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Inside Baseball

Take That, You Mets!
Gary Sheffield may give the Braves the punch needed to stay
ahead of New York

When he was introduced at Turner Field last week, new Braves
outfielder Gary Sheffield spoke of his burning desire to "fit
in" with his teammates, even pledging to remove his diamond
earrings to conform with the club's staid sartorial rules. He
gushed that he wanted to "go into the Hall of Fame as a Brave,"
and manager Bobby Cox insisted that Sheffield's reputation for
sniping at his bosses and being a disruptive clubhouse presence
is a "huge misconception." Sheffield eventually wore out warm
welcomes with two of his four previous major league teams--the
Brewers and the Dodgers--so it remains to be seen if the rest of
his tenure in Atlanta will be as rosy as his first day.

What's immediately clear is that with Opening Day more than two
months away, the National League East race is in full swing. The
heist of Sheffield from Los Angeles for outfielder Brian Jordan
and lefthander Odalis Perez shored up the Braves' most glaring
weakness--a popgun offense that last season scored fewer runs
than all but three teams in the league--and made Atlanta the
early favorite to win the division title.

It was also a strong answer to the Mets, who have overhauled
their roster to juice up their own sickly offense, the majors'
worst in 2001. New York had already traded for second baseman
Roberto Alomar and first baseman Mo Vaughn, and signed
free-agent outfielder Roger Cedeno; on Monday the Mets acquired
slugging rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz from Milwaukee.

Obtaining Sheffield was a double victory for Atlanta: The Braves
beefed up their attack and kept him from New York, which had
tried to pry him from Los Angeles. "They needed an outfielder
back in the deal," Mets general manager Steve Phillips said of
the Dodgers. "We didn't have a match for that."

What Atlanta may have lost in clubhouse stability--Jordan was
one of the most respected players on the team--it more than made
up for in lineup punch. Sheffield had at least 34 homers and 100
RBIs in each of the last three seasons, and his .420 on-base
percentage in that span is the fifth best in the majors among
righthanded hitters. New York in particular has to dread
pitching to him in 19 games next season. In six games last year
Sheffield hit .391 and torched the Mets for 11 RBIs, and he's a
.315 career hitter at Shea Stadium. He has also fared well
against New York's two new starters: Sheffield has a .429
lifetime average against lefthander Shawn Estes (acquired from
the Giants) and a .511 mark against righty Pedro Astacio (signed
as a free agent). With Sheffield in the cleanup spot behind
Chipper Jones and in front of new third baseman Vinny Castilla,
the Braves suddenly have one of the most dangerous 3-4-5 combos
in the league.

The biggest loser so far in the National League East shakeup?
How about the Phillies, who finished a surprising second in 2001
but have been lapped by their main division rivals over the
winter? Philadelphia has made only one significant addition--it
signed free-agent righthander Terry Adams, a converted reliever
who made all 22 of his career starts last year, when he went
12-8 with a 4.33 ERA for the Dodgers.

Arbitration Angst
Reese Caught Between Bases

The oddest deal of the off-season was the Dec. 19 swap that sent
Rockies second baseman Pokey Reese (whom Colorado had acquired
the day before from the Reds) to the Red Sox for catcher Scott
Hatteberg. Though it appeared the trade was a good one for both
clubs--Boston was filling a hole at second base and adding
much-needed speed, while Colorado was enthusiastic about getting
depth at a position at which it had none--neither player was
offered a contract by his new club by the Dec. 20 deadline,
after which he would become a free agent.

This deal reflects the degree to which teams dread being dragged
into salary arbitration. Had the Red Sox and the Rockies
tendered offers to their new acquisitions by Dec. 20, the
players could have rejected them and become eligible for
arbitration. Reese, a two-time Gold Glover who made $3.2 million
last season, probably would have earned at least $4 million
through arbitration, despite having hit .224 with a career-low
.284 on-base percentage last season. Hatteberg, who in 2001 made
$1.05 million while batting .245, also was likely to get a
raise. Boston and Colorado gambled that they could get the
players cheaper on the free-agent market than in a hearing room.

The ploy backfired. The Rockies offered Hatteberg a one-year
contract that guaranteed him half of what he made last year. By
the time Colorado increased its offer, Hatteberg had decided to
sign a one-year, $1 million deal with the A's, who are planning
to move him to first base.

As of Sunday it was possible that Reese, the player Cincinnati
refused to part with in its deal with the Mariners for Ken
Griffey Jr. two years ago, would land with his fourth team this
winter. Talks with the Red Sox had stalled, and Reese had
received offers from a half-dozen other teams, the Dodgers and
the Tigers among them.

The Muddle in Montreal
No News Is Bad News

Last week Expos interim general manager Larry Beinfest soldiered
on with what he called "standard business practice," exchanging
arbitration numbers with several players, even reaching one-year
contract agreements with rising-star righthander Javier Vazquez
($4.7 million) and catcher Michael Barrett ($1.15 million).
Truth is, no one expects the Expos to compete in the National
League East in 2002 or to survive in Montreal past next season.

Less than a month before pitchers and catchers begin reporting
to camp, commissioner Bud Selig still hadn't rescinded his
contraction threats for this season. (The Expos and the Twins
were the two teams supposedly targeted.) Montreal doesn't know
who its owner will be on Opening Day; the current proprietor,
Jeffrey Loria, most likely will own the Marlins by then, in
which case the Expos will be taken over by the commissioner's
office. The team also doesn't know who its manager will be;
skipper Jeff Torborg would probably leave with Loria. Hall of
Famer Frank Robinson, now Major League Baseball's vice president
of on-field operations, has been mentioned as a possible
stand-in for Torborg.

Meanwhile, Beinfest's bosses hadn't told him what the coming
season's payroll should be. Montreal hadn't set a date for its
players to report to Florida for spring training, wherever that
would be; Loria wants the Marlins to move into the Expos'
compound in Jupiter, with Montreal taking Florida's spot in
Viera. The Expos hadn't released a regular-season schedule or
sold a single ticket.

"It's frustrating not knowing anything," says Vazquez, who's
steeling himself for a season of even smaller Olympic Stadium
crowds than last year's average 7,935. "If I were a fan and I
knew the team probably was moving, why would I support it?"

COLOR PHOTO: ROB TRINGALI JR./SPORTSCHROME Atlanta hopes Sheffield, who wore out his welcome in L.A., will wear out National League East pitching.

Hot Corner

The Angels lost slugging first baseman Mo Vaughn, but they still
might be the most improved team in the American League West.
Veteran righthanders Aaron Sele and Kevin Appier are solid
additions to a staff that had the league's fifth-best ERA (4.20)
last year, and first baseman-DH Brad Fullmer (83 RBIs in 2001),
acquired from the Blue Jays last week, will help fill the void
created by Vaughn's departure. Fullmer's arrival also scotches
plans to move Darin Erstad to first base, allowing one of the
league's best centerfielders to stay put.... If they survive the
contraction threat, the Twins may end up as the envy of every
other team in the majors. After signing righthander Joe Mays to
a four-year, $20 million deal last week, Minnesota has its top
three starters (lefthander Eric Milton and righthander Brad
Radke are the others) locked up at least through 2004. The trio
won 47 games last season. Only the A's, Mariners and Yankees,
all postseason clubs, had more successful threesomes in the
American League in 2001.