MLB Insider: National League East Report

While a lot of Phillies fans bet against Kevin Millwood returning and many still believe he's only back because there weren't any other good offers, Millwood says he's right where he wants to be. Plus, the Braves have a lot of work for Leo Mazzone this spring. The Marlins have a rehabbing pitcher that's ready to go. In Montreal, the new look infield may be their best ever and in New York, Ty Wigginton is becoming a star.



The Braves have plenty of pitchers in camp and plenty of spots to fill in the bullpen. Even so, with the number of new pitchers invited to camp, some of the young pitchers who spent most of last season with the parent club -- because of injuries to veteran pitchers -- might find themselves back in Triple-A Richmond this season.


Jung Keun Bong is one of them.


But he is a left-hander, and as we know, that alone guarantees a long look.


Bong decided over the winter that he needed something more to impress manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone: an aggressive attitude.


He has changed his setup on the mound, moving to the third-base side of the rubber from the first-base side. That makes his pitch to the inside of the plate better and angles his pitch away.


"Leo likes it," Bong says. "I showed him that I have a lot of confidence to go inside. You know, left-hand pitchers throw inside. Last year I'd throw away, away, changeups, something like that. But this year I've got to change. I want to be more aggressive. It's a big difference."


Possibly a big enough difference to earn some looks as a starter.


TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: RHP John Thomson, Braves scouts say, may have been the most interesting and effective pitcher in the American League in the second half of the year.


TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: RHP Antonio Alfonseca led the National League with 45 saves in 49 appearances in 2000, then gave up the ghost, along with assorted late leads. The Braves are betting that pitching guru Leo Mazzone and the team's renowned pitching atmosphere can turn him into the eighth-inning guy who turns a lead over to closer John Smoltz. If they're wrong, they'll have a setup man with a nearly 6.00 ERA.





Will A.J. Burnett return to the Marlins rotation before May?


"I'll be back sooner than a lot of people expect," the right-hander said last week after throwing off the mound for the first time this spring.


Officially, team officials are sticking to May 1 as a realistic target. The typical recovery period from reconstructive elbow surgery is 12 to 18 months. Burnett underwent Tommy John Surgery last April 28. But in a best-case scenario, pitchers can return to competition in as little as nine months.


"A.J.'s probably not going to be back until May 1, but who knows?" manager Jack McKeon said. "He probably could start sooner than were going to let him. I see a very determined young man who wants to prove something and is intelligent enough to know it's going to take time to get with the program of how we want to bring him back, and he's accepted that."


Burnett said he threw at "85 to 90 percent" of his normal velocity, even mixing in a few curveballs. "I'm throwing balls fairly hard and I'm throwing strikes. So far I haven't missed a beat," he said.


Burnett was happy just to be working out with his teammates for the first time this year.


"It was my first bullpen out in the open. All the guys were out there, and I felt part of it instead of throwing all winter (alone) at Pro Player Stadium," he said.


He even joked about his surgery. "I would have had this done when I was 14 if I knew it would feel this good," he said. "I'm strong. I'm in the best shape I've been in. I couldn't be happier with where I'm at now, but I'm not gonna rush it."


TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: C Ramon Castro enters his sixth season with the Marlins after sitting on the bench the first five years. With the departure of his childhood friend, free-agent catcher Pudge Rodriguez, Castro gets the chance to be an everyday player. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, he is expected to emerge into a power hitter, but he needs at-bats. He hit .283 with five home runs in 53 at-bats in 2003.


TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: LHP Dontrelle Willis won the NL Rookie of the Year award for sparking the pitching staff with a 14-6 record and 3.30 ERA. He went 9-1 with a 2.08 ERA to earn a spot on the All Star team. But he hasn't been himself since, going 5-5 with a 4.60 ERA afterward. He struggled early in the postseason before going to the bullpen, which is where he might end up again this season unless he posts pre-All-Star numbers.





SS Orlando Cabrera arrived at camp Friday (Feb. 27), three days after the reporting date. There was never any major concern -- Cabrera had informed the Expos he might be a day or two late because of visa difficulties.


