MLB Insiders: NL East Report

With Eric Milton and Kevin Millwood both facing free agency after the season, the theory goes that they should both respond appropriately for the Phillies. In Atlanta, the Braves try to win back fans. Plus, Dontrelle Willis looks to avoid the sophomore jinx, Shane Spencer gives New York another try and Brad Wilkerson hopes to build on lessons learned. All that and more on our National League East Report.



Attendance at Turner Field has declined every year since the ballpark opened for the 1997 season. And for just as long, team executives have pooh-poohed the numbers, insisting that rising ticket prices, mediocre ballpark food, outrageous parking charges, horrendous traffic and a rotten economy had nothing to do with anything.


Well, guess what?


After a shakeup in the marketing department brought on by the impending sale of Time-Warner's stake in the NHL Atlanta Thrashers and the NBA Atlanta Hawks, an effort is being made to attract fans to the Braves.


For the annual Braves Winter FanFest, admission to Turner Field is free for the first time. Only if a fan wants an autograph will there be a charge - a $10 donation per day will benefit the Atlanta Braves Foundation. Players who have committed to signing include the Jones boys, Chipper and Andruw, Dale Murphy and J.D. Drew. Announcers Skip Caray and Joe Simpson will be there, too.


The Braves are also conducting an online auction. One would expect to find such items as a catered suite and autographed bobbleheads, but auctioning an opportunity to be in the 2004 team photo?



He said what?  "I'd be dishonest if I said I never thought about it [retirement]. I love to golf, read and paint. But I love this job more. To be a part of the transition of the organization was very compelling." - General manager John Schuerholz, when asked by Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Tim Tucker if he considered retiring instead signing a contract extension.





LHP Dontrelle Willis doesn't want to talk about his World Series ring or Rookie of the Year trophy. Willis, who celebrated his 22nd birthday January 12, is dedicated to avoiding a sophomore slump and is taking nothing for granted.


"I'm just excited to get back out there," said Willis, who has been working out regularly at Pro Player Stadium. "Whatever happens, happens. I'm just going to go out there and play, regardless of what my role is, starter or reliever. I'm just going to go out there and pitch and try to get guys out. That's what it boils down to, that's what it's all about."


The fact that he compiled a 14-6 record (3.30 ERA) and was an All-Star and a key performer in getting the Marlins into playoff contention hasn't created a comfort level. And though Willis is projected to be the third or fourth starter when spring training opens, the high-kicking left-hander talks freely about accepting any role, even if it is in the bullpen.


Willis' ups and downs have been well documented. He was 9-1 (2.08 ERA) before the All-Star break and 5-5 (4.60 ERA) afterward. In the postseason he was lit up in a start against the Cubs in the NLCS, but he had his moments of effectiveness pitching in relief against the Yankees in the World Series.


"I just want to be in uniform and be healthy. People talk about goals and what have you, [but] you can't achieve those goals unless you stay healthy," he said.


Willis spent a majority of the offseason at his Alameda, Calif., home, intensifying his conditioning. Fatigue was partly to blame for his second-half slump. The 6-foot-4 lefty remained active this winter, engaging in intense cardio workouts and slimming down to 200 pounds, approximately 10 pounds lighter than when he finished his rookie season.


"I don't know [how much weight I lost]," he said. "I just know I feel lighter on my feet. I've been running, doing cardio, just moving my feet, getting ready for the humidity that is about to come."


A few weeks ago, Willis returned to Miami to get ready for his second big-league season. He has been working out at Pro Player Stadium with teammates A.J. Burnett and Juan Pierre.


"A lot of people have been talking about [a] sophomore jinx," said Willis. "I don't think about that."


He doesn't overanalyze himself, although refinements in his wild delivery are expected. His rookie statistics reveal some telling figures. In his six losses, he allowed 27 earned runs in 23 2/3 innings (10.27 ERA). In his other 21 games (14-0, with seven no-decisions), he allowed 32 earned runs in 137 innings (2.10 ERA). So when he was off, he was way off. Otherwise he was pretty respectable.


"For me, looking back on the season, I wouldn't change a thing," he said. "The success, the struggles, I wouldn't change one thing. I got to see all aspects of everything. There was one point where I was throwing lights out, and there was one point where I couldn't get anybody out. It's not a good situation to be in when you go through it. But now that you look back, you've got to grow up, be a man about it, take responsibility and go out and play baseball."



He said what?  "A lot of people have been talking about a sophomore jinx. I don't think about that." - LHP Dontrelle Willis, the NL's 2003 Rookie of the Year.





Brad Wilkerson never complained about being moved up and down in the batting order and being asked to start in four different positions during the 2003 season. There's a good chance there'll be a little less of the moving around from one defensive position to another this year.


