MLB Insider: National League East Report

With the luxury of having one of the better teams in baseball - at least from what the experts believe - comes the pressure of winning. There were whispers of Larry Bowa's demise last season and they'll only grow louder if the Phillies make a slow start of things this season. Plus, the Braves are a different team, the Marlins may be the defending champs, but are they prepared to defend? In Montreal, Omar Minaya may have pulled off another miracle and the Mets look for a pitcher's comeback.



Greg Maddux is gone, but his aura is not. And it isn't just pitching we're talking about.


Management, coaches and players alike wonder where Maddux will end up. Some think his agent, Scott Boras, blew it, vastly over-estimating the market for an older pitcher who generally goes only seven innings.


But Boras works for Maddux, remember, not the other way around.


Note that the Braves did not attempt to deal with Maddux as they did with first baseman Julio Franco. Franco was offered arbitration with the understanding of all involved that he would not take it and that an agreement on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training would be forthcoming. The Braves want Franco to mentor rookie Adam LaRoche at first; Franco wants to stay with the Braves, where he knows manager Bobby Cox will give him playing time.


Maddux, needless to say, is in a different category than Franco. But there was no thought given to offering arbitration to him, understanding that he wouldn't take it. That works only with a player who wants to be with the Braves, and by arbitration time, that, apparently, was not the case.


Maddux isn't a money-grubber, but he does have enough of an ego to want a higher salary for more years than the Braves were prepared to offer.





Marlins pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Spring Training in Jupiter, Fla., on Saturday (Feb. 21). The message being sent to the players is simple: Come ready to work.


"Spring training is the time to get ready," manager Jack McKeon said. "There is going to be a lot of emphasis on conditioning. I want to get [the entire team] ready, but especially the pitchers."


McKeon wants his starters in shape to deliver early results. He doesn't want the Marlins to fall into a 10-games-under-.500 hole, as they did last May.


"I'd like to see a couple of [starters] going seven innings in spring training games," he said. "I want them ready to win. I want them thinking nine innings, not that they will pitch nine. I want them thinking they can."


McKeon made it clear that pitching will be a progression this spring. Starters will begin by tossing a couple of innings in Grapefruit League games, then build up, possibly to seven innings as the regular season draws closer.


McKeon believes that pitchers build up arm strength and endurance by pitching and that hard work won't hurt them.


Time after time in 2003, McKeon went against the grain and managed according to who was getting the job done. Indeed, the line between starters and relievers blurred in the playoffs. The savvy manager never hesitated using Carl Pavano, Dontrelle Willis, Brad Penny and Josh Beckett in relief.


Beckett gained the most notoriety by tossing four innings of relief in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to help close out the Cubs. In the World Series, on three days' rest, he blanked the Yankees in Game 6 of the World Series.


One reason why Beckett was strong in the end was because he threw 142 total innings during an injury-marred regular season. A right elbow sprain kept him on the disabled list for seven weeks, and the time off may have given the 23-year-old an edge.


A healthy Beckett is expected to be the starter on April 6, Opening Day, when the Marlins take on the Expos at Pro Player Stadium.


This season, McKeon plans to put A.J. Burnett in a position similar to where Beckett was a year ago.


Last week McKeon watched the hard-throwing right-hander, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, toss a bullpen session. Burnett continues to be impressive, remaining ahead of schedule.


While Burnett hopes to be back in April, early May is more likely.


"I told A.J., 'I want you to be like Beckett,' " said McKeon. "Last year Josh was champing at the bit to get back."





While center field is the only defensive position up for grabs as they head into spring training, the Expos are far from being able to list a batting order.


Ideally, the team would love to settle on a center fielder who could bat leadoff.


"Frank has several ways he can go," general manager Omar Minaya said of manager Frank Robinson.


Endy Chavez started 112 games in center last season and batted leadoff in 95 games. But while Chavez used his speed defensively, he didn't take advantage of that aspect of his game on offense, hitting too many flyballs instead of trying to beat out grounders.


