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For the first time in a few years, the pack begins to move away from the
Atlanta Braves, as the New York Mets make a series of poor decisions. The
Philadelphia Phillies, once again, think they’re closer than they actually
are, while the Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins take more baby steps
toward respectability.

Atlanta Braves

While standing firm behind an Angelesque "having everyone healthy will
be like signing three top free agents" front, the Braves have tinkered
enough to keep them the favorites in the division. The big move, trading
Bret Boone and Ryan Klesko to San Diego for Reggie
Sanders
, Quilvio Veras and Wally Joyner, will improve
them offensively by giving them good OBPs at the top of the lineup, at the
cost of some power. A hidden cost in the swap is that the Braves have
exchanged two players with excellent health records for two who
consistently miss 30 games a year. Given Atlanta’s problems putting
together an acceptable bench, that could hurt when Sanders and Veras have
their annual injuries.

Of course, the Braves have a lot of experience in working around injuries.
They expect to get back Andres Galarraga and Javy Lopez, who
combined to play half a season in 1999. While Galarraga will get most of
the press, his return to form is both less important and less likely than
that of Lopez, who was the Braves’ best player in the first half of 1999
before tearing his right ACL. Lopez’s return will make up for the power the
Braves lost in the trade with the Padres.

Galarraga is a complete wild card. Expecting him to reach his 1998 level is
folly, and it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to play 120 games, something
the Braves acknowledged by picking up Joyner. If the Big Cat is healthy
enough, though, he would be an upgrade on Brian R. Hunter–albeit an
expensive one–in the role of right-handed-hitting first baseman.

Frankly, the Braves might be better if he can’t play every day; they could
use the flexibility of a platoon to get a left-handed bat in the lineup,
offsetting a lineup that has become quite unbalanced. That the first option
would be Joyner is a problem, however.

The only other positional question is at shortstop, where Walt Weiss is
signed through 2000 and has no business being the starter. There are rumors
afloat that Rafael Furcal, one of the top ten prospects in baseball,
will be given a chance to win the job in spring training. While Furcal had
a great 1999, he’s just 19 and hasn’t played above high-A. Additionally,
come spring training he will have been playing non-stop for a year, and
like many young players who go through winter ball, should hit a wall
sometime this year. His ETA is 2001.

Hmmm…four paragraphs and no mention of a pitcher. Two of the Braves’ top
three starters had off years (for them) while the other completely changed
his pitching style midseason due to injury. So fourth starter Kevin
Millwood
stepped up to be the ace, while Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone
assembled a no-name bullpen that was among the best in the league. There’s
no reason to expect the 2000 staff to be substantially worse; a full year
of an improving Bruce Chen should actually make it even better.

They’re still the favorite. And thanks to Steve Phillips, their position is
as good as it’s been in years.

Florida Marlins

It’s been a quiet winter in South Florida, following two offseasons filled
with more player movement than a Rotisserie League full of speed addicts.
Dave Dombrowski cashed in Brian Meadows for some bullpen help, and
exiled Todd Dunwoody to Outer Mongolia. OK, Kansas City. He also
made the inexplicable decision to trade Bruce Aven for Brant
Brown
, an inferior player in just about every way.

There really isn’t much for the Marlins to do at this point. They’ve filled
the organization to the brim with talent, especially young pitchers with
upside. Some of that talent will begin to make an impact this year, enough
to help the team push towards .500 and rebuild its relationship with the
baseball fans of Miami. Not enough to get John Henry his downtown baseball
palace, but enough so that you can describe the people at games as
"crowds." It’s a start.

The big challenge will be assembling an offense, which means finding
someone other than Luis Castillo with an acceptable walk rate. The
Marlins have players like Derrek Lee, Mark Kotsay and
Cliff Floyd who have shown on-base ability at various points in
their careers. They will have to resurrect that skill to match the
development of what could be a very good Marlins pitching staff in 2000.

This isn’t going to be a great year for Florida, but if you can get someone
to take a bet on who the NL wild card will be in 2001, this is a pretty
good team to pick.

Montreal Expos

What’s ruining baseball is the big-spending owners coming in and raising
player salaries for everyone by throwing money at free agents.

OK, so it’s not the Fox Dodgers or a good, old-fashioned Peter Angelos
check-writing frenzy, but Jeff Loria has raised the Expos’ payroll to
levels unseen since the strike.

He just hasn’t done that much for the team. Yet. Graeme Lloyd is a
good pickup for a team knocking on the door and needing a tactical option
in the late innings. The Expos already had Steve Kline, so Lloyd was
an interesting way for Loria to make his presence felt. Hideki Irabu
should be an effective innings-eater at the back of the rotation, and the
cost, a few B- prospects, is nothing to a team with a system as deep as
Montreal’s.

