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Notebook: Arms race in NL East

Special to

April 28

At the end of the first four-week leg of the season, the National League East was tied at 15-10 between the Braves, Expos and Phillies. What has been different is that the Expos and Phillies have clearly risen to challenge the Braves in the style that has won 11 consecutive division titles for Atlanta -- pitching.

No longer second fiddle
How the Expos and Phillies' pitching stats compare to those compiled by the Braves:
Team Overall ERA Starters ERA Strike
OPS Against
Montreal 2.93 2.99 183 .708
Philadelphia 3.40 3.60 181 .678
Atlanta 4.47 4.61 151 .751
Through 4/27

Even with the loss of Junior Armas, Montreal's young staff, anchored by Javier Vazquez, is leading the league in staff ERA and starters' ERA.

With Greg Maddux struggling early and injuries to Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd, we haven't yet seen the Braves get on a pitching roll.

But realizing that the Phillies have not yet begun to hit the way they can -- and will -- what is developing with the pitching staff worries the rest of the division. "There's a lot of talent here," pitching coach Joe Kerrigan said. "It's getting better. There are a lot of different looks here and that's good. It's pretty exciting."

Indeed, Millwood has taken to the front of the rotation with his four wins. But as they arrived in Los Angeles on Monday, Millwood, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers were 11-7. Perhaps more impressive is the fact they had struck out 117 in 124 1/3 innings. Wolf is already one of the game's best left-handed starters. Padilla, in Kerrigan's words, "has as good a fastball as any starter in the game. The other night he threw 112 pitches, 100 of them were fastballs and he dominated."

Brett Myers
Starting pitcher
Philadelphia Phillies
4 25.0 1-2 12 27 2.88

And now the 22-year-old Myers is taking off. Now, there was a time at the end of spring training when Larry Bowa was worried about Myers' ability to adjust, but that has changed. "By the end of spring training we knew by his side sessions that he had gotten it," Kerrigan said. "And his stuff is very good. He's got both the good four-seamer and the sinker, his changeup is above average and his curveball is as good as anyone's. It's a power curveball, but it's different than Flash Gordon's, and it's more over the top than the one that Pedro Martinez throws. It's straight down, but it has run action near the end."

Kerrigan also said he believes that as Brandon Duckworth gets innings, his improvement will show. He insists "this is a good bullpen, especially now that we have Turk (Wendell). They complement one another and they believe in one another."

But what Millwood did in front of 40,016 -- on a Sunday when the Flyers and 76ers were alive and the Eagles were drafting -- created an electric atmosphere. "It was like the '70s all over again," said Kerrigan, who grew up an ardent Phillies fan.

In Atlanta, general manager John Schuerholz knew there'd be days like Sunday. He also believed that when those days came, the Braves would be right around first place. "We have a budget, we had to meet it and not only did we expect to remake the team into another contender, but we were still going to have one of the top five payrolls in the game," Schuerholz said.

On the day Millwood no-hit the Giants, Russ Ortiz beat Milwaukee. Millwood is 4-1 with a 3.48 ERA, Ortiz 3-2, 3.62. Millwood makes $9.9 million, Ortiz $4.67 million.

That is the heart of what happened to the Braves pitching, which lost Tom Glavine, Millwood and Damian Moss (total: $22.5 million) and replaced them with Ortiz, Hampton and Byrd -- and now Horacio Ramirez at a total cost to the Braves of $7.9 million. Gone as well are Mike Remlinger and Chris Hammond (total: $5.7 million) and replaced them with Roberto Hernandez and Ray King (Cost: $1.2 million).

"To keep our staff together," Schuerholz said, "would have cost us an extra $25 million, and we could not afford to do that." Not with a half-dozen players making over $10 million. The Mets, with the second highest payroll in the majors, have four making eight figures.

"Watching Roberto Hernandez throwing 97-98 and Ray King working every day in front of John Smoltz, I believe the Braves bullpen is better this year than last," " Montreal GM Omar Minaya said.