Chavez also tried only 25 steals -- he was caught seven times.


Among outfielders in the chase for a starting job are Ron Calloway, from last year's team; Juan Rivera, acquired from the Yankees in the Javier Vazquez trade; and Terrmel Sledge, a five-year minor leaguer who hit .324 with 22 home runs (92 RBIs) at Edmonton of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League last year.


Though the lineup hasn't been etched in stone, it is expected that free agent Carl Everett will start in right field, where the departed Vladimir Guerrero (free agent, signed with Anaheim) has been such a spectacular success for seven seasons.


Brad Wilkerson, heading into his third full season, is on the verge of gaining All-Star recognition in left field.


Thanks to the offseason maneuvering of Minaya, the Expos will have a new and improved look on the corners of the infield. First  base will be manned by Nick Johnson (acquired from the Yankees in the Vazquez deal), and third base is in the hands of Tony Batista, signed as a free agent.


The middle of infield needed no help at all from what it has been for several years. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera and 2B Jose Vidro form one of the better two-way double play combinations in the majors.


Brian Schneider is the only catcher on the major league roster. Schneider has proved himself defensively and in handling pitchers. He hit .273 in 73 games in 2002 but was forced to start 108 games last year with Michael Barrett hurt much of the time, and Schneider tailed off to .230.


Led by veteran Gregg Zaun, the Expos have four catchers on minor league contracts invited to camp in a battle to earn the backup job behind Schneider.




The Mets, casting an ever-widening net for pitching help, signed former All-Star James Baldwin to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training.


Baldwin was the winning pitcher in the 2000 All-Star Game. But the 32-year-old right-hander is 17-22 over the last three seasons with a 4.82 ERA. He spent most of last season in Triple-A before catching on with the Minnesota Twins as a reliever.


Baldwin would get a $500,000, one-year contract if he is added to the 40-man roster and could earn an additional $500,000 in performance bonuses.


Baldwin was 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA in 10 relief appearances for the Twins last season. He started the season with Kansas City, pitching for Triple-A Omaha. After being released, he was signed by the Twins.


For his career, which also has included stops with the White Sox, Mariners and Dodgers, Baldwin is 79-70 with a 5.02 ERA.


Baldwin will join a crowded field competing for the final spot in the rotation. That group includes fellow retread Scott Erickson, converted reliever Grant Roberts, converted minor league reliever Tyler Yates and young starters Aaron Heilman and Jeremy Griffiths.


The only player assured of a job is Roberts, who would go back to the bullpen if he does become a starter.




The Phillies have had a winning record in two of manager Larry Bowa's first three years as manager. Before that they had had one winning season in 14 years.


General manager Ed Wade has been consistently supportive of Bowa.


So why do there continue to be rumors that Bowa could be among the first managers to go if the team gets off to a slow start?


There are several reasons, actually.


One is that even though the Phillies finished over .500 in 2001, when Bowa was named the National League Manager of the Year, and again last year, the team had a losing record in the second half.


One is that Wade's support often has been in reaction to unhappiness from the clubhouse over Bowa's bedside manner.


And one is that, simply, the Phillies on paper are one of the best teams in the National League. If they stumble out of the gate, the thinking goes, the front office may have no choice but to make a change.


The move into Citizens Bank Park also might play into the decision. It's apparent that upper management wanted Bowa, who remains a fan favorite, to be the manager to take the ballpark into the new facility. Once Opening Day passes, that no longer provides a security blanket.


And the Phillies can't help but notice that after the Marlins replaced Jeff Torborg with Jack McKeon last year, not only did Florida finish ahead of the Phillies in the National League East, it went on to win the World Series.


Bowa insists he's only thinking about winning and that the addition of veterans Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez and the return to health of third baseman David Bell will allow him to back off.


Of course, he said the same thing before last season.

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