What his arrival did, though, was trigger a discussion that figures to surface regularly this season: Is this infield the best the Expos have ever had?


There is no doubt that the double-play combo of 2B Jose Vidro and SS Cabrera is up there with anything the Expos have ever had. Both Cabrera, the Expos' player of the years in 2003, and three-time All-Star Vidro rate with the best in the league as far as their two-way contributions are concerned.


General manager Omar Minaya has done an great job in strengthening the corners by acquiring 1B Nick Johnson, from the Yankees in exchange for RHP Javier Vazquez, and signing free agent Tony Batista to play third base.


"I don't know about infields the Expos have had in the past," manager Frank Robinson said, "but certainly this has the opportunity to be the best infield we've had since I've been here (2002).


"As for the best infield ever, I'm not qualified to comment because I haven't been here long enough. It's an improvement over last year, and I'm not taking shots at anybody. Wil Cordero did a great job at first -- defensively and offensively. But with Batista at third and Johnson at first and the two guys we have up the middle, we're pretty solid."


The Expos got only nine homers from third base last year, and five of those came from Todd Zeile after he was signed in late August. Batista hit 26 last year.


For a team that left far too many runners stranded last year, Batista is a plus.


"He might not hit for average," Vidro said, "but I promise you he'll hit better than .300 with men in scoring position."


TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: C Brian Schneider has been backup for two seasons and played parts of two seasons before that. He's shown he can handle pitchers and has excellent throwing skills. As lead man now he may stand out but must improve on .230 average.


TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: RF Carl Everett is the first name that comes to mind here, but through no fault of his own. He follows a man (Vladimir Guerrero) who has developed over the years into one of MLB's premier talents and will be unfairly compared.





The Mets had been in camp for less than a week, but a large pile of mail was waiting in his locker when third baseman Ty Wigginton walked into the clubhouse one day.


Felt-tip pen in hand, he methodically opened the envelopes, signed the enclosed baseball cards, then sealed them in the self-addressed stamped envelopes smart autograph seekers enclose.


"One guy in Arizona sends me a few cards every week," Wigginton said. "He must be selling them. Maybe I am famous."


Not famous, perhaps, but certainly established.


Wigginton played in 156 games last season, three shy of the team record for rookies set by Lee Mazzilli in 1977. He hit .255 with 11 home runs and a team-best 71 RBI. He also stole 12 bases.


"Nobody knew who he was in spring training last season," Mets infield coach Matt Galante said. "Now he's our third baseman, no questions asked."


Wigginton did not exactly revel in his success. His major offseason purchase was a used boat. That's right, used.


"It's an all-around lake boat. Nothing special, a 19-footer," Wigginton said. "I also paid off my car. I was making payments on that since 2002, so that was nice to do. Living large isn't for me."


Whenever he considers a spending spree, Wigginton recalls that he had $4 in his pocket when he reported for spring training in 2002. A career minor leaguer, he survived off the money that his wife, Angela, made working at a department store makeup counter.


"You don't get paid during spring training, and we used the meal money for rent," he said. "The other guys would ask me to go out to McDonald's, and I would go home and eat Ramen noodles."


A year later, the Mets let Edgardo Alfonzo walk, failed to sign any free agents and handed the job to Wigginton almost by default. His only competition was Jay Bell, whom the Mets lured out of retirement. Wigginton beat him out easily.


"I still don't feel comfortable," Wigginton said. "I go out there every day thinking somebody is trying to take my job."


That is wise considering the best offensive prospect in the organization is 21-year-old third baseman David Wright. The Mets also plan to try heavy-hitting Victor Diaz at third.


"I know the Mets are always going to look to improve. That is their job," Wigginton said. "But I don't feel like I've showed everything I can do."


A late season slump drove down Wigginton's statistics last summer. At the time, he blamed only himself. But after arriving at spring training he admitted to playing the final four months of the season with a shoulder injury.


"I hurt it in Milwaukee in May, and I had to shut it down in terms of lifting weights," he said. "It was either that or I wasn't going to be able to throw the ball across the field."


