National League East Has Gotten Tougher

There will be some new faces in the NL East this summer. Some other key faces have already departed and others could follow. Atlanta has shifted their rotation and filled a hole created by the move of Jon Smoltz to a starter's job. The Mets get Pedro Martinez and aren't done shopping. Meanwhile, the Phillies have had to bargain hunt and it may not be enough to keep pace.

ATLANTA BRAVES

Finally, John Smoltz has gotten his way.

Ever since he became the Braves' closer, ostensibly to protect his right elbow from the rigors of throwing 100 pitches in a starting role, Smoltz has lobbied to go back to the rotation.

He got his wish when the Braves traded their top pitching prospect, Jose Capellan, and a player to be named later to Milwaukee for the Brewers' All-Star closer, Dan Kolb.

General manager John Schuerholz that the move wasn't made because of any concerns about Smoltz's elbow. Quite simply, with Jaret Wright and Russ Ortiz leaving, the Braves needed a starter, and Smoltz is their best option.

Part of the team's theory is that Smoltz's health was a concern only in the year after his elbow surgery. But now it has been four years since the procedure, and though he has had problems with the elbow on and off, those problems could well have been caused by the uncertainties of the bullpen. Pitching every fifth day actually could be better for his arm.

  • With J.D. Drew gone from right field, Eli Marrero was thought to be more important to the Braves. Apparently not. The Braves were thrilled to get Marrero in last year's Drew deal because of his versatility. In addition to being able to play all the outfield positions, he can catch, too, but they sent him to Kansas City for pitcher Jorge Vasquez.
  • Tim Hudson arrives from Oakland, but the Braves jettisoned outfielder Charles Thomas, who was a pleasant surprise in their lineup last season and also had to include two good, young pitchers in the deal. Keep in mind too, that Wright and Ortiz are gone, so Smoltz and Hudson simply replace them in the rotation. It's a better rotation, but it's not like the Braves didn't have holes to fill.
  • The Braves' budget for 2005 is expected to be about the same as it was in 2004, which was roughly $80-82 million. Of that, Chipper Jones will get $15 million, Andruw Jones will get $12.5 million, and John Smoltz will get $12 million and possibly slightly more now that he's back in the starting rotation. That's half the budget right there.
Arrivals: Dan Kolb (trade with Milwaukee), Tim Hudson (trade with Oakland), Jorge Vasquez (trade with Kansas City).

Departures: Russ Ortiz (free agent, signed with Arizona), Jaret Wright (free agent, signed with Yankees), Antonio Alfonseca (free agent, signed with Florida), Jose Capellan (traded to Milwaukee), Dewayne Wise (claimed off waivers by Detroit), Charles Thomas, Dan Meyer and Juan Cruz (trade with Oakland), Eli Marrero (trade with Kansas City).

Biggest Needs: A right fielder to replace free agent J.D. Drew and a left fielder to replace Charles Thomas.

Analysis: The rotation is better, but not by a huge amount. There are holes to fill in the outfield and the bench is weaker. The minor league system has also taken a hit in deals with Milwaukee and Oakland. Overall, they're better, but not by any insurmountable level.

FLORIDA MARLINS

If the season started today, unproven right-hander Guillermo Mota would likely be the team's closer, a job he never has held.

Newly signed Antonio Alfonseca will compete for the job with Mota, or manager Jack McKeon will take turns with each in the closer's role, as he did in 2003 with Ugueth Urbina and Braden Looper. Urbina eventually won the job outright at the end of September, and the Marlins went on to win the World Series.

Florida's playoff chances in 2005 remain to be seen.

"Guillermo established himself as a premier back-end guy. He hasn't had an opportunity to close, but we believe he can do it," general manager Larry Beinfest said. "I don't think I'd be prepared to say today (that) Guillermo is the closer, but he is definitely a closer candidate."

The Marlins also are trying to fill the vacancy on the bench left by the departure of Mike Mordecai. The team prefers a left-handed hitter, and one option the Marlins reportedly are exploring is first baseman Tino Martinez.

With left-handed starter Al Leiter signed, the Marlins planned to focus their attention on the suspect bullpen, and they made one of the first moves of the winter meetings by bringing back Alfonseca, like Leiter an ex-Marlin. Alfonseca converted 102 of 124 save chances for the Marlins from 1997 to 2001.

