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March 8, 2000

NL East Notebook

Job Battles

by Derek Zumsteg

Atlanta Braves

The NL champions head into camp with a lot of questions. The biggest seems to be what they're going to do at shortstop, where Walt Weiss is 36 and a bad, bad player. The team's only alternative may be to push 19-year-old Rafael Furcal, one of the top prospects in baseball but with no experience above A ball. Furcal would be well served by spending some quality time at Double-A against stiffer opposition, but as the Braves have proven with Andruw Jones, they're willing to make the high-risk gamble of bringing Furcal up and giving him all the time he needs. Furcal's spring performance may determine which way the Braves go. Ozzie Guillen will be a complaining bystander either way, and would be released except for his bizarre hold on GM John Schuerholz.

First base is also a mess. Will Andres Galarraga come back from cancer and, if not, how will they arrange Brian Hunter and Wally Joyner, once the latter returns from his broken foot? Hunter did well in a platoon role in 1999, hitting .290/.379/.492 against left-handers, while Joyner was used primarily against right-handers, hitting a weak .248/.370/.322, so a strict platoon is possible. Galarraga was a great hitter, but he's 39 now, and coming off a year of inactivity, Joyner is 38 and has been inadequate the last few years, and Hunter is 32, so there's actually a good chance that the whole house of toothpicks could fall apart.

The Braves don't have any good first-base prospects in the system, so should that happen they would have to go to Randall Simon, who isn't good enough offensively or defensively to take the field every day. The only way this can turn out well for Atlanta is if Galarraga makes a full recovery and returns close to form. I wouldn't be surprised if the Braves look to acquire someone with a bat to wait patiently in Triple-A, like long-time Zumsteg favorite J.R. "Deer" Phillips.

Javy Lopez is back from his torn ACL, but catchers and knee injuries are a bad combination. We're starting to hear that he's nursing a hand injury as well, and catching is not going to help that heal. The Braves may also be looking to pick up a backup who can hit, someone in the Bill Haselman mold. Greg Maddux's imprimatur may guarantee Eddie Perez's job security, but that doesn't mean he should be counted on for anything beyond cheerleading and bench varnishing.

In the bullpen, Rocker's spouting and related unwarranted punishment will give McGlinchy the chance to win the closer spot out of spring training, and they'll test Mulholland to see if he can pitch another year of swing relief out of those knees, and the rest should shake itself out.

Florida Marlins

Derrek Lee is dying to lose his job again, but it's his to lose, and Brant Brown will have to read up on where first base is to challenge for it. Kevin Millar isn't that good either, but one of these three will take the field on Opening Day, and spring training will decide which one it is.

One of the serious battles in camp is going to be for the utility infielder spot, contested among Amaury Garcia, Matt Erickson and Chris Clapinski, all decent hitters who can play the field. Three shall enter, and there's only room for two, max. In the outfield, Mark Kotsay will need to stave off an early challenge from Julio Ramirez to delay the inevitable in right field.

The starting rotation is also fluid, with Alex Fernandez, Ryan Dempster and Vladimir Nunez slated for the first three slots, and A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny and Jason Grilli competing for the last two places. Burnett didn't do a lot to warrant a callup before pitching well in the majors in September, but he does cook with some hot, hot gas. Penny is a great prospect who isn't ready and Grilli needs some time in the minors, too. Two of them will be thrown to the fire on the basis of their spring-training performances, which means that it may well be the loser who gets the best deal of the bunch.

Montreal Expos

Rondell White's spring training is probably going to be more a dog show than anything. He wants to get out and the Expos have a set of young outfielders in Peter Bergeron and Milton Bradley to play alongside Vladimir Guerrero. If Jim Beattie can't pull off a trade, expect White to be found in the team library next to a discarded candlestick, and the two cheerful 22-year olds to have mutually-supporting alibis.

The Expos will be watching their pitchers carefully. While they've got a talented young rotation of Javier Vazquez, Dustin Hermanson and Mike Thurman, led by, er, veteran pitcher Hideki Irabu, they'd like to see Carl Pavano put together a good season and take the fifth starter spot, leaving Miguel Batista to play a swing role. Ted Lilly and Antonio Armas could steal rotation spots from Thurman and Pavano out of spring training and push those two into the bullpen. Commentators are going to talk about the need for some of the young starters to "step up", but they'd all be welcome in the rotations of most clubs in the league.

If Bob Henley proves he's healthy and can hit like the Expos believe he can, he could share the catching duties with Chris Widger, who used to sit in the bullpen in Seattle patiently, talking to fans like me, while plotting his escape.

New York Mets

It will be interesting if the Mets see their problems in spring training or if it will be well into the season when it hits them. With Rickey Henderson likely to be dealt to whoever's willing to take him (and I'd like to again point out that Vegas could use a MLB franchise, where a poker-playing fiend like Rickey would feel right at home), the Mets are going to need to shake out an outfield.

It looks like Benny Agbayani will stick as a left fielder, Derek Bell will play right field and be blamed for the team's problems, lost super-prospect Alex Escobar will be given the chance to win the center field spot, Darryl Hamilton will arm-wrestle Jon Nunnally for the chance to be the backup outfielder and left-handed bat, and Jay Payton will somehow injure himself and take himself out of the mix. A poor performance by Escobar could send him to the minors to retrain and put the center field job up for grabs. A strong spring for suddenly-28-year-old "prospect" Jorge Toca could win him some playing time in the outfield and first base, stealing ABs from Todd Zeile.

The back of the Met rotation is a mess, with Bobby Jones (the worse one), Pat Mahomes and Grant Roberts, who's only 22 and could develop given the chance to cut his hit rate. The major-league club, unfortunately, is not that place. Eric Cammack might even make a decent starter, but the organization has him down for relieving, and that's where he'll be. The Mets will likely go with Bobby Jones regardless of what happens in spring training, and Mahomes will join Armando Benitez, John Franco, Turk Wendell, Dennis Cook and Jesse Orosco in the bullpen.

Philadelphia Phillies

The real battle this spring will be between offensive super-prospect Pat Burrell and collapsed star Ron Gant. Burrell could be a complete hitter next year, hitting .300/.400/.600, a leading Rookie of the Year candidate and one of the best left fielders in the game. In the opposite corner, the 35-year-old Gant is a fair bet to be the worst regular left fielder in the league. If Gant has a strong spring, and Burrell falters, Gant could be traded to a gullible team or be able to rest easy until mid-season. Otherwise, Gant should be the most expensive fourth outfielder in baseball, as hard as that move will be to make.

With Curt Schilling out until May, there's a chance for young, abused Randy Wolf to find a rotation slot. Robert Person seems to have figured out how to pitch, which leaves only the fifth spot open. Amaury Telemaco may be motivated enough by last year's bizarre usage to win it outright, but it's going to be an open audition against him. Cliff Politte may also have a chance, but the Phillies have had such a hard time figuring out what to do with him that it's unlikely his spring will determine his role.

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