Off-Season Preview: NL East

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(Keith Allison / Flicker)

Having previewed the three American League divisions, it’s time to start looking at the National League. Here’s what some of the M-SABR writers have to say about the NL East:

Atlanta Braves

by Theo Mackie

2017 Record: 72-90 (3rd in NL East)

2017 Payroll: $115,455,675 (23rd)

Current 2018 Outlook:

Ever since failing to repeat their NL East title in a disappointing 2014 season, the Braves have been in full rebuild mode. That offseason, they shipped out many of the stars who had been key in their three playoff appearances in the four previous seasons. Jason Heyward was sent to St. Louis, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, and Melvin Upton to San Diego, and Evan Gattis to Houston with the goal of competing in the team’s inaugural season at SunTrust Park in 2017. Unfortunately, 2017 was their third consecutive 90-loss season and very few of the prospects they netted in those deals have provided returns for the major league club.

However, with a farm system that is ranked second behind only the loaded White Sox’ system and the hiring of general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who helped build the recent Blue Jays and Dodgers playoff teams, the future remains bright for Atlanta. 2018 is unlikely to be their year, as the Nationals return a stacked team that has cruised to the NL East in back-to-back years and should do so again. Beyond that, though, the division’s future is uncertain. Washington could lose Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Gio Gonzalez this offseason, the Mets’ offense is a disaster and their pitching can’t stay healthy, and the Marlins’ ownership woes look to be continuing despite ridding themselves of Jeffrey Loria. That leaves the future of the division open for Atlanta and Philadelphia—two teams who boast top 10 farm systems.

For Atlanta, 2017 provided the first peek at this bright future, as Dansby Swanson, Johan Camargo, and Ozzie Albies all logged over 200 at-bats. Camargo and Albies both impressed with OPS of .783 and .810, respectively, while Swanson struggled but flashed with a strong August after being temporarily demoted. While 2018 may not be the year the Braves make their leap into contention, a few more exciting prospects could make their big league debuts. Top prospect Ronald Acuna tore up the International League (AAA) at just 19 with a .344 average and top pitching prospect Luiz Gohara managed a 2.62 ERA in 123.2 innings across three levels from high-A to triple-A. Both will likely be September call-ups at the very least and have a chance to make it to Atlanta earlier in the summer.

Biggest Needs:

It can be difficult to assess team needs for a team like the Braves who are unlikely to compete in 2018. That being said, they have approximately $35 million less tied down in salary now than they did on Opening Day, giving them plenty of spending money. If they choose to either invest in this relatively weak free agent class or trade for big league-ready assets, they would likely look toward help at third base or pitching. The outfield is locked down for 2018 with Ender Inciarte under contract through 2022, Matt Kemp tied down for two more years, and Nick Markakis in his last year. In the infield, Freddie Freeman is one of the best players in baseball at first and the combination of Swanson, Camargo, and Albies should have the middle infield locked down for much of the next decade. In the rotation, Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewitz are good young pitchers, each under control through 2020, but the team did not have a starter with an ERA under 4.00 and Gohara is the only one of its four pitching prospects close to the majors. The bullpen is also an area of concern as it ranked 26th with a 4.58 ERA in 2017.

Suggested Moves:

The Braves are likely a season away from making win-now moves, which coincides nicely with the 2018 free agency class that could be the best of all time. However, they have less than $80 million tied down and have proven to be a top-10 spender in previous windows of contention. Returning to that level would give them almost $100 million of spending room. That and their third base hole could make them an under-the-radar player for Mike Moustakas, but it is more likely that they hold off on such big-money signings for at least another year. The same logic will also likely prevent Atlanta from pursuing a top-of-the-rotation starter like Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta, but lower-level guys like Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn, whose contracts will be the perfect length to bridge the gap to their pitching prospects, could be on the Braves’ radar. The surplus of win-now teams in need of a closer will similarly outbid Atlanta for Wade Davis, pushing them to lower-level targets to fill out the bullpen and add to the likes of Jose Ramirez, Sam Freeman, and Arodys Vizcaino.


Miami Marlins

by Erik McKeen

2017 Record: 77-85 (2nd in NL East, missed playoffs)

2017 Payroll: $117,557,599 (21st)

Current 2018 Outlook:

The Marlins may be the most interesting team to watch this offseason. While many teams will be trying to add good players, the Marlins will be trying to get rid of the 2017 NL MVP. Derek Jeter and the new regime in Miami wants to reduce payroll to around 90 million (which would rank 28th among 2017 payrolls), and getting Stanton’s enormous contract off the books will determine whether or not they reach that goal. Stanton has a full no-trade clause in his contract, so he has to approve any trade the front office completes, and he has made it clear that he does not want to play for a rebuilding team.

If the Marlins also trade some of their other stars like Dee Gordon and Marcel Ozuna, among others, then I understand trading Stanton, but if Stanton ends up being the only one traded, then I think that would be a big mistake. I know the new ownership group doesn’t want to spend as much money this year, but if a team is not either trying to win or rebuilding, then what are they doing?

The 2017 season saw a resurgent Marlins offense, with the likes of the outfield trio of Stanton (6.9 fWAR), Ozuna (4.8 fWAR), and Christian Yelich (4.5 fWAR), a comeback season for Dee Gordon (3.3 fWAR), another solid season from J.T. Realmuto (3.6 fWAR), and a breakout year, (when he played) for Justin Bour (2.2 fWAR in 108 games).

Biggest Needs:

The only weak spots in their lineup last season were at shortstop, third base, and first base when Bour was hurt. As for the rotation, other than Edinson Volquez’ no-hitter, it was not a good year for Marlins’ starting pitching. Dan Straily was the best of the bunch with a 2.0 fWAR, but none of the other starters had anything more than 1.0. Their bullpen isn’t great either.

