By Marc Normandin
The National League East produced an exciting 2012, with the Washington Nationals the surprise division champion, the Braves rallying back from a historic 2011 collapse to win one of the two wild cards, and the teams expected by many to do well falling flat on their faces. Well, maybe 2012 wasn't thrilling for those losing teams -- but the unexpected is a lot of fun for the rest of us.
If the right moves are made this offseason, more than two teams from this division will be relevant in 2013. It's going to take some major changes to get there for a few of these clubs, though, and both the Nationals and Braves might need to reload to stay ahead. With that in mind, here's a preview of an offseason dreamed up to make the 2013 race closer than the last iteration.
What They Have: A strong rotation core, made up of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez. The former will no longer have a scheduled expiration date, and though the Nationals aren't about to abuse his arm, the leash will finally be loosened a bit. Zimmermann and Gonzalez are both exceptional number two starters, and both took encouraging steps forward in 2012. Ross Detwiler was also productive in the back-end of the starting five, and will likely retain a slot going forward. John Lannan remains in reserve as the first line of defense, but the Nationals are going to want to do better than that to finish filling out the rotation. The bullpen isn't at the same level as the starters, but it's hard to complain about three relievers who could be closers, complemented by a slew of quality arms.
Bryce Harper is obviously a major building block in the lineup, though, at 20, it's tough to gauge just how much growth he'll have in his sophomore campaign. The Nats managed without Jayson Werth in their lineup for half the year; presumably, he'll be around in 2013. Good thing, too, as his excellent plate discipline and on-base numbers powered the Nats when he was around. The infield is young and talented, with franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman at third, Ian Desmond at short, and Danny Espinosa at second. Desmond broke out, going deep 25 times with a 126 OPS+, while Espinosa managed to be a little less boom-or-bust this time around. Mike Morse could be the team's left fielder, but also might be the first baseman. That all depends on if Adam LaRoche is retained.
What They'll Lose: Pitcher Edwin Jackson could be back, but for now, he's a free agent. His loss would create a void that someone besides Lannan should fill. LaRoche, too, might rejoin the Nats, but there are few capable first basemen on the market this winter -- so that unlikeliest of things, an Adam LaRoche bidding war, might very well break out. The rest of the losses are minimal: rotation depth option Chien-Ming Wang, reliever Mike Gonzalez, and human white flag Zach Duke.
Key Targets: Most of the Nationals' core has been retained, and they have the resources to go boldly into territory that other clubs should shy away from. Their depth and the immense talent already in place allows them to take a chance on Josh Hamilton, who will likely be one of the more controversial free-agent signings in history regardless of where he lands or for what. The asking price for Hamilton could be as high as $20 million per season for five years; the Nationals have the money, and they have the need. Hamilton could slide into center or left, either pushing Harper to the corner or leaving the younger outfielder in place. Leaving the hitter-friendly Texas ballpark will hurt Hamilton's production, but the shift to the NL should offset some of that. It's a risky signing, but adding Hamilton to the lineup, in support of a fantastic group of pitchers, does increase the short-term likelihood of a Nationals' championship.
Elsewhere, the Nationals would do well to offer Edwin Jackson a qualifying offer. It would be a raise on his 2012 salary, but it would round out their rotation and, should he sign elsewhere, net the Nationals a draft pick for 2013.
Dark Horse Addition: The Nationals lose out on Jackson to another team, and lure 36-year-old Ryan Dempster back to the NL on a short-term, lucrative deal.
What They Have: A full rotation already, thanks to picking up the options on Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm. Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen, and Mike Minor are all under team control. Brandon Beachy won't be back for months due to Tommy John, but he's in the mix as well. There are also the pitching prospects to consider, should someone else go down -- pitching depth is not an issue for the Braves, a fact that is so very Braves of them. The bullpen is similarly set, with Craig Kimbrel as strikeout-generating anchor in the closer role, and no shortage of cost-controlled live arms to bridge him to the rotation.
The lineup is a bit more in flux. Brian McCann is back once more after his option was picked up, but shoulder surgery could slow him down. Dan Uggla is back, but also expensive, and possibly not good: His power production dropped significantly, and the walks might not stick if that threat doesn't return. Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons fill out the infield, while Jason Heyward and Martin Prado anchor the corners of the outfield.
What They'll Lose: Defensive wizard Michael Bourn is likely gone, and even though there isn't an "e" at the end of his name, someone will write a "Bourn Ultimatum" headline about the Braves' decision to extend him a qualifying offer anyway. Chipper Jones has retired, leaving a void in the lineup that hasn't existed since Jones became a full-time Brave in 1995. Jones hit .298/.377/.455 in his final campaign, meaning Atlanta needs to replace a legitimate threat. Backup catcher extraordinaire David Ross is also a free agent, and with McCann's shoulder issues, that could be more significant than it normally is. If you were a part-time player in Atlanta in 2012, you are now most likely a free agent: the club has 10 free agents, with just two of them notable.
