Notes From Around the National League East

The off-season tinkering is continuing and there's plenty of news from around the National League East. The Braves say good-bye to a long-time player. In New York, they're saying hello to some and good-bye to others. The Marlins wrap up Paul LoDuca. The Nationals wrap up Brad Wilkerson. And in Philly, it's a question of what could have been as Ryne Sandberg heads for the Hall of Fame.


So what happened to INF Mark DeRosa, anyway?

In 2003, he was the hot-hitting utility guy who excelled every time he started as an injury replacement.

Then last season, he got his chance to be an everyday player, starting at third base. He proceeded to make a ton of errors -- including four in one forgettable game in Colorado -- which led to his hitting biting the dust, too.

And then his buddy Chipper Jones took his position. Jones suffered a strained right hamstring early and couldn't run all-out in the outfield.

So that was that.

To cap off DeRosa's miserable season, he tore his right ACL at the end of September in a playoff tuneup.

DeRosa's recovery has remained ahead of schedule. He was walking without crutches and beginning his conditioning and range of motion exercises as the Braves were losing in the first round of the postseason.

But while general manager John Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox were supportive of DeRosa all season, he was not tendered a contract. That isn't to say he couldn't be back, but with the Braves guarding their budget and in need of outfielders, his salary is one that can be squeezed.

Notes from Atlanta:

  • The Braves signed Gabe White, giving them two left-handed relief pitchers. Tom Martin, who was acquired from the Dodgers last July, is the other.
  • Both GM John Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox have said publicly that they hope to sign Tim Hudson after this season. Hudson can be a free agent at the end of the year.
  • This is the last year Mike Hampton's salary will be paid primarily by the Marlins and Rockies. The Braves are on the hook for $43 million for the 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons, which is why it won't be surprising when they move him.
  • Johnny Estrada led the Braves with a .312 batting average; he's working on his conditioning so he can stay stronger at the end of this season, which should allow him to maintain that average if not raise it.
He said what? "As you can obviously tell by our approach this winter, we have set our sights on going back to the old-fashioned Braves way of building championships, and that is with dominant pitching." -- General manager John Schuerholz.


Ismael Valdez arrived quietly with the Marlins last summer, a day after the clubhouse was buzzing about obtaining Paul Lo Duca and Guillermo Mota in a trade from Los Angeles on July 30.

Valdez, 31, was acquired from San Diego the next day and went on to become one of Florida's most effective starters down the stretch.

He posted a 5-3 record with a 4.50 ERA in 11 starts for Florida, including 3-1 at Pro Player Stadium. Overall, he was 9-3 with a 2.55 ERA at home. And only 16 pitchers in the National League won more games than him.

Valdez should get the fifth spot in a rotation that could start with right-handers A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett and left-handers Al Leiter and Dontrelle Willis.

"It's a great opportunity," Valdez said from Texas, where he and his wife were expecting their second child. "It's a team full of players that are young and motivated."

But he also has plenty of room for improvement. He was 5-6 with a 8.56 ERA on the road. And overall he allowed 33 home runs, tied with Jose Lima for the third-highest total in the National League.

"It's something I can't explain myself," said Valdez, who is 59-47 with a 3.30 ERA in his career at home but 43-56 with a 4.86 ERA on the road. "Most of my career I played good at home and OK on the road. It's something I can't understand. I don't know what it is. It's something I need to fix."

Valdez, who made $800,000 last year, declined Florida's offer of salary arbitration last month. He had until Saturday (Jan. 8) to re-sign or he would have had to wait until May 1 to reach a deal.

Notes from Florida:

  • The Marlins added two key pitchers, filling out their rotation with Ismael Valdez and bolstering their bullpen with John Riedling.
  • The team was working on multiyear deals with two players - Paul Lo Duca and A.J. Burnett. Lo Duca receive a firm three-year offer, reportedly worth a total of $18 million, and signed to stay on with the Marlins.
  • Marlins special assistant Andre Dawson is puzzled by his exclusion from the Hall of Fame in a year when voters elected Ryne Sandberg. Dawson hit .279 with 438 home runs, 1,591 RBI and 314 stolen bases in 21 seasons with the Expos, Cubs, Red Sox and Marlins. He played on knees hobbled by 12 operations.
He said what? "Most of my career I played good at home and OK on the road. It's something I can't understand. I don't know what it is. It's something I need to fix." -- RHP Ismael Valdez, who has a better career record pitching in home games than on the road.


