CD's Connect the Dots...A New Beast In The East?

The baseball magazines have one common theme this spring...the Phillies are picked for first place in the NL East. And with good reason. While most of the East was in full retreat this winter, and there was a mass exodus from Montreal to Florida and all Eastern teams in between, no so in Philly! Buoyed by a new spirit, and a new stadium filled with large revenue streams, the Phils have built a team if not for the ages, than at least for 2004. Are they primed to become the new Beast of the East?

Yes, phans, its true… our often woebegone Phillies are the choice of baseball seers from across the nation to finally end the stranglehold that has seem the Atlanta Braves win 12 straight East titles. With a strong cast of returning characters, plus bookend additions like relievers Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez, and starter Eric Milton, the Phils, indeed, do seem primed.

Add to these additions, the expected return to form of slugger Pat Burrell, and the continued offensive production of Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal and Marlon Byrd, and it does seem as if Phillie Fever will be a summer long ailment.  Yet, before the City of Brotherly Love begins printing playoff tickets, before we attempt to dissect a potential Kevin Millwood-Roger Clemens shootout in Game One of a winner take all series, let's examine the Georgia Peachtree Nine one more time.

Far be it from me to douse water on the heads of a Philly fan base long overdue for some good baseball news. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a common misconception that the Atlanta Braves should just mail in their '04 season, that the losses of Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, Vinny Castillo and Greg Maddux will be too much to overcome. 


Truth be told, the loss of 104 home runs, 317 RBI and 16 pitching victories is a major blow to the Brave's lineup.  Furthermore, ace reliever John Smoltz has had more elbow operations than he has elbows andis always one slider away from the disabled list.  But the Braves have always been greater than the individual parts to the machine and it says here that they will give the Phils all they can handle this summer.

Oh, I fully expect a Phillie title, and it would surprise me if the race weren't decided by early in the final week of the season. However, the Atlanta demolition derby doomsayers will have to wait another year before the Braves go away for good… it is not likely to happen this year.

Need some proof?  Just what kind of lineup will the Braves field when it seems half the club was not whistling "Dixie" as they bolted the South for greener pastures elsewhere?  It is always best to start at the beginning and there is no finer combination of manager/general manager than Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz.  These two are certainly one of the top combos in all of baseball and remind one of the famous adage, "they can take their team and beat your team, then they can take your team, and give you their team… and still beat you!"

Fact is, there is much truth to that tale.  It is my contention [admittedly only a theory] than Cox is worth 5 games over our manager, Larry Bowa, simply on how well he handles his club.  There are only a handful of managers better suited to run a ball club over a 162 game marathon than Cox.  Trust me, the Hall of Fame awaits this man when he finally retires.

As for Schuerholz, he may just be the best GM in all of baseball.  He has the innate ability to spot a potential weakness before it develops and rectify it.  This past week shows ample proof of that.  After watching his Brave's bullpen implode on several occasions this spring, he didn't wait for May to decide on a solution, he provided one immediately.  Not once, but twice did he acquire solid arms for the pen.

From the Chicago Cubs, he brought in righty Juan Cruz, a 25 year old flamethrower, with some of the best stuff seen on the Southside.  On a staff that features Mark Prior, Kerry Woods, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement, that is high praise, indeed!  Cruz will immediately slot himself into the role of combination spot starter/long reliever with the Braves.

As good a move as the acquisition of Cruz was, the next move might have been even better.  As our Phils prepared to take the field against the Cincinnati Reds a few days ago, word filtered through the dugout of a trade between the Reds and Braves.  When Manager Bowa was told the Braves were acquiring one of the Red's hurlers, he immediately said, " I hope its not Reitsma!" 

Unfortunately, it was Reitsma, Chris Reitsma to be precise.  He of the 9-5 record last season on a team that won less than 70 games.  He of the 12 saves and 3 spot starts in 57 very effective appearances.  Yes, Phillie fans, the Braves just upgraded their bullpen by as much as 25% with these two trades.  Oh, the Braves gave up talent; they always have young talent to spare.

Nevertheless, a starting staff led by Russ Ortiz, John Thompson and Horacio Ramirez now will be tough to beat if they turn a lead over to the bullpen in the 7th inning.  It is not difficult to imagine the flame-throwing Cruz owning the 7th, while the crafty Reitsma will handle the 8th.  In turn, the 9th inning still belongs to another future Hall of Famer, John Smoltz.

