Offseason breakdown: NL East
Editor's Note: This is part of a three-day series that assesses each of baseball's 30 teams in a division-by-division format. Teams are listed according to the order in which they finished the regular season in their division in 2012.
The Nationals took the National League East title with 98 wins, ending a 31-year playoff drought.
Their young starting rotation paved the way, particularly with 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez and 23-year-old Stephen Strasburg. Meanwhile, Bryce Harper took the National League by storm at age 19, Jayson Werth rebounded and the rest of the Nats offense allowed them to control the division from day one. They head into the offseason looking only to tinker in their quest to repeat as NL East champs.
The Nationals have a bit of a logjam at first base with free agent Adam LaRoche, Michael Morse and Tyler Moore. Moore hit 10 home runs in 171 plate appearances in 2012 and slots at first base comfortably if the Nationals choose to move on from LaRoche. They could also try trading Morse, opening up a spot in left field for Moore. Elsewhere, expect the Nationals to be players for a center fielder who could lead off, someone like as Michael Bourn or Angel Pagan. Such a signing would likely push Bryce Harper to left field, necessitating a trade of Morse.
Expect the Nationals to say goodbye to all of the above except possibly LaRoche. He was instrumental in the Nats' success in 2012, having a career year by both traditional and sabermetric standards. He was the fifth-most-valuable first baseman in all of baseball according to FanGraphs, and he synergizes well with the Nats' right-handed-heavy lineup.
Jackson is the other big name on the list, but the 29-year-old will be in search of a multiyear contract. With the depth and youth of the Nats' starting rotation, they have no need to overpay for someone who would slot at the back of the rotation.
As mentioned, Michael Bourn will be the big name on the Nats' radar this offseason. One of the few things the Nats lacked in 2012 was a quality leadoff hitter, utilizing Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa in the No. 1 spot throughout the season with mixed results. They got more power than normal out of their leadoff hitters (.419 slugging percentage), but they were merely average in getting on base (.325 on-base percentage) and stealing bases (20 in 25 attempts).
Elsewhere, it isn't necessary, but the Nationals could add a veteran reliever or two, particularly a lefty.
The future is very bright for the Nationals. The core of their franchise -- Harper and Strasburg -- bloomed much faster than anticipated. GM Mike Rizzo does not need to make any big changes. His biggest challenge is one born of luxury: a logjam at first base or left field, forcing him to choose between bringing back a very productive veteran first baseman (LaRoche) or trading either an offensively potent left fielder (Morse) or a prospect with great power (Moore).
The pitching from top to bottom is packed with young talent, headlined by Strasburg and Gonzalez, who should both contend for the 2013 NL Cy Young Award. The bullpen is young and deep at the back end with Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus. And with offensive mainstays Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond, the Nationals appear to have few weaknesses, if any.
Getting Bourn or Pagan in free agency and trading away Morse or Moore is about all that is on the agenda. Other moves would be simple minor tweaking to a packed roster. The other NL East teams have their work cut out for them to contend in 2013.
The Braves set themselves up with a chance at a playoff run, but a disastrous yet entertaining play-in game against the Cardinals ended their season abruptly.
They go into 2013 losing franchise cornerstone Chipper Jones to retirement and center fielder Michael Bourn to free agency. With a young nucleus that includes Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward, the Braves should expect to be back in the thick of things in 2013 no matter what they do in the offseason.
Bourn is expected to command a lot of interest from plenty of teams this offseason, so the Braves have to be prepared to look elsewhere. Luckily the market is flush with center fielders, including Josh Hamilton, Angel Pagan, B.J. Upton and Shane Victorino.
The Braves are also looking to replace Chipper Jones. That's much, much easier said than done, especially this offseason, when the market for third basemen is a veritable desert. They may choose to move Martin Prado to third base and instead search for a left fielder, an easier task.
The Braves want to keep Bourn, but they will be in heated competition for his services. So expect them to settle for a Plan B option like Angel Pagan or Shane Victorino. Because of Bourn's speed and ability to lead off, players like Pagan and Victorino make more sense for the Braves than someone like Josh Hamilton. Elsewhere, the Braves want to keep Ross and will likely bring back Johnson and Diaz. Expect the rest of their free-agent class to move on.
As mentioned, Pagan or Victorino would make sense for the Braves because they lack a leadoff hitter and speed. There will be several center fielders who may be available via trade, including Denard Span and Peter Bourjos; that could pique the Braves' interest. Depending on how they choose to address the third base situation, they could choose a veteran like Kevin Youkilis, or move Prado to third and go after a corner outfielder like Nick Swisher.
