MLB Insiders: National League East Report

Phillies ace Kevin Millwood doesn't concern himself very much with the recent steroid issue and he makes a good point on why. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, John Smoltz takes a different approach to the same issue. The Florida Marlins have a couple of key injury questions staring them in the face this spring. In Montreal, the issue is about which player they'll miss the most. And, in New York, Mike Cameron adds a positive touch to the Mets clubhouse.

So now there's an official gag order on discussing steroids. That doesn't make the issue go away.
During negotiations for the last collective bargaining agreement, when Tom Glavine was still a Brave and was, as he is now, the National League players' representative, he often spoke about mandatory drug testing. It was a privacy issue to him; as a matter of principle, he did not like the idea of testing everyone in the absence of probable cause.
But the BALCO investigation and the revelation of synthetic human growth hormones gives players a choice between their civil rights and the possibility of losing their jobs to cheaters.
Without fresh material, several sources are quoting John Smoltz, who said last weekend, "It's not right. It's not a level playing field and it's not right. I don't think it's right for the majority who work hard and do it with natural talent."
Smoltz didn't just walk up to the nearest reporter and start spouting off, he was asked about Hank Aaron's comments to Bill Madden of the New York Daily News about Barry Bonds -- or anyone else -- breaking his home run record.
Manager Bobby Cox discussed steroids before he was aware that commissioner Bud Selig had ordered everyone to zip it. He has a hard time believing that former Brave Gary Sheffield is taking steroids because Cox remembers Sheff looking bigger back in the days when he worked out with bodybuilder Lee Haney.
3B Mike Lowell might play his position sparingly early in the Grapefruit League season because of lingering discomfort in his right elbow. The elbow bothered him in the second half of last season.
"We're taking it slow," said Lowell. "I've been doing all the (infield) drills. It feels decent. They told me I have a little bit of scar tissue, and breaking it up will bother me a little. It's part of the process, just something I'm not used to dealing with," said Lowell, who had never had a problem with the arm before.
An MRI taken two weeks after the season didn't detect any structural damage in the elbow. 
Lowell doesn't think the soreness will become a serious problem, but he was a little concerned that it has acted up just three days in spring training.
Another key Marlin is aching, too. RHP A.J. Burnett was supposed to throw a bullpen session on Saturday March 6 but that has been postponed a few days after he felt some stiffness following his last session.
The Marlins don't think that's a problem, but they don't want to take any chances as Burnett tries to comeback from Tommy John surgery.
"Every time he throws the progression changes," pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal said. "He's been throwing a lot, so we'll kind of back him off a little bit between pens. We're going to let him build up to the next one."
One of the stories unfolding during the Expos' early exhibition games was speculation on whom they will miss most -- Vladimir Guerrero or Javier Vazquez.
Guerrero comes to mind first because he was the biggest name on the free-agent market and because, at 27, he figures to be hitting his prime. Guerrero spurned a five-year, $75 million offer from the Expos and signed with the Anaheim Angels.
But Vazquez, traded to the Yankees for first baseman Nick Johnson, outfielder Juan Rivera and left-hander Randy Choate, might be an even bigger loss. Though he won as many as 16 games only once, his numbers over four seasons have been consistently excellent.
For instance, beginning last year and going backward he made 34, 34, 32 and 33 starts. His innings pitched have been 230, 230, 223 and 217. His strikeouts/walks totals have been 241/57, 179/49, 208/44 and 196/61.
The Expos still have the makings of a decent rotation, however, if things fall into plate.
Livan Hernandez bounced back from two losing years at San Francisco to post a 15-10 record last season and a career-best 3.20 ERA in 233 1/3 innings. The 29-year-old Cuban will be asked to take over as the ace.
Several Expos pitchers are coming off arm troubles last year. The biggest name is Tony Armas Jr., who made only five starts before surgery felled him for the season. He is once again expected to be the No. 2 or 3 starter in the rotation.
Tomo Ohka quietly has become extremely effective. The 28-year-old Japanese product was 10-12 last year after going 13-8 in 2002. But he made 34 starts and pitched 199 innings and will be asked to equal those numbers again.
