Division title runs through Atlanta

MIAMI -- With the addition of Carlos Delgado, the Florida Marlins may be ready to end the Atlanta Braves' reign in the NL East.

Then again, the Braves are pretty good at turning back
challenges. They've won 13 consecutive division titles.

"The way to the title is through Atlanta," Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said Wednesday. "That being
said, I don't think there's any question that the Marlins' offense
has been upgraded dramatically. They're going to score a bunch of
runs, and it's going to be a real fun offensive team."

Fun for Florida fans, that is -- but not for Bowden's team or the
rest of the division.

Delgado, who hit at least 30 home runs each of the past eight
seasons with Toronto, agreed Tuesday to a $52 million, four-year
deal with Florida and took his physical Wednesday. Assuming he
passes, he'll anchor the Marlins' most potent lineup since 1997,
when they won the first of their two World Series titles.

They've yet to claim a division title, finishing behind Atlanta
in each of their 12 seasons. Last year Florida was in the wild-card
race until mid-September but finished 13 games behind the Braves at

Can Delgado help make up that margin? And can Florida overtake
NL champion St. Louis, which won 105 games?

"With this transaction, the Marlins have the firepower to win
the division, the league and the World Series," Bowden said.

The Marlins likely agree. But manager Jack McKeon has been
around the game long enough (54 years) to know that predicting a
title is a bad idea, especially with the Braves in his division.

"I still think they're the team to beat," McKeon said. "They
find a way to come up with the players. Everybody gave the Braves a
goodbye last year, and look what happened."

There's no assurance the Marlins will be better than last year
after losing ace Carl Pavano (18-8) and closer Armando Benitez (47
saves) to free agency.

General manager Larry Beinfest signed veteran Al Leiter to take
Pavano's spot in the rotation. Guillermo Mota is slated to become a
first-time closer as part of a revamped bullpen.

"How Mota handles the transition and how well the setup guys do
will determine the Marlins' destiny," Bowden said. "But knowing
Larry Beinfest and Jack McKeon, if that becomes a problem during
year, they'll go out and fix it."

A left-handed power hitter has topped McKeon's wish list ever
since he became manager in 2003. Delgado's one of the best.

"Sometimes patience is a virtue," McKeon said. "Delgado gives
us that ingredient we didn't have."

He has already started to earn his keep. The Marlins sold
$150,000 worth of season tickets Wednesday, five times their daily

But while many South Floridians were ready to crown their team
the 2005 champion, not everyone had baseball fever. When asked
about the signing of Delgado, Shaquille O'Neal said, "Who is

The Miami Heat center -- coincidentally in Toronto for a game
Wednesday -- was informed Delgado is a baseball player who signed
with the Marlins.

"Oh, I welcome him," O'Neal said. "He can come by my house,
you know where I live, eat some dinner. I don't have to share the
spotlight. I don't have any spotlight. Nobody knows who I am down
there. I'm just another pretty Latin face in Miami."

Delgado is the city's newest Latin celebrity but hardly the
Marlins' lone star. He'll be one of seven regulars to have played
in an All-Star game. And the rotation, the team's strength the past
two seasons, still includes Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett and
Dontrelle Willis.

"The Marlins were good before Delgado, and now they're a better
team than they were last year," said Leiter, who pitched the past
seven seasons for the Mets. "With the considerable movement of
players in the NL East, it's up for grabs. No disrespect to the
Braves, but there's a sense that everybody has a shot."

The acquisition of Delgado pushed the Marlins' payroll above $56
million, a franchise high. They won out over division rival New
York, which also made a $52 million, four-year offer.

"The Marlins get him and the Mets don't -- taking him away from
the Mets obviously does swing the balance" in the division,
Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin said. "No doubt he's an
impact player. Middle-of-the-order hitters have an impact. That's
why they get paid what they do."

While losing the Delgado sweepstakes, the Mets have added Carlos
Beltran and Pedro Martinez, pushing their payroll above $90
million. On "The Tonight Show," Jay Leno poked fun Tuesday at the
Mets' spending.

"The new issue of Time magazine reports that President Bush is
going to double the reward for capturing Osama bin Laden from $25
million to $50 million -- which sounds like a lot until you realize
the Mets just spent $119 million to get Carlos Beltran," Leno

New York's final offer to Delgado would have paid him $12.5
million in each of the next four years and had a $15 million club
option for 2009 with a $2 million buyout. The Mets would have
called $14 million of the money a signing bonus -- not subject to
state and city income tax -- of which $7 million would have been
paid in 2005 and the rest spread evenly over the remaining three