Team doctors found no structural problem, only inflammation that has since cleared up.


"I'm used to lifting all season and maintaining my strength," Wigginton said. "I think my power numbers should improve this season because of that. I can see myself with 40 doubles and 20 home runs.


"I know the pitchers better, the parks better and the whole routine better. That's going to make me a better hitter because I will adjust faster. Now that I am here I want to stay here awhile."


TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: RHP Grant Roberts has pitched only 64 innings over the last two seasons because of shoulder problems, but he will be given a chance to win a spot in the rotation and may be the favorite. Only 26, the one-time top prospect is ready to blossom. He has overcome arm problems and matured greatly in the last two years.


TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: SS Kazuo Matsui arrived in New York overburdened with expectations. He is expected to hit first, play Gold Glove defense and work well with 20-year-old second baseman Jose Reyes. Matsui has unquestioned skills but could take time to develop (much like countryman Hideki Matsui needed with the Yankees). Mets fans may not have the patience to wait for Matsui to get comfortable.





RHP Kevin Millwood insists reports that he didn't want be back with the Phillies this season were greatly exaggerated.


"Nobody ever believes me when I say I wanted to play here again. I don't know why," he said.


Well, one reason is that he rebuffed the team's efforts to give him a four-year contract in the middle of the season, saying that negotiations at that point would be a distraction.


Another is that he turned down a three-year offer at the end of the season, which caused general manager Ed Wade to make a trade for LHP Eric Milton.


Still another is that agent Scott Boras kept insisting that he had five-year offers from other teams.


Still, the Phillies offered arbitration. And Millwood accepted, eventually agreeing to a one-year contract worth $11 million.


"It's funny. Everybody in Philadelphia thought I wasn't coming back. And everybody everywhere else thought I was," he said.


Millwood got off to a 7-1 start last season, including a no-hitter. But he faded after that and was awful in September: 1-3 with a 5.95 earned run average. That's one reason why the Phillies fell behind the Marlins in the wild-card race.


Now that he's back, Larry Bowa has already named him the Phillies' Opening Day starter for the second year in a row. He's at the top of a solid rotation that also includes LHP Randy Wolf, RHP Vicente Padilla, Milton and RHP Brett Myers.


But will Millwood be back with the Phillies in 2005? After all, he can be a free agent again at the end of the season.


TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: RHP Kevin Millwood was on his way to an All-Star appearance. He had a 7-1 record that included a no-hitter on May 23. Then his season fell apart. He went 7-11 the rest of the way and ended up accepting arbitration for another season in Philadelphia. Motivation? For the first time in his career he hired a personal trainer and is now in the best shape of his career.


TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: There's nowhere to go but down for LHP Rheal Cormier after going 8-0 with a 1.70 earned run average as a setup reliever last season. He was so successful that it's easy to forget that his ERA was 2.55 under his career mark going into the season. It's highly unlikely he can come close to those numbers, especially since he turns 37 in April.




Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas has signed a three-year contract. That came after sometimes contentious negotiations during which Kalas said he would prefer to no longer work with longtime booth partner Chris Wheeler. Apparently, however, they will spend some on-air time together.



Former first baseman John Kruk, who worked three innings of televised home games for the Phillies last season, is reportedly close to a deal to replace Bobby Valentine on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight."


Mike Schmidt, the Hall of Fame third baseman who will manage the Class A Clearwater Threshers this season, said he expects baseball to make a decision on Pete Rose soon. "He regrets everything," Schmidt said. "Pete is a beaten man right now as a result of everything that has happened. I just hope to put it to rest. ... I think everybody in the country would be (willing to forgive) as long as they knew he was remorseful about it. And he damn sure is remorseful, I can tell you."


Closer Billy Wagner was expected to miss about a week of spring training because of inflammation in the soft tissue of his left middle finger. An MRI showed no ligament, tendon or joint damage.


He Said What? "I went to Baseball University." -- Reliever Roberto Hernandez, on leaning the fine points of the game from veteran players when he was younger.

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