Key Targets: The Braves don't have the budget of most of their division mates, so don't expect any huge bidding wars. They'll ask in on B.J. Upton, especially if the Rays don't extend their former center fielder a qualifying offer. Upton could replace some of Bourn's defense, and likely hit better, especially outside of pitcher-friendly Tropicana. If Upton gets expensive, though, Atlanta will need to think about shifting Heyward over, or shopping a bit thriftier. Ross is important to retain, as he's hit .269/.353/.463 for Atlanta in four years, knows the pitching staff, and can do a great Brian McCann impersonation when necessary. Otherwise, it's all about depth signings for the Braves this winter.
Dark Horse Addition: The Braves go for Melky Cabrera again, in the hopes that this time, he stays in baseball shape, rather than in Melky Cabrera shape.
What They Have: A lot of money on the books. The 2013 squad is on the hook for $136 million in guaranteed contracts, and that's before factoring in arbitration-eligible or pre-arb players. Cliff Lee is owed $25 million in 2013. Roy Halladay has $20 million coming to him in his last year with Philly. Ryan Howard is in the final "cheap" year of his extension, also at $20 million, and the club will pay another $105 million at minimum for the privilege of watching him decline. Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, and Jimmy Rollins account for another $59 million combined. That's four positions for an average of $14.75 million. Using Ryan Howard Math, that's a bargain!
The Phillies also have former top prospect Domonic Brown for the outfield, Kyle Kendrick and Vance Worley in the rotation, and Carlos Ruiz returning behind the plate. They hope Darin Ruf, who hit .333/.351/.727 in 12 games, can turn into something, but that remains to be seen.
What They'll Lose: No one of any real consequence. Pending free agents like Shane Victorino were already sent packing in trades, and the decline of Placido Polanco's option after a .257/.302/.327 campaign is only significant in that someone else needs to fill the spot. Juan Pierre held down the fort in left, and can be upgraded or retained if necessary.
Key Targets: It's not so much the expensive core that's the issue, it's filling in the rest of the roster. The Phillies could be very good, but if parts of the aging and expensive group above are injured, ineffective, or both, seasons like 2012 are going to happen. The money and roster need to be shaken up a bit in order to set things right all around.
The Phillies can afford their expensive players, especially with a new television deal looming, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't get a little creative. Cliff Lee is signed through 2015 with an option for 2016, and is owed at least another $87.5 million. Trading him to a team looking for an ace to anchor their rotation should be in the plans, especially if Philly can get back prospects or young, cost-controlled talent in the deal. Losing Lee is a blow to the rotation, especially with Halladay only guaranteed one more year, but the free agent market has enough pitching in it to counter this loss. Ryan Dempster, Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Shaun Marcum or Dan Haren could likely all be had on one-year or short-term deals due to their age or a need to rebuild value. They aren't Lee, but when combined with the savings and return from a trade, such a move could be worth it.
They will need a free-agent outfielder as well, and should look into bringing B.J. Upton in, or attempt to lure Torii Hunter to town on a short-term deal. Hunter's power numbers slipped, but with a switch to the NL and a hitter-friendly park, he could earn his paycheck without costing the Phillies future flexibility. He's also still a defensive plus in a corner spot, and any extra outfield defense will be a positive with Brown out there.
Last, they'll need a third baseman. Let's make that Lee trade more specific, and suppose they send him to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for prospect Nick Castellanos. He's a third baseman blocked in Detroit by Miguel Cabrera, working in the outfield in the Arizona Fall League. The Tigers have already shown a willingness to splurge in order to win while the current core is around. The Tigers eat the contract (or most of it), and send along only Castellanos. Does that sound like too much? Remember, these are the same Tigers who sent their top pitching prospect to Miami for a two-month rental as part of a trade.
Dark Horse Addition: The Phillies don't learn their lesson about having too much money wrapped up in pitching, and use their remaining flexibility to sign Anibal Sanchez for five years at $18 million per season.
New York Mets
What They Have: Not a whole lot. The Mets have $55 million in guaranteed payroll for 2013, and nearly $44 million of that is tied up in Johan Santana and Jason Bay. There's room to grow, though, thanks to some intriguing players on non-guaranteed deals. David Wright's $16 million option for 2013 is the most obvious of those, but after that, the Mets also have first baseman Ike Davis, second baseman Daniel Murphy, outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis and shortstop Ruben Tejeda. Starter Jon Niese is signed to a team-friendly, options-loaded contract, and they have R.A. Dickey, who just might win a Cy Young award. Matt Harvey looks ready for permanent major-league duty.
