Scouting the National League East

In Atlanta, another gamble by John Schuerholz, who still doesn't know who will play left field for the defending division champs. The Marlins welcome back Al Leiter, while in New York, can a former Yankee as manager and a former Red Sox star as the ace co-exist? The Nationals may have to take a couple of steps backward and in Philadelphia, Ryan Howard gets itchy for his shot at the majors.

ATLANTA BRAVES

A lot of things can happen between now and the start of spring training. Or between now and Opening Day. Or between now and the end of July. Or the end of August, for that matter.

That's why general manager John Schuerholz is unconcerned about having just traded his left-field platoon - Charles Thomas and Eli Marrero - after declining to pursue free agent outfielder J.D. Drew.

"We are very confident in our flexibility," Schuerholz says, surveying his budget. "We are in no rush" to fill the holes in the outfield.

But while there are minor leaguer players who will be given every opportunity to show what they've got in spring training, Schuerholz is not counting on them to make the roster.

One of them, Andy Marte, is going to get a look in the outfield, but he has never played there. He can hit, though, so he'll get a shot.

Jeff Francoeur is oh so close to the majors. He lost a lot of weight and thus strength, however, when he broke a bone around his eye fouling off a pitch last season.

But Schuerholz made a point of saying, in a conference call about the Braves' recent transactions, that in addition to bolstering the starting rotation they also gave him the cash to pursue outfielders.

As for rumors of the Braves trying to get Sammy Sosa, Schuerholz says, "We had some conversations with the Cubs, as I think every team in baseball did. We would sort have been asleep at the wheel if we didn't at least have conversations about it. They were initially categorized as very preliminary, and that's about all they were."

FLORIDA MARLINS

General manager Larry Beinfest never used the word "baby-sitter" when describing how veteran left-hander Al Leiter will be used in the Marlins' rotation next season. But that's essentially what Leiter will be doing for his $7 million.

Leiter is a talented pitcher - he has 155 career victories, three World Series rings and a no-hitter. At 39, he'll be the wise old man of a Marlins staff that will include Josh Beckett (24), A.J. Burnett (27) and Dontrelle Willis (22), who have a combined record of 87-81.

"Veteran leadership" was how Beinfest summed up one of the key attributes the Marlins will look for in Leiter, who might retire after the 2005 season.

"We think it's very important here," Beinfest said. "We do have three young pitchers who are exceedingly talented. We thought it was important to have a veteran pitching leader."

It can be argued that immaturity and poor behavior by Marlins starters contributed to the team's failure to make the playoffs after winning the 2003 World Series.

Enter Leiter and new pitching coach Mark Wiley, who is widely respected. It's unclear how much they know about what went on last year. But the feeling is neither man will be pushed around.

Leiter said he wasn't sure if he'd introduce himself to the players before spring training starts or wait until February.

Leiter said, "What you try to hope for young pitchers or players is that (they ask themselves), 'What do you want of the game? Do you want to be a guy who floats along, makes a good living and does OK but seriously under-performs in the context of what his stuff is?' "

Leiter was speaking in generalities, but his description fits his fellow starters.

"Watching Beckett, Burnett and Willis, these three guys are special. Not just special, like being special pitchers. They all could be Cy Young Award guys," Leiter said.

"They've shown it at times. I think where I can relate with all three of these guys is I was a guy who threw very hard, I threw the ball in the mid-90s. I touched sometimes in 96, 97 range. At that time, I was clueless. I didn't know how to pitch. I really didn't know my job. I really didn't know what it was about to really be consistent.

"Then you sit on the bench and watch somebody who is deemed with lesser stuff who is successful and gets it and is winning. That's what it's about."

NEW YORK METS

New Mets manager Willie Randolph has already started to consider how best to deal with his enigmatic new ace, Pedro Martinez.

"I'm sure we'll sit down at some point and talk about a lot of things," Randolph said.

According to Randolph, he expects one set of rules to apply to all 25 players. Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen.

"You don't have a lot of rules, but there are certain things everybody has to abide by," Randolph said. "You can't have different sets of rules for different people. You can't have that."

If anything, Randolph seemed to relish the idea of having Martinez in the clubhouse.

