MLB Insider: National League East Update

The Phillies had a rash of key injuries early in the spring. The good news is that they weren't severe and they came early enough so that everybody had time to get healthy. Meanwhile, a former Phillie reminds everyone that he's also a former Met. In Atlanta, a rookie first baseman with a major league pedigree. Jack McKeon reminds his team that a World Series Championship doesn't guarantee jobs. And, in Montreal, young players battle to fill a couple holes on the roster.


Yes, Adam LaRoche is the son of pitcher Dave LaRoche, who was with the Angels, Twins, Cubs, Indians and Yankees in the late '70s and early '80s and is now a pitching coach with the Royals.

But that's only part of the reason Adam seems to be taking in stride his jump from playing only a half-season at the Triple-A level to being the Braves' starting first baseman.

LaRoche has no spring training and clubhouse memories from his father's playing days -- he was too young. But he does have experience in the major league environment from his father's early coaching days.

Too, LaRoche, 25, is married and the father of two. The seriousness and maturity he shows in his personal life has brought him to this level professionally. He's not going to blow it.

Playing the position is the easier part. Hitting is where LaRoche needs work. Right now he is fighting a timing problem at the plate.

LaRoche's bat stays straight and still while his feet do the work. A similar stance has worked pretty well for Chipper Jones over the years. But it takes constant work off a batting tee to stay on top of it.


The common thought this spring has been that eight pitchers are vying for three spots in the Marlins bullpen. But now manager Jack McKeon isn't so sure.

McKeon last week warned those who believe their spot between the starters and closer Armando Benitez is secure.

"Just because you were here for a half-year last year doesn't guarantee anything," McKeon said. "If somebody else jumps ahead of you, too bad."

McKeon was speaking specifically of Nate Bump, who allowed three runs (two earned) in two innings during the Dodgers' 9-6 victory over the Marlins on Thursday (March 18). Bump, Chad Fox and Benitez are the three relievers whose jobs appeared safe, but all three had rough outings last week. Only Bump could pitch himself off the team.

"Somebody has got to take charge and throw strikes, stay in front of the hitters," McKeon said.

Somebody has, namely those who are pitching for survival. Each of the eight candidates has had one outing since Saturday, and none allowed a run. They combined for 13 1/3 innings and eight hits.

"They're all doing pretty well," McKeon said. "It's going to come down to which way we want to go. Let's hope we pick the right ones. Right now you can take any of them."

The eight -- left-handers Michael Tejera, Tommy Phelps and Matt Perisho and right-handers Blaine Neal, Michael Neu, Scott Sanders, Justin Wayne and Toby Borland -- are making it difficult for McKeon and pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal. Five have ERA's below 1.50, and Neal, Neu and Wayne had not allowed an earned run in a combined 14 innings.

"We want to make it tough for them," Phelps said. "You pull for everybody and just hope you're the guy they want."

And just because a pitcher is sent down in March or April, it does not mean he won't be in a Marlins uniform in June or July.

"I've been sent down eight times the last two years for every reason," Neal said. "You got to realize eventually if things keep going your way your time will come."

The Marlins still may be looking to strengthen the bullpen by trading for an established reliever. McKeon was asked if he was satisfied picking from this group without seeking outside help.

"I don't think any manager would say he's satisfied with anything," he said. "You always want to get better. I think what we've got is workable."

Ideally, the Marlins will keep two left-handers -- one whom appears to be Tejera, who drew praise from McKeon for his three shutout innings against the Dodgers on Wednesday night (March 17).

But even that is not a certainty, especially considering last season, when the Marlins had one left-hander (Tejera) in the bullpen for much of the second half of the season and during the playoffs until Dontrelle Willis filled the gap in the NLCS and World Series.

The final three pitchers will be used mostly in the sixth and seventh innings (Fox fills the main setup role), in situations to face one batter and to eat up innings when a starter struggles, something McKeon does not take lightly.


As they passed the halfway mark in their Grapefruit League schedule with an 11-5 record, the Expos had several issues to be happy about.

One of those was the spirited competition for three outfield jobs. Two starting positions are secure -- Brad Wilkerson will start in left and Carl Everett in right.