The problem is, save for Wright, Dickey and a very optimistic view of Niese, there aren't much in the way of potential cornerstones here. Santana could possibly be great if he remains healthy, but at this point it's hard to write that sentence without thinking it's absurd.
What They'll Lose: Mike Pelfrey is going to be non-tendered in his last year of arbitration. Andres Torres could get the same treatment. Reliever Jon Rauch is a free agent, as are Kelly Shoppach, Ronny Cedeno, Tim Byrdak, Chris Young and Scott Hairston -- the same Scott Hairston who played in 134 games and slugged over .500 for the Mets, easily becoming their best outfielder in the process. It was a very strange season for the Mets.
Key Targets: David Wright, regardless of the plan, is the key target for the Mets this off-season. The Mets need to figure out if the plan is to re-sign him or trade him, and under the new collective bargaining agreement, it pays to know the answer before the next season begins -- since if he's acquired mid-season, he cannot bring his new club a compensation pick if he signs elsewhere. Picking up his option is be the first step regardless, as it puts him under contract for $16 million for 2013, whether that's in New York or elsewhere. A lot of money will clear up for the Mets after 2013, once the option of Santana and Bay are declined, so signing Wright -- even if New York remains on a tighter budget than any New York team should -- is a real possibility.
That's the angle they should go with, too, unless someone shows up at their door with a bevy of high-end prospects. Even Wright in his early-to-mid-30s has more upside than the rest of what's on the current Mets' roster.
Other than Wright, it will be about filling out the roster with inexpensive acquisitions. Pitchers like Jeremy Guthrie or Joe Saunders would be a boon to a rotation in need of quality innings, and they won't kill the Mets' budget or require long-term deals. Re-signing Hairston, a capable defender with power, could keep the outfield afloat. Maybe the Mets could be the ones to try to bring Grady Sizemore back to relevance … though, with their recent injury track record, maybe they should just let that one go.
Dark Horse Addition: The Mets reach out to Ichiro Suzuki to bolster their outfield defense, giving the first-time National Leaguer a chance to stay in the New York market, and the Mets another charismatic and productive face to distract from the rest of the roster.
What They Have: Miami is in a weird place, balancing the current core with the future that could lead to the next great Marlins team. The rotation has plenty to love, with Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle at the front, and young hurlers Jacob Turner and Nathan Eovaldi in the back. Ricky Nolasco isn't a very exciting mid-rotation arm, but if throws nearly 200 innings as their back-end guy, then he's done his job. This rotation won't be in place very long, though, as Johnson and Nolasco are in the last year of their contracts. With Nolasco, that money could be better spent elsewhere. But a healthy Josh Johnson is one of the league's better pitchers, and winning will be tougher without him around.
The bullpen has intrigue to it, especially now that it's sans Heath Bell and his bloated contract. But there's no key, consistent piece to close out the late innings of games, hence the signing of Bell to begin with.
The lineup is in a similar position of looking good depending on the angle you see it at. Giancarlo Stanton is one of the game's premier young sluggers, and Jose Reyes, even in a down year, is one of the better shortstops around. The problems are, well, everywhere else, though. Hey, there's a reason the Marlins came in last place.
What They'll Lose: Carlos Lee is a free agent, but he wasn't very good, so mathematically speaking this belongs in a "What They'll Gain" section. Carlos Zambrano needed to finish in the top four for the Cy Young vote for his $19 million vesting option to pick up, so there's a bullet dodged. Juan Oviedo's $6 million salary is off the books, and Bell has already been sent to the Marlins.
Key Targets: With the rotation mostly set, it's unlikely the Marlins pursue pitching again, as they did last winter. The lineup could use some love, though, and just about anywhere. First base is a black hole both in Miami and on the market, so the Marlins might have to work out a trade. It's that, or try to resurrect the career of James Loney or Carlos Pena. Of course, if the Marlins want to dive right back in this thing, trying to get Mike Napoli to sign a three- or four-year deal with some of their much-available money wouldn't be the worst way to utilize the off-season.
Unless they plan to continue hoping Gorkys Hernandez turns into something, a new center fielder is also in the cards, as is a left fielder. Nick Swisher would be expensive, but if the Marlins want hitting (and they need it), Swisher can provide it. And, to top it off, he can play decent defense, too. Logan Morrison can go to whichever of left field or first base is not filled through acquisitions, but even Morrison isn't inspiring much confidence with the bat just now. Center field is a little dicier unless they want to get involved in the Josh Hamilton sweepstakes, or go for Michael Bourn. But an upgrade there needs to happen if the lineup is going to be worth much of anything.
Dark Horse Addition: The Marlins trade Josh Johnson in order to bring in a young hitter, and then sign Anibal Sanchez to a long-term deal. That would make them plus-one Jacob Turner for a two-month rental, and with their draft picks safely intact.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, and also contributes to Baseball Nation. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for Baseball Prospectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @Marc_Normandin.