The Braves have some tough decisions to make. Third base is an incredibly tough position to fill at the moment, and they just lost Chipper Jones, one of the best third basemen ever to play the game. With the Nationals poised to repeat, the Braves cannot be passive this offseason and hope to compete for another one-game wild-card playoff. As a result, GM Frank Wren should be very active this winter and the Braves should have some distinct new faces when their opening day roster is unveiled.
However, the Braves' young nucleus will be the driving force behind the team and will be most responsible for the team's success or failure. Heyward, Freeman, Beachy and Medlen all need to continue to be big contributors if the Braves want to compete with the Nats and simultaneously swat away the Phillies, Marlins and Mets.
Losing Jones will be difficult, but the Braves have the personnel that could easily turn the page and begin a new era of Atlanta Braves prosperity.
The Phillies were ravaged by old age and injuries throughout the 2012 season.
Superstars Chase Utley and Ryan Howard each missed roughly half the season, while Placido Polanco, Freddy Galvis and Carlos Ruiz, among others, missed time at various points during the season. The starting pitching was a far cry from what it had been and from what was expected with Roy Halladay's and Vance Worley's injuries and Cliff Lee's bout with bad luck. Meanwhile, a young bullpen behind Jonathan Papelbon experienced growing pains. Finishing right at the .500 mark, the Phillies finally surrendered their NL East division crown after five consecutive years of dominance.
Having traded away Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence in late July, the Phillies head into the offseason in search of at least one outfielder, definitely a center fielder. The CF market is a buyer's market, so the Phillies can bide their time. They will also be looking for a third baseman, having declined Placido Polanco's option. The market for third basemen is barren. As a result, it would not be unreasonable for the Phillies to bring back Kevin Frandsen either full time or as part of a platoon.
The Phillies have already declined the options of Polanco, Wigginton and Contreras. Polanco and Contreras are simply too old and have missed too much time with injuries, and Wigginton was one of baseball's least valuable players in 2012. The decision to move on is completely justified. Schneider also won't return; he might even hang up his spikes for good. There is a chance Pierre returns to the team, this time on a major league deal.
B.J. Upton is a name on everybody's radar, but he appears to be a decent fit for the Phillies. They have the means to pay the 28-year-old whose offense is very reminiscent of Victorino's, given their preponderance of speed. As for third basemen, there isn't much available, but Eric Chavez would make a great left-handed side of a platoon at the hot corner, perhaps with Kevin Frandsen. During the regular season, Chavez hit for a .895 OPS against right-handed pitching.
The Phillies have $125 million committed to just seven players going into 2013. Factoring in other obligations (including pre-arbitration players) and expected arbitration raises, the Phillies could be around $150 million. The luxury tax threshold is once again $178 million, giving the Phillies less than $30 million to play around with.
They have to look at what went wrong in 2012 and do their best to ensure it doesn't happen again. They need to avoid frivolous, expensive long-term contracts, especially to those who are older, more injury-prone and play at relatively unimportant positions (like relief pitchers). This means keeping away from risky signings like Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn.
The Athletics repaved some old ground by heavily utilizing platoons, and the Phillies are in a perfect position to copy the strategy. Pairing Nate Schierholtz (vs. RHP) and John Mayberry (vs. LHP) in right field is a cheap and efficient way to get great production from a corner outfield spot. Meanwhile, a Chavez/Frandsen platoon at third base would make the Phillies quickly forget about their decade-long woes at third base. The cherry on top would be the addition of a center fielder like Upton or Angel Pagan.
The Mets finished fourth in the NL East for the fourth consecutive year, extending their trend of disappointment in Queens.
Despite NL Cy Young contender R.A. Dickey's career year, continued greatness from third baseman David Wright and the emergence of starter Matt Harvey, the Mets' roster was simply too weak to attempt to finish at .500. In terms of OPS, the Mets had the least production in the National League from their catchers and the second-least from their outfielders as a whole. Add to that their second-worst bullpen ERA at 4.65 and you have a recipe for failure.
The Mets will be in search of a corner outfielder and/or center fielder because Jason Bay has never fully recovered from his concussions and Andres Torres may be non-tendered. They will also be searching for a veteran catcher to pair with Josh Thole as Kelly Shoppach is expected to move elsewhere. Finally, the Mets will look to add multiple veteran arms to the bullpen and the back of the starting rotation. In short, the Mets may not be in play for the big-name free agents, but they will enter 2013 with plenty of new faces.