Within 20 minutes of walking into the Mets clubhouse, Mike Cameron had gathered the cell phone numbers of five teammates, hugged Mike Stanton and set up a golf match with Tom Glavine.
And he's not a bad center fielder, either.
In a clubhouse largely devoid of passion and personality in recent years, Cameron has seemed like an ambassador from a faraway land where ballplayers actually have fun and smile.
"We signed him to play center and hit in the middle of the lineup," general manager Jim Duquette said. "We're finding out that's only part of his package. He's an unbelievable person to be around."
Cameron's credibility among his teammates comes first from his talent. He is considered the best defensive outfielder in the game and is capable of carrying a team with his bat.
"He has a dynamic personality, and it's absolutely welcome," said Stanton, who first met Cameron at the 2001 All-Star game. "His positive attitude and his approach to the game can be contagious. What he adds on the field is a given, but he also adds a lot to the clubhouse."
After playing the last four seasons for a playoff contender in Seattle, Cameron wasn't sure how effusive to be once he joined the Mets. He checked into camp two days early to try to make that transition easier.
"It was a new environment for me," he said. "The Mets have come in last place two years in a row now, and maybe they didn't want me coming in smiling and laughing. But I decided to address that right away and just be myself and let guys get to know the real me.
"If we're going to change things around here there has to be positive reinforcement in terms of what has to take place. I think that is part of my job."
Glavine helped recruit Cameron, calling him twice last winter when he was a free agent. The two were only nodding acquaintances before that.
"After talking to him, it felt like I knew him forever," Glavine said. "Mike is perfect for us. In New York you walk on eggshells half the time anyway, so you need guys like Mike.
"People talk all the time about somebody stepping up and assuming a leadership role. But so much of that is determined by somebody's stature on the team. Mike has that respect in everybody's eyes."
No Phillies players have been mentioned in the steroid scandal that hangs over baseball. But they recognize that all players are coming under suspicion as the result of rumors concerning Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield.
"Every player who has hit a certain number of home runs in the past, if he doesn't hit that many again, people are going to say, 'He's off the juice,' " catcher Mike Lieberthal noted.
Player representative Randy Wolf believes that players should recognize that baseball is serious about eliminating performance-enhancing drugs.
"We're on the right track," he said. "If you get tested this year and you get caught, you're a complete idiot. And I think the first offense should be made public. That would be worse than getting suspended or fined. Guys don't want to be embarrassed."
Lieberthal agreed that publicity would be an effective deterrent, but he also understands the forces that motivate players to try to keep up with their peers.
"Of course players are going to feel that pressure," he said. "If anybody thinks they can get past the system, they will. Careers are short. So some guys are willing to take chances with their health because there's a lot of money at stake. It's an easy decision for some guys.
"Right now, guys can still take steroids. You don't get in trouble the first time you're caught. Your name goes on a list, but nobody is going to know. Your name doesn't come out through the media. It's not until the second time that you get suspended and your name is revealed. So you have that free shot, and I think some guys will still take a chance.
"The only way they won't take that chance is if they think that their name will be on television if they get caught. Although I'm sure a lot of guys might not be doing it right now because so much has been going on lately."
First baseman Jim Thome is one of the Phillies' biggest, strongest players. He accepts that some people are going to question how he got that way, especially after he led the National League with 47 homers last season.
"People are always going to have opinions," he said. "It doesn't bother me because I know how hard I've worked. You want to achieve things the right way."
Right-hander Kevin Millwood takes a more relaxed approach: "It doesn't bother me what another guy does. If he's using steroids, he still has to hit the ball, and that's a lot harder than most people think. And I still think if I make my pitches, I can get him out."

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