfield, he posted a .577 slugging percentage in what basically is a tune-up for when spring training opens in February.

"What has always impressed me about Miguel is his enthusiasm," said Jim Fleming, the Marlins' vice president for player development and scouting. "What has helped him develop so fast, I believe, is his joy for the game. There are a lot of guys with enough talent to be very good in the big leagues. The key is to do it over 162 games. Miguel just likes to play the game."

After the Marlins' season ended on October 25 with a World Series win over the Yankees, the team encouraged Cabrera to take some time off. He did so for a while, kicking back until mid-December.

Perhaps more than those from any winter league country, Venezuelan players have long felt that it is their patriotic duty to play winter ball, even if it is only for a few weeks. Former star shortstop Ozzie Guillen, now the manager of the White Sox, played winter league ball for a number of years after becoming an established player.

In Cabrera's case, the Marlins obviously don't want him to wear down, but they don't want to curb his enthusiasm, either.

Cabrera made an immediate impact as a Marlins rookie. Called up from Double-A in mid-June, he was switched from third base to left field.

As expected, he had his growing pains but was still a standout, being named rookie of the month in July and September. In 87 games with the Marlins, Cabrera hit .268 with 12 homers and 62 RBIs.

Cabrera was moved to right field in the World Series and enjoyed a solid postseason, frequently batting cleanup. He had four home runs in the playoffs, including three against the Cubs in the NLCS. In the World Series, the rookie belted a two-run homer off Roger Clemens.

The rise of Cabrera led, in part, to the Marlins trading Juan Encarnacion to the Dodgers. Showing a willingness to be a team player, Cabrera will be switched to replace Encarnacion in right field.

"Miguel has always enjoyed a challenge," said Fleming. "Generally, young players will have some apprehension, but not Miguel. I started noticing his drive when he was playing in Jupiter [Class-A, in August 2002]."

MONTREAL EXPOS

There are several reasons catcher Brian Schneider can feel as if he played an important role in the Expos posting a second consecutive 83-79 record last season.

For one thing, the team had a 49-46 record in games when he was the starting catcher. And then there was the fact that Schneider led all big-league catchers in 2003 by throwing out 46.7 percent of would-be base stealers.

The Expos' three catchers -- Michael Barrett, Edwards Guzman and Schneider -- combined to allow the fewest stolen bases (40) in the majors.

Schneider took over when Barrett was sidelined a couple of times with injuries. Barrett, arbitration eligible, was traded to Oakland and subsequently signed with the Cubs.

Schneider is the only catcher on the 40-man roster. The Expos signed veteran Gregg Zaun to a minor league contract Jan. 13 and have invited him to spring training. The 32-year veteran, who has played for six teams over nine seasons, is expected to be a backup.

"Schneider is our everyday guy, and we're happy with that," assistant GM Tony Siegle said. "He has to step up offensively, but we know he can do the job defensively and he has shown a good touch at handling the pitchers."

Schneider caught six of the 10 shutouts recorded by the staff, including one of the team's two complete-game shutouts, a 4-0 win over the Giants on August 18 at Olympic Stadium.

Schneider hit .230 with nine homers and 46 RBIs. His first career grand slam Sept. 15 was the Expos' first pinch slam in five years. C Chris Widger hit one Aug. 27, 1998 at Los Angeles.

NEW YORK METS

Tug McGraw was once asked whether he preferred to play on a natural grass field or on artificial turf.

"I don't know," he said. "I never smoked any AstroTurf."

Before $250 million contracts, steroids and endless media analysis, baseball had characters. From Babe Ruth to Dizzy Dean and on through to McGraw, there have been players who realized baseball was a game for kids, and they acted like it.

McGraw, who died of brain cancer earlier this month at the age of 59, left a huge hole in the hearts of many Mets and the team's longtime fans.

McGraw came to the Mets in 1969 at age 20, a left-hander in every way. He called his fastball the Peggy Lee because of her hit single, "Is That All There Is?" His sinker, of course, was the Titanic. His best pitch, fittingly enough, was a screwball.

If an opposing hitter ripped a pitch deep but foul, McGraw would put a hand inside his jersey and flap it as though his heart was beating fast. It was a habit he continued throughout his 19-year career with the Mets and Phillies.

"The fans loved it," said Ron Swoboda, McGraw's teammate, roommate and running mate in the early days. "He just had a way of making everybody laugh, no matter what the situation was. I've never known anybody who could think as fast on his feet."

Swoboda said he and McGraw once went to New York on the Number 7 train, made their way into a taping of The Tonight Show and wound up chatting with Johnny Carson.

"No reason, Tug just wanted to see what he could get away with," Swoboda said.

McGraw's passing had many of his former teammates reminiscing about his antics and wondering why they wouldn't be accepted now.

"Baseball players have become corporations," Swoboda said. "There is so much money at stake, nobody wants to say something that will reflect badly on them. They don't look at the games as entertainment for the fans like we used to. It's more serious now."

Former Met Cleon Jones said baseball has changed with the times.

"I think it's society in general," he said. "If a player did something now like Tug used to do, people would criticize him. We used to joke around a lot more and everybody knew we were joking. I don't blame the guys today."

Mets reliever John Franco, a major leaguer since 1984, has witnessed the change personally.

"Nobody walked into the clubhouse with a briefcase 20 years ago," he said. "The money changed a lot of things with the game and the pressure changed. Players don't think they can fool around or show some personality. They broke the mold with a guy like Tug."

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

The health of 3B David Bell is one of the few uncertainties the Phillies have going into spring training. Except that Bell is certain he's going to be just fine.

In his first season with the team, after signing a four-year, $17 million free-agent contract, he missed most of the second half of the year with back and hip problems that surfaced in April. He ended up batting .195 with four homers and 37 RBI.

And while he won't know for sure until he starts swinging a bat, Bell is positive that he's made a full recovery.

"There's no doubt in my mind that I'm going to be 100 percent healthy, not only for the season but for the start of spring training," he said. "I feel great. I'm very excited. I can't wait to start playing."

Bell first injured his back on April 5 in a game against the Pirates at Veterans Stadium. And the injury got progressively worse as he tried play through the pain.

"If I would have missed two weeks or three weeks, things might have been different," he said. "But trying to play, it created a lot of other problems. But I didn't know. I was excited about starting the season, and we've all played with injuries before. You think you can do it, but this was a different thing."

"I felt pretty decent all the time, and I would even feel pretty good in batting practice. But as soon as I turned it up that extra notch in the game, it was like I had no chance."

"It was almost like I fell down and couldn't play. The frustrating part was that I never really knew if I was ready. It was the toughest thing I've ever gone through. I was trying everything I possibly could, and there was no way I could get to the point I needed to get to."

Bell went on the disabled list on July 11 and played only two more games in late September.

Said general manager Ed Wade: "We weren't able to take advantage of a lot of the leadership qualities he brings."

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