  • Todd Jones agreed to a one-year contract with the Marlins. He needed to pass a physical for the deal to be finalized.
Arrivals: Al Leiter (free agent from Mets), Antonio Alfonseca (free agent from Atlanta), Todd Jones (free agent from Philadelphia).

Departures: Armando Benitez (free agent, signed with San Francisco), Mike Redmond (free agent, signed with Minnesota), Rudy Seanez (free agent, signed with San Diego), Ramon Castro (refused minor league assignment). Billy Koch (released), Aaron Small (refused minor league assignment).

Biggest Needs: At this point, there's not a whole lot more for the Marlins to do besides continue to try to get a new ballpark built in South Florida. The Marlins addressed their biggest need - pitching - with the signings of LHP Al Leiter and RHPs Antonio Alfonseca and Todd Jones. RHP Guillermo Mota, who struggled in September, figures to be their closer, but Alfonseca and Mota could be flip-flopped during the season depending on who's pitching better. Keep an eye on a potential trade of pitcher A.J. Burnett. The Marlins tried to package him as part of a deal to get Hudson, but that didn't work. They may look at other deals for the young pitcher.

NEW YORK METS

The Mets fired their manager and most of his coaches. The general manager was demoted and a long of line of players have been dumped this winter.

Even the team doctor wasn't safe.

Dr. Andrew Rokito and two associates were essentially fired after three seasons with the team. No announcement was made, but it is expected Dr. David Altcheck will be named the team's medical director.

The widely respected Altcheck, who is associated with the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, was removed as team physician in 2001 when NYU and the Hospital for Joint Diseases paid the Mets for the right to provide the team physicians.

The Mets were a medical mess last season.

The severity of Jose Reyes' hamstring tear was misdiagnosed during spring training, and his rehab dragged on for months. What was termed a "deep bruise" on the right leg of reliever Mike DeJean proved to be a broken bone.

The medical staff also gave the Mets faulty information on the health of Victor Zambrano before he was acquired from Tampa Bay in a controversial trade. A "minor" elbow injury proved serious, and Zambrano was shut down after only three starts. He has yet to throw off a mound.

The Mets fired head trainer Scott Lawrenson last month and replaced him with former Rangers assistant trainer Ray Ramirez.

  • GM Omar Minaya continued to dump players off the roster by not offering arbitration to any of the team's free agents. That cut ties with RHP Ricky Bottalico and LHP Al Leiter. Presumed retirees John Franco, Mo Vaughn and Todd Zeile were also officially cut loose.
  • The only free agent the Mets kept was RHP Mike DeJean, who accepted a one-year, $1.15 million deal. He appeared in 17 games for the Mets after starting the season with Baltimore and was effective. A broken right leg sidelined him late in the season. "I'm thrilled to come back," said DeJean, who could become the primary right-handed setup man. "I was examined by a doctor and I'm 100 percent healthy."
  • The signing of Pedro Martinez is huge for the Mets. Not just because they had to replace Al Leiter, but because Martinez has said publicly that he will campaign to get other free agents to sign with the New Yorkers. Carlos Delgado is one of the first targets that Martinez and the Mets will pursue. The Mets spent a lot of money on Martinez and it may hurt them down the road, but for now, it makes them stronger.
Arrivals: Felix Heredia (trade with Yankees), Pedro Martinez (free agent from Boston).

Departures: Richard Hidalgo (free agent, signed with Texas), Al Leiter (free agent, signed with Florida), Mike Stanton (traded to Yankees), Grant Roberts (released), Jose Parra (released).

Biggest Needs: The Mets need to address their first-base situation, find a power bat in the outfield and fortify their starting staff and bullpen. First base could be filled with Carlos Delgado or through a trade. Delgado would also bring some power to the Mets lineup. If Mike Piazza returns to New York it will be as a catcher, leaving a hole at first base that Jason Phillips is incapable of filling. Only Braden Looper is a lock to return to next season's bullpen.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

The Phillies haven't had the money that they spent in previous seasons on free agents. Because of that, they've had to take a lower key approach to filling holes. Instead of Derek Lowe or Carl Pavano, the Phillies got Jon Lieber. Don't expect for the Phillies to add much more salary through free agents or trades this offseason.