But the battle is on for the other starting job and two backup positions. As many as seven are in the hunt, and it appears the race will go on into the final week of exhibition action.

Leading the charge at the halfway mark are two young men who had the chance before -- Endy Chavez and Peter Bergeron -- and Terrmel Sledge, who hit .324 with 22 homers and 92 RBIs for Triple-A Edmonton last year.

Chavez and Bergeron would seem to have the edge because the Expos hope the man who wins the other outfield starting job can be the leadoff hitter as well.

Chavez played center field and led off last year. He earned the job by leading the Triple-A International League in 2002 with a .346 average and sparkling when he was called up at the end of his minor league season.

Chavez hit a "weak" .251 last year and started off slowly this spring but was coming to life by mid-spring.

Bergeron filled the role three years ago but lost confidence during the last two seasons. He has been hot this spring, catching the attention of manager Frank Robinson.

Others still in the chase include Juan Rivera (acquired from the Yankees in the Javier Vazquez trade), Ron Calloway, Matt Cepicky and Valentino Pascucci.


Lenny Dykstra, the noted baseball philosopher, arrived at Tradition Field prepared to drop some wisdom on the Mets.

"This is serious stuff," he said. "We're playing for money."

Dykstra pulled on a Mets uniform for the first time in 15 years to begin a weeklong stint as a baserunning and outfield instructor.

"It's very special, and I say that with all sincerity. It comes from my heart," he said. "Everything I have, everything that I own and everything I am involved with has to do with one thing, and that's the New York Mets giving me the ability to play major league baseball."

Dykstra was one of the last true characters in the game, a tobacco-stained gnome of a center fielder who called everybody "Dude" and was on a first-name basis with all the dealers in Atlantic City.

Now he's a 41-year-old father of two living on a golf course in Los Angeles and running a chain of car washes. On the side, he cuts deals with Internet service providers.

But "Nails" will always know more about baseball than he does bandwidth.

"It all comes down to trying to figure out how to win baseball games," the center fielder of the 1986 World Champions said. "That is something I'm pretty good at, and I'm not afraid to say that. ... This is a business and I know how it works."

The Mets have been an employment agency for the 1986 alumni. Howard Johnson, Randy Niemann, Tim Teufel and Mookie Wilson are minor league coaches or managers. Hall of Famer Gary Carter is a part-time instructor, working with catchers during spring training, while Keith Hernandez is a broadcaster.

Dykstra is a different case. The Mets dealt him to the Phillies in 1989, and ties were broken. It took first-year general manager Jim Duquette to regain his trust.

"I was really impressed with his attitude and knowledge of today's player," Dykstra said. "I was never able to strike a relationship with the other GM (Steve Phillips) like I have with Jim."


According to numbers crunched by the Elias Sports Bureau, the Phillies lost 19 games in the final inning last season.

The Phillies finished five games behind the Marlins for the National League wild-card spot.

"It doesn't take a genius to do the math," suggested manager Larry Bowa.

That's why the most important move the Phillies made during the offseason was acquiring LHP Billy Wagner from the Astros for three pitching prospects.

Jose Mesa is out, trying to catch on with the Pittsburgh Pirates after the Phillies decided not to pick up his option.

Wagner is in. And the Phillies have breathed a huge sigh of relief now that he's come back from an inflamed left middle finger that sidelined him early in spring training.

In fact, the health issues that clouded the team's horizon during the first few weeks seem to be clearing up nicely.

Wagner is back on the mound and should get eight or nine appearances before the regular season.

1B Jim Thome, who fractured his right middle finger during infield practice, did not have ligament damage. Since he didn't require surgery, he should be able to get in a solid week of exhibition at-bats before the games start to count.

C Todd Pratt was taking batting practice just 12 days after arthroscopic knee surgery. He should be ready to return to the lineup shortly.

And 3B David Bell, after taking a cortisone shot in his sore right shoulder, reported almost immediate improvement. He, too, expects to be ready to play well in advance of the April 5 opener at Pittsburgh.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this gives the Phillies a better chance at their first playoff appearance since 1993.

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