Expect the Mets to say goodbye to all of the above, including Hairston. He was productive for the Mets in a part-time role, starting 64 percent of the games in which he appeared. He finished with an .803 OPS and could be an easy solution in left field, but his solid campaign may give him a bit too much leverage in negotiations. The Mets have little payroll flexibility and Hairston will draw some attention as a cheap option and potential part of a platoon for another team.
The Mets will approach the free-agent market with caution because they have almost no room to maneuver in terms of payroll, given the dead weight of Johan Santana's and Jason Bay's salaries. They will be looking for cheap one-year options -- particularly veteran players attempting to re-establish themselves after an injury; otherwise, they will attempt to patch their problems via trades or with players in their system.
This offseason is going to be incredibly difficult for the Mets. They won't be able to spend even modestly, with $74 million already committed to six players. The Mets opened the 2012 season with a $94.5 million payroll, which illustrates just how little wiggle room they have. Turning the Mets from 74-game winners to playoff contenders in one offseason is virtually impossible.
Rather than focusing on building a contender for 2013, GM Sandy Alderson is concerned with getting David Wright and R.A. Dickey signed to contract extensions and setting the team up to spend more freely going into the 2014 season, when he can buy out the final year of Santana's and Bay's contracts. Meanwhile, the Mets will use the season to evaluate their young players further: prospects Brandon Nimmo and Matt Den Dekker, as well as the already-established Kirk Nieuwenhuis, among others.
If there is one term to describe this offseason and the 2013 season for the Mets, it is "transition year." Don't expect the Mets to be players in the NL East race, but Mets fans should be patient and optimistic nonetheless.
The inaugural season at Marlins Park was a disaster.
Payroll was nearly doubled, but it was all for naught. Big-name free agents Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, while productive, were underwhelming. Closer Heath Bell was a tire fire. Only two position players took more than 400 trips to the plate, Reyes with 716 and Giancarlo Stanton with 501. During the season, they traded away the face of the franchise when Hanley Ramirez was sent to the Dodgers. Anibal Sanchez was traded to the Tigers. At the end of the season, the Marlins fired manager Ozzie Guillen, signaling a changing of the guard.
The Marlins are on the prowl for a third baseman. Unfortunately, that market is bone dry and the desert is crawling with hungry scavengers. Prospect Zack Cox, a 23-year-old who spent the 2012 season between Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A Memphis, is expected to compete for the job in spring training.
The Marlins also need a second baseman and/or a speedy center fielder. They are not expected to get in on the Bourn/Pagan/Victorino hoopla, so the Marlins could make a trade or simply plug Emilio Bonifacio back in center field. There aren't too many attractive second basemen available, so Donovan Solano could start the season at second.
The Marlins will let Kearns, Gaudin, Oviedo and Zambrano leave. Lee could be retained, but it would leave Logan Morrison without a home. Morrison has had recurring knee problems, so first base is perfect for the immobile left-hander. Zambrano and Oviedo have had problems off the field and don't add enough production to justify their cost. Kearns and Gaudin, both cheap, could return, but they will test the free-agent market first.
The Marlins will not be big spenders, but will nonetheless be active during the winter. Expect them to tag a couple of veteran relievers to slot in behind Steve Cishek, the presumptive closer in the wake of the Heath Bell trade. Some lower-tier free agents could be added to fill in at second base, center field and third base, but the Marlins will be looking to patch some of those holes internally or via trade first and foremost.
The Marlins will be scaling back payroll into the $80-85 million range, having more than $61 million already committed to eight players entering the offseason. The top item on their itinerary was to find a manager to replace Ozzie Guillen. They interviewed four candidates: Lloyd McClendon, Larry Bowa, Bryan Price and former Marlin Mike Redmond. The Marlins made their decision quickly, announcing the hiring of Redmond last week.
Redmond will be given the unceremonious task of squeezing every last ounce of potential out of a roster that has very little of it. Great years from Reyes, Buehrle and Josh Johnson would be a great place to start, but the stars can do only so much.
Giancarlo Stanton will continue to be the focal point of the Marlins' offensive attack, but he needs the hitters ahead of him to get on base -- particularly the leadoff hitter. In 2012, hitters batting first for the Fish posted a disappointing .299 on-base percentage, though very little of that was Reyes' fault. Reyes could move back into the leadoff position in 2013, but until we see what the Marlins do this winter, it is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
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