In October, few thought the Mets had much of a chance of signing Pedro Martinez. Nobody thought they any shot of getting Carlos Beltran.

Two months and $172 million later, the Mets have a new ace and a new star center fielder. They also have newfound hope for the future.

General manager Omar Minaya completed his dream daily double by getting Beltran to agree to a seven-year deal worth $119 million.

The deal came together quickly when Beltran couldn't come to an agreement with his former team, the Houston Astros, before Saturday's deadline. Beltran had declined arbitration, giving the team until midnight Saturday to strike a deal. The Astros reportedly offered Beltran a seven-year deal worth $100 million.

Beltran was the star of the free-agent class but lacked suitors. Outside of the Mets and Astros, no other team made him a solid offer. The Yankees declined to get involved, and the Cubs didn't go beyond a modest five-year offer.

The switch-hitting Beltran raised his stock in the playoffs, hitting .435 with eight home runs, 14 RBI, nine walks and six stolen bases in 12 games while leading the Astros within a victory of the franchise's first World Series berth.

The Mets withheld comment on Beltran pending a press conference in New York. He was scheduled to have a physical on Monday.

The flip side of the Mets' mega-deals this offseason for Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez has been the purge of the roster. And that purge continued when backup catcher Vance Wilson was traded to the Tigers for a minor-league shortstop.

Wilson joins Ricky Bottalico, John Franco, Richard Hidalgo, Al Leiter and Mike Stanton as players new GM Omar Minaya has dropped since the end of the season.

Wilson, 31, is a 44th-round draft pick who spent parts of six seasons with the Mets. He hit .274 with 21 RBI in 79 games last season.

"I was shocked but not saddened," said Wilson, who served as the Mets' player representative the last two years and was a clubhouse leader. "Detroit has fun and they're a hard-nosed team. That might fit me better."

The Tigers expect Wilson to serve as the primary backup to Pudge Rodriguez. That will allow Brandon Inge to stick to third base.

"In talking to (Detroit GM) Dave Dombrowski, they plan on using me a lot," Wilson said. "They want to keep Pudge rested and maybe DH him some more."

The Mets plan to start the season with Mike Piazza catching. Jason Phillips and minor-league free agent Ramon Castro are currently his backups.

In return for Wilson, the Mets received 22-year-old Anderson Hernandez. A 5-foot-9, 168-pound Dominican, Hernandez spent most of last season with Class AA Erie, hitting .274 with only 29 RBI. Baseball America chose him as Detroit's best minor-league defensive player after the 2004 season.

Notes from New York:

  • The Mets held a voluntary minicamp at their Florida complex this week. New manager Willie Randolph and his coaching staff were in attendance. Only a handful of players elected to attend, including Kris Benson, Victor Zambrano and David Wright.
  • Vance Wilson was traded to the Tigers on Jan. 6 for minor-league SS Anderson Hernandez. Wilson, 31, is a 44th-round draft pick who spent parts of six seasons with the Mets. He hit .274 with 21 RBI in 79 games last season.
He said what? "Vance has been a valuable contributor to our team over the last few years. However, this trade enables us to capitalize on our catching depth to add a young switch-hitting shortstop to our minor-league system." -- GM Omar Minaya on trading Vance Wilson to the Tigers for SS Anderson Hernandez.


Many Phillies fans cringed when they heard that former Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg had been voted into the Hall of Fame.

Sandberg, of course, was a throw-in with Larry Bowa in the deal that brought Ivan DeJesus from the Cubs in 1982. So that's a trade that will go down in history as being just as lopsided as the one that sent future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins to the Cubs in 1966.

Even Sandberg admitted, however, that playing in Chicago created an environment that allowed him to flourish, a set of circumstances that might not have existed had he stayed with the Phillies.

There is, for example, the fact that he played for Jim Frey in 1984. He called that the turning point of his career.

"(Frey) asked me to do something no coach or manager had asked me to do, which was hit for power," Sandberg said.

After batting .261 with eight homers and 48 RBI in 1983, Sandberg put together a .314-19-84 year, scored 114 runs ... and won the NL Most Valuable Player Award.

Then there's the fact that Sandberg played his home games at Wrigley Field.

"From the moment I got to the ballpark, I knew all the games were going to be on (superstation) WGN and that all my family and friends had a chance to be watching," he said.

