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Look for a tight race in NL East
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02/12/2003 09:00 am ET 
Look for a tight race in NL East
 

Baseball Perspectives
 Tom Singer

Kevin Millwood, 18-game winner for the Braves, takes his show to Philadelphia. (John Amis/MLB.com)
In keeping with the theme of baseball globalization, the 2003 NL East race won't just be a marathon, as the dog-eared adage holds. It will be the Tour de France; frequent lead changes, bumping around turns, waiting to ride the draft of a winning streak away from the pack.

Lost amidst the excitement of quantum leaps by New York and Philadelphia, often at Atlanta's direct expense, into bona fide contention, is the fact they were two of the 2002 division's weak links. Montreal and Florida were four games on either side of .500 and they, too, are confident of starting a new season with a better team that ended the old one.

Sort it all out, and this is the tightest pack, top to bottom, of any of MLB's six divisions.

The Braves' direction is truly intriguing. They have replaced three starters (Tom Glavine, Kevin Millwood, Damian Moss) who went 48-25 and replaced them with three (Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, Paul Byrd) who were 38-36. They also replaced a bullpen quartet that went 18-9 and logged 239 games with a foursome that was 6-7 and worked 200 games for their respective clubs.

But they also subbed out $28.8 million, the 2003 salaries of the departed seven, for the $11 million they will have to pay their replacements.

complete coverage: spring training 2003

General manager John Schuerholz believes such payroll flexibility was necessary to balance out the club, after its long pitching-dominated run. Indeed, he put some of the disposable cash to immediate use by picking up a bargain: All-Star outfielder Robert Fick, his new first baseman.

The lefty-hitting Fick's 17 homers and 63 RBIs will look good in a lineup that cranked only 43 homers from that side, including switch-hitter Chipper Jones' 22 from the left side. The Braves should also get an offensive boost from full seasons out of Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez, and a reversal of recent fortunes by Vinny Castilla.

In fact, considering they were middle-of-the-pack in every significant offensive department, it's hard to figure out how the 2002 Braves won 101 games.

Wait ... no it isn't. Pitching, layers of it. It isn't realistic to expect the Braves to again rank in the Majors' top two in ERA, as they have for 11 straight years, but ...

"I think we can win even more games than we did last year," manager Bobby Cox says, defiantly. "We're going to hit the ball a lot better. We're going to be fine. We'd kept the core of the staff together for a long time. Now it's gone."

And Leo Mazzone's genius gets the acid test of a new crop. The pitching coach has gotten the same outstanding results out of different combinations.

"That's not to say they're going to be as good as last year," says Mazzone, who then decides to not even try to figure it out. "Hell, I don't know."

Sounds like a good title for the NL East preseason video.

In Philadelphia, they hope they know. Ed Wade didn't take a nine-figure dive into the free-agent market just to make a splash. And when Millwood fell into his lap (the Phillies haven't had an 18-game winner since, get this, John Denny in 1983), he had to start thinking maybe all the stars were lining up to make it a Philly year.

Perhaps they are. Jim Thome, David Bell and Millwood are the proverbial finishing pieces, the sort of veterans beckoned to push a promising club over the top.

At all of 28, Millwood will be the elder of a rotation that includes Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, Brett Myers and Brandon Duckworth. Padilla concerns some people as a fragile risk, because he begged off the All-Star Game mound with a tender shoulder and followed up a 10-5 first half with a 4-6 second, but his ERA remained solid after the break (3.60), implying what hurt most was his run support.

The bullpen is more worthy of anxiety. Jose Mesa, a bargain pickup after he had one save in 2000 in Seattle, amazed the Phillies by regrouping for 42 saves in 2001 and amazed them again by coming back with 45 last year. Can he amaze yet again, at 37?

New corner infielders are nice, and the Phillies also have studs (Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu) in the corners of the outfield. But has someone overlooked that bromide about up-the-middle strength? Besides solid catcher Mike Lieberthal, it consists of the DP combo of Jimmy Rollins (.306 on-base percentage atop the lineup) and Placido Polanco, and rookie center fielder Marlon Byrd, who takes over for Doug Glanville.

The Mets are back with another facelift, after last year's procedure quickly sagged. They could be truly fearsome, with Cliff Floyd joining a Mo Vaughn-Roberto Alomar-Jeromy Burnitz class that has to make good on some IOUs.

Art Howe is supposed to make it work better this time, but there's much more to him than the quieter demeanor that will smooth out the post-Bobby Valentine clubhouse. He never seems to be the first choice anywhere -- remember the Mets' hopes for Lou Piniella? -- but he won 85-plus games in half of his dozen seasons in Houston and Oakland.

Glavine, Al Leiter and Steve Trachsel are formidable at the head of the rotation, and Armando Benitez is underrated as a closer (only seven blown saves the last two seasons). Ex-Yankee Mike Stanton gets the Mets some buzz points in The Apple but certainly can't do much more for them on the mound than did the left-hander (Mark Guthrie, 2.44 ERA in 68 games) he replaces.

Realistically, neither the Marlins nor the Expos will be able to remain in the mix beyond the second round of intradivisional play. But both will be big pains in the sides of the frontrunners -- and perhaps even their sources of reinforcements when the calendar turns to August.

Talent runs deep in the division, and even the perceived doormats flaunt stars, from the Expos' V-Boys -- Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro, Javier Vazquez -- to the Marlins' prized batteries -- Ivan Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett/Josh Beckett.

Give either team some momentum and confidence-growth, and could they vie for some of those yellow jerseys in the NL East Grand Prix?

Hell, we don't know.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.



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