MLB Insider: National League East Report

The Phillies came to Florida with a set lineup and a few key additions. Still, a lot of the focus turned to Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins who both look to help the Phillies offense. In Atlanta, it's not business as usual anymore. The Marlins are a defending champion coming in as an underdog. In New York, it's all about keeping the Mets healthy. And, the Expos look for ways to fill big shoes on their roster.

ATLANTA BRAVES

Six weeks ago, almost everything about the Braves was a question mark. The exceptions were starters Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton, catcher Johnny Estrada, shortstop Rafael Furcal, second baseman Marcus Giles and outfielders Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones.

John Smoltz? He hadn't pitched off a mound.

Now, as Opening Day approaches, most of the same questions remain. And the atmosphere surrounding the club continues to focus on who is not here -- Greg Maddux and Gary Sheffield, specifically -- and what is no longer available -- endless financial resources.

Younger players are optimistic because they finally get a chance to play every day. Manager Bobby Cox seems to be enjoying watching the progress of minor league pitchers. But the person who seems to be thriving under the transition from sure postseason presence to maybe-not-this-time is general manager John Schuerholz. He loves building a team, and one gets the idea from watching the Braves this spring that he will have that opportunity all season long.

The businesslike aura of inevitability is absent from the Braves clubhouse for two reasons. One is that it came, in part, from the demeanors of Maddux and Tom Glavine. The other is that the enthusiastic young players hope and believe they are good enough to keep the Braves' train rolling. But they don't know that for a fact.

No one does.

Veterans Smoltz and Chipper Jones feel almost betrayed by the team's budget-cutting.

"Chipper and Andruw [Jones] have to realize that they're going to have to be the guys," Smoltz says. "We're going to have to prove to other teams that we're going to do the little things."

The Braves have not done that before, and they haven't done it this spring, either.

Coming into camp, Chipper Jones said, "Spring training, I think, is going to be a huge measuring stick for us. With so many questions for us this year, a lot of that will be answered the first couple weeks. Confidence springs from there. I think if we come down, swing the bats well, play some defense so we come out of spring training with some confidence, we're gonna be there come October."

Well, the Braves have not swung the bats well and they have not fielded with authority, either. Starters Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton have had as many bad outings as good ones. Smoltz has been sharp in his limited appearances, but only C.J. Nitkowski -- who wasn't even promised a training camp invitation when he signed a minor league contract -- and second-year pitcher Trey Hodges have pitched as if they can get the ball to Smoltz to save a game.

The leaky bullpen was the impetus for Schuerholz's acquisitions of Juan Cruz from the Cubs and Chris Reitsma from the Reds.

As the Braves break camp, they find themselves looking forward to having a fight on their hands.

"You can't create that [playoff] intensity," Smoltz says, opining that having a double-digit division lead by June may not be the best thing for winning a World Championship.

Chipper Jones agrees. "It's gonna be a battle all summer. And that's a good thing. It's nice to come to the ballpark every day knowing that every day's a playoff game. I'm kind of looking forward to it."

READY TO ROCK: RF J.D. Drew looks great and ready to ditch that if-he-can-stay-healthy caveat.

NOT SO READY TO ROCK: RHP Antonio Alfonseca led the National League with 45 saves in 49 appearances in 2000. The Braves always assume they can save a pitcher, but Alfonseca has not yet fallen under that spell.

FLORIDA MARLINS

As they prepare to defend their World Series championship, the Marlins still face the same big questions they had when spring training opened: namely, a different lineup from the championship team and a lack of depth in the bullpen.

The message in spring training was that the team enjoys its underdog status, which is the same spot the Marlins were in 2003 when they surprised everyone. The difference this year is that they might be even bigger underdogs than last year.

Gone are three of the team's top four RBI producers from '03 -- C Pudge Rodriguez, 1B Derrek Lee and RF Juan Encarnacion. But the Marlins were pleased with the spring showings of their replacements -- C Ramon Castro, 1B Hee Seop Choi and RF Miguel Cabrera.

Cabrera and Choi will need to cut down their strikeouts but both showed power, as did Castro, who is expected to get most of the playing time in a sharing situation with Mike Redmond.