"As for Wrigley Field, I don't think there's a better atmosphere," he said. "I enjoyed day baseball and always saw the ball very well there. Anytime I was struggling, I always knew that I had a homestand coming up and everything would be fine."

Finally, there's the fact that he got an immediate chance to play regularly with the Cubs, an opportunity that almost certainly wouldn't have existed had he stayed with the Phillies.

"They were stacked at the positions I played," he recalled.

The Phillies, at the time, weren't even sure what position Sandberg should play. But they had Mike Schmidt at third, Manny Trillo at second and Garry Maddox in center. "I didn't have many backers in the Phillies' system, either," he said in his 1995 autobiography, "Second to Home."

So maybe he would have ended up in the Hall of Fame anyway if he had remained with the Phillies.

And maybe he wouldn't have.

Notes from Philly:

  • Jimmy Rollins and the Phillies are continuing to talk about a long term deal for a two-time All-Star who is arbitration-eligible for the second time.
  • Jim Thome's mother, Joyce, passed away at age 68 after a year-long battle with lung cancer.
  • Keith Bucktrot, Franklin Perez, Zach Segovia and Juan Richardson participated in the annual Rookie Career Development Program in Washington, D.C.
He said what? "I want to be on a winner. That was a big key for me going into this whole free agent thing." -- LHP Eric Milton, the Phillies' winningest starter in 2004, after signing as a free agent with the Cincinnati Reds.


Washington ensured that its reigning MVP will be well-compensated. The club signed outfielder/first baseman Brad Wilkerson to a one-year, $3.05 million contract, avoiding arbitration in the process.

Wilkerson, 27, tied with departed third baseman Tony Batista for the club lead with 32 homers in 2004 and led the Expos with 106 walks, 71 extra-base hits and a .374 on-base percentage. Though he hit just .255 and drove in just 67 runs (the result of batting leadoff 107 times), Wilkerson received a substantial raise from his $375,000 salary last year.

Interim general manager Jim Bowden, though, was more than willing to increase Wilkerson's salary eight-fold if it meant avoiding arbitration.

"We are very pleased that we were able to come to an agreement with Brad without going through the arbitration process," Bowden said. "Brad is an important part of this franchise and one of the future leaders of the Washington Nationals."

Though Wilkerson's value to the Nationals is clear, it's not clear where he'll end up playing in the field or batting in the lineup. A natural left fielder, he actually made more starts at first base (78) than any other position in 2004 because of Nick Johnson's injury woes.

Ideally, manager Frank Robinson would like to start Wilkerson in left field all season. But there remains a chance he could again get the bulk of his starts at first, with second-year sensation Terrmel Sledge in left and Johnson coming off the bench.

Wilkerson's place in the lineup is also up in the air. Despite his impressive power numbers, his penchant for getting on base prompted Robinson to bat him at the top of the order much of last season. With no other reliable leadoff hitters on the roster at the moment, Wilkerson could again be needed to fill that role.

If he bats further down in the lineup, club officials believe Wilkerson could surpass 100 RBI this year.

Notes from D.C.:

  • The Nationals hired Don Buford as first-base coach, Dave Huppert as third-base coach and Jack Voigt as roving coach. All three played at one time for the Baltimore Orioles, just as Washington manager Frank Robinson did. Buford, a teammate of Robinson in the late '60s, still worked for the Orioles in recent years -- last year as manager at Class A Aberdeen, the previous two as director of minor-league operations. Voigt also managed in the Orioles' system for several years. Huppert has never coached in the major leagues but has an extensive minor-league managerial background, including the last two at Class AAA Edmonton.
  • Washington hired Jose Rijo as special assistant to the general manager and Jose Cardenal as special advisor to the GM. Both are former players with the Cincinnati Reds, where Nationals interim GM Jim Bowden previously worked more than a decade.
  • The Nationals have signed four of their seven arbitration-eligible players to one-year contracts: OF/1B Brad Wilkerson, C Brian Schneider, RHP T.J. Tucker and LHP Joey Eischen. Three arbitration-eligible players remain unsigned: 1B Nick Johnson, RHP Tony Armas Jr. and RHP Tomo Ohka.
He said what? "We don't want to spend money on a stopgap solution. That doesn't make sense. We're better off giving the ball to Mike Hinckley or John Patterson or Jon Rauch and continuing to develop our young pitchers within. Our dollars are better spent on player development and scouting and building the ballclub the right way." -- Interim GM Jim Bowden, on the club's decision not to pursue any veteran free-agent pitchers.

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