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ROLLINS TICKLED BY BELTRAN BOAST

Jimmy Rollins showed off a new pair of personalized red, white and blue Nike sneakers and answered a few questions before he got his first chance to reply to Carlos Beltran's boast.

"Has anyone ever heard of plagiarism?" Rollins said, breaking into a laugh.

The NL MVP treated Beltran's in-your-face message that the Mets are the team to beat in the NL East like a takeout slide at second base.

He eluded it nicely but mixed in a jab the way some middle infielders purposely land on a hard-charging runner at second base.

"Sequels are never good," Rollins said, crediting teammate Brett Myers with that statement first.

The switch-hitting shortstop stirred things up with his mouth in January 2007. His prediction that Philadelphia was the team to beat became back-page material for the New York tabloids.

Rollins backed it up with a career year and the Phillies took advantage of the Mets' historic collapse to finish one game ahead of New York for their first division championship in 14 years.

But the Mets significantly improved their chances for this season by acquiring ace Johan Santana last month. Excited by the addition of the two-time AL Cy Young award winner, the normally quiet Beltran tried to one-up Rollins last week.

"Let me tell you this: Without Santana, we felt as a team that we have a chance to win in our division. With him now, I have no doubt that we're going to win in our division," the star centerfielder said. "So this year, to Jimmy Rollins: We are the team to beat!"

When a reporter read Beltran's quote straight from a newspaper clip, Rollins smiled and shrugged it off.

"Pretty good, especially coming from him," he said. "Because he's a quiet guy, it was probably shocking when he said it. Not shocking in a bad way, like, 'Wow, I can't believe he said that.' More like, 'Wow, he finally said something because he's a leader on that team and you definitely need to be a vocal leader.'"

So who really is the team to beat in a tough division that includes the Braves?

"There isn't a team in this division or the National League that's better than us," Rollins said. "After 162 games, we'll be looking to win the next 11."

Meanwhile, Ryan Howard spent about four hours in an arbitration hearing listening to the Phillies explain why he doesn't deserve $10-million this season. His agent, Casey Close, argued that Howard is worth every penny.

An arbitration panel will issue a ruling today. If Howard loses, he'll get $7-million. That's still a hefty raise from the $900,000 he made last year.

"I'm always upbeat," Howard said when he finally emerged from a downtown hotel in St. Petersburg. "I'll be upbeat regardless. Either way, it is what it is."

A-ROD REALISTIC: Alex Rodriguez expects to be questioned repeatedly about drug use as he approaches Barry Bonds' career home-run record.

"Right now, the game is in a very not-trusting situation with our public, with our fans," the Yankees third baseman said in his first remarks after arriving at spring training. "Some of the things that I've accomplished and potentially some of the things that people think I can accomplish, my name has come up and will probably come up again in the future."

Rodriguez, 32, enters the season 17th on the career list with 518 home runs, 244 behind the record Bonds established last season.

Meanwhile, former Yankees manager Joe Torre said he was still in touch with Andy Pettitte.

Torre, now managing the Dodgers, telephoned Pettitte on Monday shortly before the pitcher spent nearly an hour apologizing for using human growth hormone and answering questions about Roger Clemens at a news conference in Tampa.

"I've talked to him a couple times," Torre said. "I just wanted to let him know I was thinking about him. Every time I've talked to him on the phone, he's apologized."

CLEMENS PULLS OUT: Roger Clemens withdrew from a scheduled appearance at an ESPN event at Disney World from Feb.29-March 2 because, he said in a statement, "I believe my current participation could be a distraction." Clemens testified last week before the House oversight committee about accusations made by his former personal trainer, Brian McNamee, that he used steroids and human growth hormone.

CRISP MAY ASK FOR TRADE: Coco Crisp, who lost his centerfield job to rookie Jacoby Ellsbury in the postseason, said he'd probably talk to the Red Sox about trading him if it appears he won't get his starting job back. "Honestly, I think so because I want to play," Crisp said. "I wouldn't be happy sitting on the bench."

ANGELS: Brandon Wood, 22, is spending time at shortstop and third base this spring. Wood, who is expected to begin the season at Triple-A Salt Lake, played shortstop before moving to third last season.

ASTROS: Right-hander Shawn Chacon agreed to a $2-million, one-year contract. Chacon, 30, split time as a starter and reliever with Pittsburgh in 2007, going 5-4 with a 3.94 ERA and one save in 64 appearances.

A'S: Third baseman Eric Chavez, coming off three operations in three months, said he is healthy and would be ready to open the season in Japan next month against the Red Sox despite being a bit behind.

CARDINALS: Minor-league right-hander Scott Vander Weg, 25, was suspended for the first 50 games of the season after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

DODGERS: Hall of Fame manager Tom Lasorda will manage a split squad in eight exhibition games next month in Florida while current manager Torre and another split squad travels to China for a two-game exhibition series against the Padres. Lasorda, 80, a special adviser to chairman Frank McCourt, managed the team for nearly 20 years before a heart attack hastened his retirement in 1996.

PIRATES: Free-agent right-hander Byung-Hyun Kim agreed to terms on a one-year, $850,000 contract that includes $1-million in performance bonuses.

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