Taking their best cuts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Philadelphia Phillies spent a fortune over the winter to position themselves for a strong run at the National League East title and to develop a team suitable for the fancy new ballpark they will move into next year.

The New York Mets also made expensive improvements in an attempt to climb back into serious contention after a difficult 2002 season and compete more effectively in America's most demanding sports market.

Meanwhile, the perennial division champion Atlanta Braves lost two-time Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine to the Mets and traded cornerstone starting pitcher Kevin Millwood to the Phillies.

So, is this a changing of the guard or what? Not necessarily.

"The NL East goes through Atlanta until somebody proves otherwise," said Montreal Expos manager Frank Robinson.

Good point. The Braves' divisional dynasty has been written off before. Their Big Two starters - Glavine and Greg Maddux - were supposed to be over the hill by now. The Mets finally got tired of waiting and spent $35 million to lure Glavine over the fence instead.

"We thought they were [vulnerable] last year," said Robinson, whose Expos were the only NL East team other than the Braves with a winning record in 2002, "and they left everybody in the dust from May on. They have the know-how. They have the experience. They have the people who have been through it all."

That's why the Phillies felt they had to make a big offseason splash. They gave free-agent slugger Jim Thome, who hit 52 home runs for the Cleveland Indians last season, the biggest contract of the winter ($85 million over six years) and signed power-hitting third baseman David Bell to offset the loss of pending free agent Scott Rolen last summer.

That's also why the Mets outbid the Orioles for free-agent outfielder Cliff Floyd and moved decisively to upgrade their starting rotation.

There is little doubt both teams improved enough to create an interesting three-team race, but the Braves didn't exactly sit on their hands over the winter.

They pulled off the complex offseason deal that brought them starting pitcher Mike Hampton without saddling themselves with the bulk of his huge contract. They also acquired starting pitcher Russ Ortiz from the San Francisco Giants and signed free-agent pitcher Paul Byrd, who did the seemingly impossible by winning 17 games for the Kansas City Royals last year. Somehow, general manager John Schuerholz always finds a way to keep the Braves in a position to win.

"I think we've done great in losing three real good pitchers [including Damian Moss] and getting three real good pitchers back," manager Bobby Cox said. "They've got their own big shoes to fill. I don't think these guys feel any more pressure than the guys who are gone would feel trying to repeat what they did last year."

Still, there is enough uncertainty in the new-look Braves rotation to keep everyone guessing for a while.

Hampton is coming off a 7-15 record in his second year pitching in the thin air of Colorado. Byrd's 17-win performance was only his second big season in a major league career that stretches over parts of eight years, and he's likely to start the season on the disabled list with a sore elbow. And the other NL East teams can hope that this really is the year that Maddux, 36, goes into decline.

The Braves did not have a particularly strong offensive season in 2002, ranking 10th in the National League with 708 runs, but they feature one of the league's most productive outfields. Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones and Gary Sheffield averaged 29 home runs and 93 RBIs last year and could improve on that if the hitters at the top of the lineup do a better job of getting on base in 2003.

The Phillies featured an offense that was comparable to the Braves' last year, but the arrival of Thome and Bell should put them into the upper tier of NL lineups.

"I like our lineup, but obviously, the key is going to be pitching," Phillies manager Larry Bowa said. "That's the key to every team. If you can pitch and catch the ball, you've got a chance to win."

Bowa spent the spring raving about Millwood, who was 18-8 with a 3.24 ERA for the Braves last year. He'll head a rotation that also has solid left-hander Randy Wolf (11-9, 3.20 ERA), right-hander Vicente Padilla, second-year starter Brandon Duckworth and promising Brett Myers. If Duckworth isn't fully recovered from elbow tendinitis, his place would be taken temporarily by Joe Roa.

Clearly, it is a pitching staff with potential, but the rotation isn't deep enough to make the Phillies a can't-miss playoff team.

The Mets appear to be stronger at the head of the rotation, with Glavine and Al Leiter in the top two slots, but No. 3 starter Pedro Astacio could miss part of April with biceps tendinitis and open the fifth spot for comeback pitcher David Cone. That uncertainty does not extend to the bullpen, where the Mets improved with the signing of free-agent setup man Mike Stanton.

The batting order is packed with run-production potential, though it remains to be seen how much of it will be realized. First baseman Mo Vaughn appears to have his weight under control, which should give him a better chance of staying healthy all year. Floyd finally has a permanent home after playing for three teams last season. Roberto Alomar should have enough incentive to re-emerge as a marquee player after another letdown year in 2002.

The wild card could be Jeromy Burnitz, whose numbers plummeted (.215, 19 homers, 54 RBIs) in his first season back with the Mets last year.

There may be too many question marks to project the Mets as a probable playoff team, but Vaughn said it's anybody's race.

"Everybody's going to be bunched up," Vaughn said. "Everybody has helped themselves in key areas. It's definitely going to be tough. It's like the AL East used to be, when Baltimore, New York, the Red Sox and Toronto all were playing very well.

"You know day in and day out that you have to play every game, because it's going to be meaningful."

New Mets manager Art Howe, who last year led the Oakland Athletics to a title in the powerful American League West, is in for another competitive race.

"I think this division is going to be tougher than the one I just left," he said.

It might be a mistake to assume it will be only a three-team race. The Florida Marlins aren't going to score a lot of runs, but they added premier catcher Ivan Rodriguez and boast a promising young rotation that could pop at any time. The Expos had to trade 20-game winner Bartolo Colon to make budget, but they seem to find a way to compete every year.

Robinson watched from the sidelines while the big-market NL East teams filled holes all winter. His team, meanwhile, downsized again after a surprising second-place finish and pondered a season in which the Expos will play part of their home schedule in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

"People expected us to hold everybody up from last place last year, and they expect us to do that this year," Robinson said. "If you put us on paper, we don't look like we match up with a lot of ballclubs, but on the field I think we'll match up all right."

Bowa agrees.

"They are all great teams in our division," he said. "You can't take anybody lightly. The Expos and Marlins can beat you up every night. It's a very deep division."

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