Much hype has gone to the young, hard-throwing starters in Florida's rotation, but the fact remains that the Marlins still lack the experience of other rotations around the league.

Josh Beckett, their Opening Day starter, is a 17-17 career pitcher who faces expectations that he will automatically pick up where he left off in the playoffs. Beckett wasn't particularly sharp this spring, but he is in good shape and his velocity is fine.

Dontrelle Willis, the NL Rookie of the Year, also has struggled and is a good bet to go to the bullpen when A.J. Burnett returns from Tommy John surgery in May or June.

Watch for RHPs Brad Penny and Carl Pavano to have big seasons. Both have been sharp in spring training.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the bullpen, which lacks depth after RHPs Armando Benitez (closer) and Chad Fox. The Marlins hoped several of their pitchers would rise to the occasion and win the four bullpen spots up for grabs, but there was no standout performer and the spots likely will get chosen in the final few days of camp.

READY TO ROCK: CF Juan Pierre came to spring in great shape after working out all offseason at a speed-running clinic. He also lifted weights. He hit above .400 most of the spring and was ready to get back in the lineup only a few days after dislocating his right pinky finger sliding head-first.

NOT SO READY TO ROCK: There's no reason LHP Dontrelle Willis can't have a strong season, but he didn't show this spring that he consistently can be the same pitcher he was before the All-Star break last year. The NL Rookie of the Year needs to refine his pitches or he will wind up in the bullpen.

MONTREAL EXPOS

Much of the baseball world wonders what the Expos are going to do without the services of right fielder Vladimir Guerrero.

Of course, the Expos are going to miss the free-swinging, power-hitting Guerrero with the howitzer throwing arm, but the biggest problem they face after consecutive 83-79 seasons is to find adequate replacement for RHP Javier Vazquez, traded to the Yankees in a winter deal.

For four years, Vazquez has started between 32 and 34 games and pitched between 217 2/3 and 230 2/3 quality innings. After the Vazquez trade, the Expos had counted on Tony Armas Jr., whose 2003 season was cut short after five starts because of shoulder surgery, to fill much of that void.

However, midway through spring training Armas came up with arm discomfort while pitching batting practice. He will not be ready for the start of the season.

How do you replace the loss of Vazquez and Armas?

"You don't," manager Frank Robinson said. "You try to find people who can give you some consistent innings and then think of scoring enough runs to win games.

"Our number one priority is to strengthen the pitching, both the rotation and the bullpen. If we can do that, everything else will take care of itself."

On Thursday (March 25), Expos acquired RHP John Patterson from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for LHP Randy Choate.

"We are going to look at him as a starter," Robinson said of Patterson. "He'll get some work over the final week of Grapefruit. We may leave him in Florida until we need a fifth starter."

With the addition of 3B Tony Batista (free agent signing) and 1B Nick Johnson (acquired from Yankees in Vazquez trade) the Expos not only believe they have a much stronger infield than last year; they say it might be one of the best they've ever had.

The Expos believe that their double-play combination of SS Orlando Cabrera (Expos player of the year twice in the last three years) and 2B Jose Vidro (Silver Slugger last year and an All-Star for the third time) is as good a two-way duo as there is in the league.

C Brian Schneider will be under pressure in his first year as a starter, which is why Expos brought veteran Gregg Zaun into camp on a minor league contract to serve as backup.

READY TO ROCK: After amazingly similar and solid statistics in his first two big-league seasons, LF Brad Wilkerson has only to cut back on strikeouts to be rated with the league's elite. Best on the team defensively in left and center field and at first base last year, he should be able concentrate on left field this year.

NOT SO READY TO ROCK: With so much emphasis being placed on how the pitching staff can make up for the loss of Javier Vazquez (traded to Yankees) and because he is starting for the first time, C Brian Schneider will experience pressure he hasn't been exposed to previously.

NEW YORK METS

The Mets revamped their team during the winter, adding shortstop Kazuo Matsui from Japan, center fielder Mike Cameron and closer Braden Looper.

They also got run-producers Mike Piazza and Cliff Floyd back healthy.

The problem is the Mets didn't get much of a chance to see the bunch in its entirety. Matsui injured his right middle finger just before the exhibition season started and missed 10 days. When he returned, second baseman Jose Reyes strained a hamstring and was forced out of the lineup.