"I believe you have to have personalities on your team. There's nothing wrong with that. I think sometimes players can feed off a certain swagger or a certain confidence," he said. "Pedro is a confident individual -- you can tell that by how he struts around the mound. You can tell he knows he's one of the best.

"You can't be just a regular, plain team. As long as you understand you're part of the team, I appreciate guys who bring a certain attitude to the table."

Randolph first met Martinez in 1989, when he was playing for the Dodgers and Martinez was an 18-year-old minor leaguer. Ramon Martinez, then pitching for the Dodgers, introduced his skinny little brother to Randolph.

"I've known Pedro a long time," Randolph said. "Once you go in with an idea of what you expect from each other, they will be no problem at all."

Randolph saw Martinez up close for seven years when he was coaching with the Yankees. He doesn't buy the theory that Martinez is fading.

"I can only go by what I hear from players. The Yankees were very fortunate to battle and win some games from him. We didn't knock him around the ballpark," Randolph said.

"I think he's the consummate pitcher and he knows how to pitch. Pedro knows exactly what he's doing on the mound at all times. The bottom line for me is that he keeps you in the ballgame. His record speaks for itself. I don't get caught up with radar guns."

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Until recently, Phillies top hitting prospect Ryan Howard has been willing to patiently wait for the Phillies to decide what to do with him.

Not anymore.

While at the winter meetings to accept an award as the top home run hitter in the minors last season, the slugging first baseman suggested for the first time that it might be best for him if the Phillies explored trade opportunities.

Howard is 25 and coming off a season during which he hit a total of 48 home runs between Double-A Reading, Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and a September call-up.

His path to the big leagues is also blocked by Jim Thome, who's signed through 2008 and will make $57 million over the next four seasons.

"Basically, you have to look at the reality of the situation," he explained. "Jim Thome is a great guy and a great player. He's an All-Star. And I like playing for the Phillies. They're a great organization.

"But I'm just looking for an opportunity to contribute at the big-league level, and it doesn't appear that can happen here. My goal is to get to the big leagues and help a team. I'm just looking for a chance."

General manager Ed Wade understands Howard's feelings but made it clear that the good of the organization comes first. Further, since the player has two options remaining, he's under no pressure to make a move.

"I admire Ryan's desire to play every day in the big leagues," he said. "We think he's going to be a good big-league player in the not-so-distant future. But beyond that, we fully expect him to be in spring training with us and compete for a job."

"I understand the caliber of player we have here. We're just going to let things play out and see what happens."

There has been some discussion about exploring whether Howard can play the outfield, and he even played one game there during the Arizona Fall League. That remains a possibility. But even if the Phillies decide that he could play left, his path to the majors is still blocked. Pat Burrell has another $43.5 million coming over the next four years.

Said Howard: "Regardless of what happens, I'm going to show up and give 100 percent."

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Though the Nationals' baseball operations are still technically up and running, interim general manager Jim Bowden realistically can't make any significant roster moves while the state of the franchise remains in flux.

Bowden still has about $6 million to spend before reaching his projected $50 million budget for 2005, and he's made no secret that all remaining money will go toward pitching. But with the Nationals unsure if they will even play in Washington in 2005, Bowden can't go out and spend more money on players until Major League Baseball and the District of Columbia Council strike a ballpark deal.

The Nationals managed to shore up most of their offseason needs before the winter meetings. Bowden signed shortstop Cristian Guzman (four years, $16.8 million), third baseman Vinny Castilla (two years, $6.2 million) and backup catcher Gary Bennett (one year, $750,000) and traded for outfielder Jose Guillen.

He arrived at the winter meetings intent on bringing home a premier starting pitcher but was stymied in his efforts to sign Jaret Wright, Odalis Perez or any other front-line starter.

Wright signed with the Yankees. Perez, though, remains unsigned, leaving Bowden with a sliver of hope of signing the left-hander to a contract in the range of three years and $18 million.

But with the franchise in lock-down mode back in Washington, Bowden is hamstrung, unable to make a serious play for Perez or any other free agents for the time being.

The Nationals' best hope might be to wait and see who is not tendered a contract by the December 20 deadline, then make a run at one of these bargain-basement free agents before the start of spring training.


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