Better uses for Loria’s fortune were found, however. Last week, the team
signed Dustin Hermanson to a three-year contract for Jon Lieber
money. Hermanson pitched through an injury for much of 1999; that may have
helped the Expos lock him up, holding his price down and enabling them to
keep him. Based on his second-half performance, he should be one of the
better starters in the league for the next three years. With Javier
Vazquez
–who also had a good second half–and Carl Pavano, the
Expos have a rotation core that could be dominant in about 18 months.

Like the Marlins, the Expos have more pitching talent than hitting talent.
They do have Vladimir Guerrero, an MVP candidate for the next dozen
years, and Michael Barrett is young enough to be a good hitter,
although he would look a lot better behind the plate than at third base.

The fear at this point is that Loria and General Manager Jim Beattie will
continue to spend money for the sake of spending it, acquiring mediocre,
expensive veterans that won’t make a difference to a team still two years
away from contending. As much as Loria wants to build excitement in the
city, he’d be better off saving his money for the free-agent class of 2000,
and for current Expos like Vazquez, Pavano and Barrett, who will be the
core of the next good Expos team.

New York Mets

What a mess. The Mets got within two wins of the World Series last year
because they ran high OBPs up and down the lineup, save Rey Ordonez.
It was that simple: they had a rotation full of six-inning starters and
enough good relievers to make leads stand up. For all the talk about the
infield defense or Armando Benitez, this team won by having runners
on base.

It won’t do that in 2000. Two decisions have crimped the Mets’ offense and
defense without providing them payroll flexibility or dramatically
improving the pitching staff. Yes, Mike Hampton was great last year
and will be the #1 starter the Mets haven’t had since they traded David
Cone
. But he won’t be that much better than Octavio Dotel, while
costing millions more than their top pitching prospect will for the Astros.

The small gain their is completely wiped out by the other half of the
trade, Roger Cedeno for Derek Bell. Conservatively, that’s a
difference of 30 to 40 runs, or three to four games. Sure, Bell may not be
as bad as he was last year, but Cedeno could have another year like 1999,
and was a dominant defensive player for the Mets. The trade with the Astros
cost the Mets on the field, in their wallet and on the calendar.

It gets worse. First baseman John Olerud signed with the Seattle
Mariners after the Mets dallied in getting him signed. To replace him, the
Mets signed Todd Zeile, who will hit and play first base like a
third baseman, at a comparable cost. The signing smacked of panic; Zeile is
a significantly worse option than any number of available minor-league free
agents, and the difference between him and Olerud should cost the Mets
another win or two.

Giving away their #5 starter, Masato Yoshii, for the cheap thrill of
revisiting the "two Bob Millers" fun from the bad old days
doesn’t help matters. The two Bobby Joneses should be the #4 and #5
starters; neither is a good bet to hold their job.

You can sleep, George. With the damage done to their immediate hopes and a
farm system stripped of talent, the Mets aren’t going to threaten the
Yankees for New York’s affections again anytime soon.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies have actually done a decent job of addressing their needs this
winter. They picked up a good #2 starter in Andy Ashby, which will
help stabilize a rotation that has been a problem since their last
postseason appearance in 1993. They added reliever Mike Jackson
without breaking the bank for him. If healthy–and he passed a physical
prior to signing–he’ll be one of the most effective relievers in the
league. The two pitchers help a staff that has pretty much been a disaster
behind ace Curt Schilling for years.

The bad news, of course, is that Schilling’s right shoulder finally gave
out and had to be surgically repaired. This came as a shock to three
people: two of them live in a mud hut in Uzbekistan, and the third manages
the Phillies. Schilling has been an injury waiting to happen for two years,
yet Terry Francona rode him like ABC rides Regis Philbin. Now he’s out
until at least May, which doesn’t bode well for Ashby or Robert
Person
, the two people most likely to shoulder the load in his absence.

The Phillies essentially wasted two years of Schilling. The team around him
wasn’t good enough to win, filled with the start of the next great Phillies
team in Scott Rolen and Bobby Abreu, but not enough
surrounding talent to push the team into the postseason. Ed Wade’s refusal
to trade Schilling, with his injury risk and low salary, is a decision the
team will regret as it goes into an up cycle lacking the kind of young
talent a Schilling trade would have brought.

Like the Marlins and Expos, the Phillies will look a lot better in 2001,
when Pat Burrell is in the lineup, Randy Wolf has some
innings under his belt and Jimmy Rollins is staking a claim to
playing time at second base or shortstop. This year, however, promises to
be a lot like the last two: a .500 team trying to will its way into a
playoff race and falling short.