Add to the aforementioned hurlers such solid pitchers as Mike Hampton and Jaret Wright and the cupboard in Atlanta hardly seems empty.  Yet, for all the seeming pitching talent, the Braves are still an offensive club, and 2004 promises to be no different.  Out with the old, as in Sheffield, Lopez and Castillo and in with the new, as in JD Drew, Johnny Estrada and Adam LoRoche.

If the names Drew and Estrada seem faintly familiar, they should!  Drew, which rythmes with boo, is the former Phillie #1 draft pick and ex-Cardinal right fielder.  Although it is the trendy thing to discount the addition of JD to the Braves lineup, a word of caution is advised.  For one thing, no one has ever questioned his talent, merely his ability to stay healthy.  For another, he is in his free agency year, and wonderful thing seem to happen to hitters in Atlanta during their walk years.  Witness Sheffield and Lopez.

Make no mistake, JD Drew is a tremendous talent, and if any manager can keep him healthy, Cox can.  Placed in the middle of the lineup with the Jones boys, Andruw and Chipper, this threesome can easily rival the Phil's trio of Abreu, Burrell and Thome.  Perhaps not in mash, but certainly in slash.

Mention the name Johnny Estrada and visions of a Phillie larceny dance through the heads of all Philadelphia fandom, as in the trade of Estrada to the Braves for ace-in-waiting righty Kevin Millwood.  Actually, if only the 2003 records are taken into account, the trade does shift decidedly in Philadelphia's favor.  Ah, but here is the rub… 2004 is where the field becomes leveled, as Estrada takes over the starting catching reigns with the Braves, while Millwood is expected to win between 15-18 games for the Phil's.


Estrada had an All-Star season at Richmond last year, hitting a cool .328, and Brave fans are expecting not a skipped beat this year as Lopez gives way to Johnny E!  Placed in a lineup with the Jones boys, Drew, Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles, watch for Estrada to become a fixture behind the plate with the Braves.

Speaking of Furcal and Giles, they return to form a great double play combination in Atlanta and can be counted on to at least match last year's totals of 36 home runs and 39 stolen bases.  In fact, Furcal could steal that many bases all by himself if Cox gives him the green light.  They will form with Andruw Jones a very solid middle of the diamond defense on a nightly basis.

Although defense is his forte, the rookie in this group, Adam LaRoche, should also supply ample sock as the Brave's latest candidate for Rookie of the Year.  LaRoche, a lefty swinging first baseman, should more than make up for the loss of Robert Fick, another player who left the team as a free agent.


Replacing Vinny Castilla should be the easiest task in a season of change as youngster Mark DeRosa is counted on to provide better defense and equal parts offense.  Although the 29-year-old DeRosa has never been able to hang on to a starting birth with the Braves, most baseball scouts think this will be the year he elevates his game, as a starter must.


Play the Braves on a daily basis, and the lineup should read something like this… Furcal, Giles, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Drew, LaRoche, Estrada and DeRosa.  Perhaps not as fearsome sounding with Mssrs. Sheffield, Lopez and Castillo absent but effective, nevertheless.  Add to this lineup a solid bench led by Matt and Julio Franco, and this does not seem like a team that will easily relinquish the throne of NL East Beasts.


The challenge for the Phillies is a simple one.  They must take away what the Braves have dominated since 1991. They must establish that the years of futility, the years of struggle, the endless seasons of defeat are finally at an end.  Abreu-Burrell-Thome needs to become what Jones-Sheffield-Jones have been.

Millwood needs to pitch for the Phils as he once did for the Braves.  Wagner needs to be the answer for the Brave's Smoltz.  And Bowa needs to match wits with Cox on a nightly basis, while remembering that baseball is not won by the swiftest, but by the most steady.  This is a lesson learned long ago by the wily Cox, and a lesson that would do well for LB to learn soon.

If all of these possibilities become realities, and if a tiny bit of good health and good luck are thrown in for good measure, then the baseball world may finally see fit to crown a new champion, a new NL Beast of the East… our very own Philadelphia Phillies!

Columnist's Note:  I welcome suggestions, questions and comments.  Please send them to and I will respond! CD from the Left Coast

Philly Baseball Insider Top Stories