Besides being an All-Star candidate in left field, Wilkerson was also the Expos' best defensive first baseman and center fielder. But he doesn't figure to play much first base now that the Expos have acquired Nick Johnson from the Yankees in a trade that cost them the services of RHP Javier Vazquez.


Wilkerson played left field in 95 games (80 starts), right field 16 games (99 starts), center field 42 games (40 starts) and first base 27 games (11 starts) last year. He was used everywhere from leadoff to seventh in the batting order.


The shuffling didn't affect Wilkerson's production. In his second big-league season, Wilkerson posted remarkably similar numbers to those he had put up in his award-winning rookie season of the year before.


For instance, he averaged .268 last year compared to .266 in 2002 with an identical number of hits (135) each year. In three less at-bats (504 to 507) he hit one less homer (19-20). His on-base percentage was .380 compared to .370, and his slugging percentage was .464 to .469.


The only concern about Wilkerson's offensive contributions is that he strikes out too often. After whiffing 161 times in 2002, he went down swinging 155 times last year.


At the suggestion of manager Frank Robinson, Wilkerson met with Reggie Smith for a batting lesson during the Expos' three-day stop in Los Angeles last August. Smith had worked with Wilkerson while serving as Team USA's hitting coach during the 2000 Olympics.


The tutoring paid off. For 20 games starting August 23, Wilkerson hit .351 (26-for-74) with eight doubles, three homers, 12 RBIs and 12 walks. He reached base 45 times (26 hits, 18 walks, one hit by pitch) in 93 plate appearances (.484 on-base percentage) and raised his batting average from .259 to .274.



He said what?  "The key is to stay healthy all year and play as many games as possible." - 1B Nick Johnson, who will get that chance to play every day after being traded to the Expos over the winter.





Shane Spencer hit eight September home runs for the Yankees in 1998 but never quite found a home in the Bronx, the product of injuries and the team's desire to sign bigger-name players.


But after leaving the Yankees and bouncing around a bit, Spencer is back in New York, signing a one-year deal with the Mets. The 32-year-old agreed to a minor league contract and would earn $537,500 if he makes the team.


"New York holds a lot of great memories for me," said Spencer, who hit a combined 12 homers with 49 RBI for Cleveland and Texas last season. "That's where I got my start in the big leagues. I'm looking forward to competing for an outfield spot in spring training."


Spencer's worst injury was a torn right anterior cruciate ligament suffered -- ironically enough -- at Shea Stadium on July 9, 2000.


He was hitting .282 at the time with 40 RBI. Spencer is a career .260 hitter with 55 homers and 216 RBI.


The Mets hope Spencer will split time with another former Yankee, Karim Garcia, in right field.


"Our plan was to bring in as many viable candidates as we could to compete for the right-field spot during the spring," Mets general manager Jim Duquette said.



He said what?  "They are different than any other organization I've been with in regards to every day is the potential end-all. I've never seen a revolving-door atmosphere like there. It can sometimes be unsettling for people in role positions. I considered my time there as a role position, and it was unsettling and I don't have a desire to get back into that mix." - Newly signed INF Todd Zeile, on playing for the Yankees last season.





The Phillies have two veteran starting pitchers in the rotation, RHP Kevin Millwood and LHP Eric Milton, who can be free agents at the end of the season.


General manager Ed Wade has made it pretty clear that the team won't be able to sign both to lavish, long-term contracts, especially not with top pitching prospects Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd moving steadily through the system.


Let the competition begin.


The question could have been moot if Millwood had decided to negotiate with the Phillies at midseason. Instead, he spurned the team's advances. But when he went 7-11 after May 23, his bargaining power eroded. He tested the market at the end of the season but ended up accepting arbitration from the Phillies.


In the meantime, general manager Ed Wade acquired Milton from the Twins.


Milton said that, unlike Millwood, he wouldn't be bothered if the Phillies wanted to negotiate an extension during the season. "Nothing really affects me on the field," he said. "One thing I have going for me is my poise and composure.


"I'm a real easy-going guy. I just take things as they come."


Like third baseman David Bell, who will be trying to come back from back problems that plagued his first season in red pinstripes, Milton's first challenge will be to prove that he's completely healthy. He pitched in only four games last season after March surgery to repair a torn cartilage in his left knee.


"The knee is great," he said. "It couldn't be better. It's been a long road back, but I couldn't be more excited and ready."


Riding endless hours on an exercise bike has helped the 28-year-old lose about 30 pounds, which should take some stress off the knee.


It was that injury, along with his $9 million salary in the final season of a four-year contract, that convinced the Minnesota Twins to trade him for right-hander Carlos Silva, infielder Nick Punto and a player to be named later.



He said what?  "It looks like things are going to work out. It was a good meeting. Everything was very amicable. I feel better about the situation." - Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas, on a January 29 meeting with the Phillies to discuss his contract situation.

Philly Baseball Insider Top Stories