Obviously, the Phillies are a far stronger team than any NL East competitor last season and Millwood is one reason. If the Expos get Armas back and stay healthy, they are very dangerous.

Schuerholz did offer Millwood to several teams, including Boston for Casey Fossum. He ultimately took catcher Johnny Estrada rather than non-tendering his longtime pitcher.

Now it will all come down to how Ortiz, Ramirez, Hampton and Byrd perform because the landscape of the NL East is far, far different. If the Marlins hadn't lost one of the best pitchers in the league, A.J. Burnett, they could have joined in because the power at the top is designed to emulate what made the Braves so great for so long.

Trivia challenge
Question: Name the players traded for NFL draftees Drew Henson (Houston) and Corey Jenkins (Miami). Jenkins was a first-round pick of the Red Sox in 1995 who flopped and went to the University of South Carolina. (Answer at bottom.)

Diamond Notes

  • Boston's bullpen problems are well-documented, worsened by Chad Fox's pulled oblique muscle. So look for the Red Sox to do something quickly. One immediate possibility is a three-way deal that would sent Shea Hillenbrand to the Cubs, closer Scott Williamson to the Red Sox and Juan Cruz to the Reds. GM Jim Bowden has been looking for a low-cost starter (he could move Danny Graves to the bullpen), and the Cubs have been scouting Hillenbrand.

  • Incidentally, after the Angels had John Burkett checked for some foreign substance, one Red Sox official said, "fortunately they didn't look hard enough." Remember Dale Mohorcic, who appeared in 14 consecutive games for Bobby Valentine and the Rangers? When the umps came out to get him, he swallowed his sandpaper, which led to internal bleeding that ended his career.

    Attendance concerns
    Two teams to keep an eye on:

    Texas: The Rangers had five crowds under 20,000 from 1996 through 2000. They have five already this season.

    Milwaukee: The Brewers have the third-worst percentage of capacity behind Tampa Bay and Toronto. They haven't drawn 15,000 since Opening Day. After their initial season, they were down 30 percent in 2002, and presently 50 percent down in 2003.

  • There are days like Sunday with eight errors, 27 strikeouts and a doubleheader loss to the Diamondbacks, that the Mets look like a dreadful combination of bad defense and a strikeout-pocked lineup. Which continues to turn up the heat on Steve Phillips. Three different New York papers have suggested he could be fired soon and one lower club official suggested that had they been swept by the Astros, it might have happened. But throwing Phillips to the wolves isn't going to change this week. These Mets traditionally have started slowly.

  • A's GM Billy Beane says "the best signing or trade we've made that went under the radar is Scott Hatteberg. He's been an extremely important part of this team the last two years since we signed him (after his non-tender by the Rockies) and put him at first base." Something Jimy Williams wanted to do in Boston.

  • Speaking of Hatteberg, he was reunited this weekend with his former Red Sox roommate, Eric Wedge. Asked if he thought Wedge fit as a manager, Hatteberg said, "it's like casting Marlon Brando as The Godfather -- a no doubt no-brainer."

  • When one sees that the Angels haven't had Adam Kennedy, David Eckstein, Darin Erstad together in the 9-1-2 holes and Troy Glaus has been slowed by three different injuries, it's worth the reminder that Mike Scioscia used the fewest lineups (101) of any manager last season.

  • Dodgers GM Dan Evans says he is not trading Adrian Beltre, at least not for the foreseeable future. "We're not a team built on offense," Evans said. "We're built on pitching and defense, and our offense is going to go through difficult periods. But Shawn Green is going to hit; he hit four homers in his first 49 games last season and finished with 42. Fred McGriff is going to hit. And we still believe that Beltre is going to hit. (Manager) Jim (Tracy) sat both Adrian and Fred down last week because he wanted to shake things up, but we're not throwing in the towel. It is April."