"It would be nice to get everybody in the lineup at once," manager Art Howe said. "But we'll get there."

The Mets, after two years in last place, are hopeful of playing "meaningful games" late in the season. That could mean anything. But they clearly have improved after last season's 95-loss debacle.

Matsui is a classic leadoff hitter with exceptional defensive skills. Cameron is a presence in the middle of the order and is the best outfield glove in the game. In the vast expanses of Shea Stadium, he should be particularly valuable.

If Piazza and Floyd stay healthy, the Mets will have a formidable lineup. But their bench is thin, leaving the team susceptible to injuries.

The starting pitching is also aging -- two 38-year-olds, Al Leiter and Tom Glavine, are being counted on for 200 innings each. That will put pressure on second-year starter Jae Weong Seo to deliver.

Spring training did reveal some pitching depth as youngsters Aaron Heilman, Orber Moreno and Grant Roberts all performed well.

"We're stronger up the middle, and we seem to have more options offensively," general manager Jim Duquette said. "Now we have to translate that into victories."

READY TO ROCK: C Mike Piazza missed three months with a torn groin muscle last season and had little protection in a feeble lineup when he did play. He had a monster spring and appears determined to regain his place as one of the best run producers in the game.

NOT SO READY TO ROCK: LHP Tom Glavine won only nine games last season, the fewest since he was 7-17 as a rookie in 1988. Glavine is sneaky and gutsy enough to beat mediocre teams, but his fastball doesn't approach 90 mph anymore.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

The Phillies didn't come to spring training looking for any major revelations. They don't think they need any in order to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

They were, however, looking for two members of their starting eight to make some adjustments. And, as they prepared to break camp, they believed LF Pat Burrell and SS Jimmy Rollins aced their tests.

Burrell was the main focus of the Phillies' spotlight after batting just .209 last season with 21 homers and 64 RBI. He also struck out 142 times in 522 at-bats after a .282-37-116 season that earned him a six-year, $50 million contract extension.

He arrived in Clearwater more than two weeks before the first official workout for pitchers and catchers and began working on recapturing the swing that had put him on the fast track to stardom.

The Phillies are cautiously optimistic that he has succeeded. "I'm seeing a lot of good swings," said manager Larry Bowa. "Last year, except for maybe a week, he wasn't taking a real good pass at the ball."

Burrell had only two home runs in his first 16 Grapefruit League games but was making solid contact and struck out just eight times in his first 49 at-bats.

The Phillies desperately need him to be enough of a threat to bat cleanup between the two big left-handed bats in the order, 1B Jim Thome and RF Bobby Abreu.

Rollins frustrated the coaching staff with a .320 on-base percentage and 113 strikeouts last season. He was urged to concentrate on making contact and hitting the ball on the ground. He's also bunting more, which, with his speed, should be a plus.

"I don't think I'm looking to make changes. I'm looking to make additions," he insisted. "Before, I really didn't have a two-strike approach. When you first come up, you think that you won't let the pitcher dictate your approach. If you're going to strike out, it might as well be swinging.

"Now when I get two strikes, if I can spoil pitches and he starts messing around outside the strike zone, the count can eventually get back in your favor."

Rollins said he has to remind himself that he's only in his fourth year in the big leagues. "At times, I think I've lost sight of that," he said. "When you see veteran players out there who are very consistent in their approach, you realize that most of them have 11, 12, 13 years of experience. You know from the beginning what the process is, but the reality is years away."

Despite his improvement, Rollins could find himself batting seventh, with 2B Placido Polanco in the No. 2 spot.

At some point, however, Rollins could find himself batting behind leadoff man Marlon Byrd, giving the Phillies a speedy 1-2 running threat at the top of the order.

READY TO ROCK: RHP Vicente Padilla has the best arm on the staff, but occasional concentration lapses have kept him from making the most of his talent. An offseason car accident that killed his best friend appears to have given him the maturity he needs to have a breakout season.

NOT SO READY TO ROCK: LHP Rheal Cormier had a career year at age 36 last season. The expectations game could be tough for a guy with a career earned run average of 4.04 who's being counted on to come close to duplicating his 1.70 mark of last season.

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