One exception could be Placido Polanco. Much like Kevin Millwood last season, the Phillies figure Polanco won't accept arbitration, but it's not out of the question that he will accept and push the Phillies budget a little higher than they would have liked.

Word is that the Phillies have shopped both Mike Lieberthal and Pat Burrell with no takers, at least for now. Clearing some salary would help them to make a move for other needed pitching and perhaps bolster the starting rotation or bullpen. Clearing left field would open a spot for young slugger Ryan Howard, who is now apparently getting anxious and has admitted that he is hoping to be traded so he can play everyday in the majors. It remains to be seen if the Phillies will be able to dump any salary.

Look for Vicente Padilla to get a big arbitration reward and Jason Michaels may get a nice raise as well either through arbitration or a new deal with the club. Jimmy Rollins is talking to the Phillies about a new deal, but if he doesn't get a long-term contract, he can head to arbitration and get his raise one year at a time for now. It's likely that the two will reach a deal on a contract that will make Rollins pretty wealthy.

  • Doug Glanville was offered arbitration but reportedly agreed not to accept it. That arrangement allows the Phillies, who have a spot for an extra outfielder, to continue negotiating with Glanville. That extra outfield spot may disappear if Shane Victorino, who the Phillies took in the Rule V Draft, has a strong spring. The Phillies have to keep him on their roster and he could be Glanville's replacement.
  • Rheal Cormier, who had filed for free agency, agreed to a two-year, $5.25 million contract. Cormier set a club record for a left-hander with 84 appearances last year. Todd Pratt accepted a one-year, $750,000 contract to return as Mike Lieberthal's backup. The Phillies made the offer after concerns about free agent Sandy Alomar Jr.'s left knee caused them to short-circuit an agreement that had been reached contingent on Alomar passing a physical.
Arrivals: Kenny Lofton (trade with Yankees), RHP Jon Lieber (free agent from Yankees), Shane Victorino (Rule V Draft), Chris Gomez (Rule V Draft).

Departures: Felix Rodriguez (traded to Yankees), LHP Eric Milton (not offered arbitration), RHP Kevin Millwood (not offered arbitration), RHP Roberto Hernandez (not offered arbitration) and RHP Todd Jones (free agent, signed with Florida).

Biggest Needs: By the time they got to the winter meetings, the Phillies were down to looking for two middle relievers and two utility players, an infielder and an outfielder. They believe that Victorino and Gomez could fill those holes. As for the relief roles, they are in no particular hurry to fill those openings, recognizing that a new set of free agents could become available after the December 20 deadline to tender contracts.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

The Nationals came out firing this offseason. With GM Jim Bowden in place, the Nationals jumped on free agents Cristian Guzman and Vinny Castilla and were burning up the phone lines looking for deals.

Jose Guillen was a major distraction in Anaheim, but the Nationals hope he can clean up his act in the nation's capital – or wherever the Nationals are playing – and provide them with needed offense.

While the Nationals have been busy, the moves have made them older since they had to give up young players and the deals have also hurt their minor league system since they'll lose draft picks for sigining Guzman and Castillo.

Washington will be a better version of the team that was in Montreal, but they've still got holes on their pitching staff.

  • The Expos set a club record with 34 consecutive scoreless innings last season. They went 124 plate appearances (113 ABs) between Jose Vidro's sacrifice fly (April 11) and Tony Batista's solo homerun (April 16).
  • Player of the year Brad Wilkerson was the first Expos player in 30 years - since Bob Bailey in 1974 - to get 100 or more walks. Wilkerson was the first Expos player with 30 homers, 100 runs and 100 walks in a single season.
Arrivals: Gary Bennett (free agent from Milwaukee), OF Jose Guillen (trade with Anaheim), SS Cristian Guzman (free agent from Minnesota), 3B Vinny Castilla (free agent from Colorado), OF J.J. Davis (trade with Pittsburgh).

Departures: Juan Rivera and Maicer Izturis (traded to Anaheim), RHP Rocky Biddle (released), OF Valentino Pascucci (sold to Chibba Lotte of the Japan League).

Biggest Needs: Pitching - starting and relieving. Plus, a definite resolution of their situation in Washington and an owner other than Major League Baseball would be nice.


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