    The most pleasing part of April for the Dodgers has been the bullpen, which finished the weekend with this line: 75 IP, 51 IP, 21 BB, 77 K, 1.43 ERA. And Evans said Tom Martin, brought to a tryout by Paul Shuey, still hasn't thrown a fastball under 91 mph since he showed up at Dodgertown. Martin, Eric Gagne, Guillermo Mota and Troy Brohawn have struck out 55 in 44 1/3 innings.

  • The Marlins suddenly have two of the best prospects in the game in third baseman Miguel Cabrera (.389, 1.082 OPS in Double-A) and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (.313, Triple-A). That gives them considerable future flexibility with Derrek Lee and Mike Lowell becoming free agents at the end of the 2004 season.

  • Congratulations to an ESPN fave, Expos left-handed pitcher Scott Stewart, who won $4,000 playing Caribbean poker when the Expos were in Puerto Rico.

    Just for comparisons
    Through April 28:

    K's per
    W-L ERA IP BB K 9 IP
    Casey Fossum 2-1 3.94 29.2 11 27 8.19
    Bartolo Colon 2-1 3.97 34 13 23 6.09

    More Diamond Notes

  • With all the injuries the Padres have endured, there has been precious little good news. But Adam Eaton is edging toward becoming a front-of-the-rotation starter (13 IP, 0 R his last two starts). "He's amazing," GM Kevin Towers said. "He starts out at 89-90 and gains velocity the rest of the way and is 95-96 at the end." In his last start Thursday at Wrigley, the Padres also received a strong effort from Oliver Perez, who threw the best he's thrown all season. There are many in the organization who believe that Perez will succeed Trevor Hoffman as the San Diego closer.

  • The two fastest-rising pitchers in the June draft are Ohio University right-hander Marc Cornell and Peabody (Mass.) right-hander Jeff Allison. "If the Orioles do sign (LHP) Adam Loewen (their unsigned pick from 2002), then the Devil Rays may be down to Cornell, (Southern U. infielder) Rickie Weeks and Delmon Young," said one GM. "Cornell has come from off the radar to the screen to the top, (he's) this year's Bryan Bullington."

  • One curious name in the draft pool is LHP Matt Chico. He was Boston's No. 2 pick in 2001, went to USC, then left and is now pitching in a weekend over-30 league to prepare for the draft.

  • The Giants believe that Jesse Foppert's ineffectiveness in his first start (followed by a superb performance losing to Millwood on Sunday) can be traced to the fact that between March 31 and his start April 22, Foppert threw a total of eight innings. And keep checking Joe Nathan, who is hitting 95-96 mph as he did before his injury. He's now a far better pitcher, the result of having to toil a year with a fastball in the low-to-mid 80s.

  • While Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty waits to see if he can find enough cash to sign Chuck Finley on May 1, he went to extended spring to watch Chris Carpenter and is now convinced the former Toronto right-hander will be ready before the All-Star break. But the Cards still want Finley.

  • The Indians are trying to figure out what happened to Matt Lawton, hoping that it's going to take a month to shake the rust from his complicated shoulder operations.

  • The Orioles have now won three games started by Jason Johnson against Pedro Martinez and Bartolo Colon. "It's the shadow pitching," Orioles executive Mike Flanagan said. Last summer, Johnson broke a finger practicing his delivery in front of the mirror when he accidentally hit the mirror. "Ever since then," Flanagan said, "his curveball and his sinker have had a lot more movement." That happened to former Red Sox pitcher Mel Parnell, as well.

  • And you think it's a good life being a big-league advance scout? Oakland's Bob Johnson last week was in Chicago on the 21st, Seattle on the 22nd, Baltimore the 23rd and 24th, Chicago on the 25th and Texas on the 26th and 27th.

  • Congratulations to Kiley Bechler, who gave birth to daughter Haile on April 22. Kiley is the wife of the late Steve Bechler.

    Trivia answer
    Answer: Denny Neagle, Mike Frank, Wily Mo Pena, Chris Snopek.

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