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 Cede�o; 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 right-handed 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.
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.