Suggested Moves:

The Marlins have made it clear that they’re not going to sign any big free agents by wanting to trade Stanton. If they do trade Stanton, and as of Friday, November 17th, at least 8 teams have spoken with the Marlins’ front office about him, then I think they should unload. If Stanton ends up not being traded, then I think they should try to sign a good starting pitcher or two and get some bullpen help. The Marlins were in the wildcard race near the end of last season for a bit, and with the young, talented hitters they have, they could make some noise in the MLB if they had some pitching to support them. With the new owners though, we all know that is not going to happen.


New York Mets

by Samuel Canfield

2017 Record: 70-92 (4th in NL East, missed playoffs)

2017 Payroll: $154,829,658 (14th)

Current 2018 Outlook:

Brighter than last year, but not fantastic. The New York Mets have a new manager under center that can hopefully lead the charge for a good above-500 season, and got debatably the worst trainer in the history of the MLB, Ray Ramirez, out of the system. The Mets lost Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, Jay Bruce, Addison Reed, and others to trade/free agency, but for the most part, these players didn’t contribute too much and/or were going to be free agents by the end of the 2017 season anyway. One could see the loss of these players and staff members as a detriment to the Mets’ playoff hopes in the upcoming years and the potential for some financial struggles for the front office, but I see it as a chance for Sandy Alderson and Co. to rebuild the team with a new manager, new trainer, and new prospects that they received through all these deals. The Mets probably won’t make the playoffs next year, but will likely be contenders and have a shot at going pretty far in the playoffs in the next couple years… as long as the injury-prone Cespedes, Mets pitching staff, and young infield can stay healthy, with the exception of Michael Conforto, who underwent shoulder surgery on September 5th and is questionable for Opening Day. Go figure. The Mets have a decent amount of space on their payroll now, but if they don’t cash out on some relievers this offseason they will fail miserably once again. Because of this, it’s going to take some time to build up some offensive depth, but the Mets should surely do better than they did last year.

Biggest Needs:

Some damn relief pitching. I only have faith in two members of the Mets’ bullpen squad: Jeurys Familia and Jerry Blevins. Everyone else has a decent chance of blowing the game, (i.e. Hansel Robles, Rafael Montero, Josh Smoker, etc.), so the Mets are in trouble if they can’t sign more guys that can close out a game. Big-name relievers like Brandon Morrow, Wade Davis, Pat Neshek, Addison Reed, and Brandon Kintzler are hitting the market, but it will be hard for the Mets to sign more than one or two of them. They may have to delve into the remainder of the free agent market for relief pitching, but they should be able to find some juicy nuggets. When it comes to the rest of the pitching, a consistently healthy starting pitcher that has at least a semi-rubber arm would help bail out the starting pitching when half of it inevitably ends up on the Disabled List. As for the offense, the outfield has Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto, and Brandon Nimmo that had respective wRC+’s of 131, 146, and 117 during the 2017 season. Juan Lagares plays a role as a reserve player that subs in to satisfy defensive needs, but was injury prone and had a measly wRC+ of 77 for the 2017 season. The infield has a set of decent bats in Asdrubal Cabrera, T.J. Rivera, and Wilmer Flores, all of which are flexible infielders, seeing action all over the place. Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith aren’t as good offensively and like to stick to SS and 1B respectively, but they are getting better at the plate. Seeing that the outfield lacks a fourth skilled batter and the infield lacks one too, I’d like to see the Mets re-sign Jay Bruce this offseason. He stayed healthy and played in the outfield and at first base during the 2017 season. He could fill in at either position each day depending on the Mets’ needs when it comes to injuries and offensive output of the rest of the team. If the Mets can’t sign Bruce, then a good batter that can play around the positions would help when injuries begin to plague the Mets, or if Nimmo, Rosario, or Smith fall off offensively.

Suggested Moves:

I currently don’t see many moves the Mets could make. They need to keep the good pitching that they can get, and as for the bad pitching, I doubt other teams are interested. If David Wright miraculously gets healthy or the Mets find space on their payroll and are able to sign a consistently healthy infielder with good offensive stats, then they could move one or two of their utility infielders, but I doubt this will happen.


Philadelphia Phillies

by Max Baer

2017 Record: 66-96 (Last in NL East, 31.0 GB)

2017 Payroll: $116,874,208 (22nd)

2018 Outlook:

2017 was definitely a rebuilding year for the Philadelphia Phillies, and I’d look for more of the same in 2018. At the beginning of the year, they picked up veterans on short, cheap contracts such as Pat Neshek, Howie Kendrick, Joaquin Benoit, and they were able to flip them later on in the year to the Rockies, Nationals, and Pirates, respectively, for minor league prospects. They also took unsuccessful punts on veteran starters Clay Buchholz and Henderson Alvarez and attempted to push Jeremy Hellickson’s trade value up even higher following an impressive 2016 campaign, but Hellickson struggled in 2017 and he was shipped off to Baltimore for pennies on the dollar. Phillies faithful caught glimpses of the future on the offensive side of the ball, with mega-prospect J.P. Crawford making his debut at the tail-end of the 2017 season. They were also treated to the impressive breakout season of first baseman Rhys Hoskins, who lead the Phillies with a 1.104 OPS as he slugged 18 home runs in a very brief 212 PAs. The heralded young slugging infield duo of third baseman Maikel Franco and shortstop Freddy Galvis experienced a slowdown in offensive production in 2017, and there have been rumors that the duo has had their names bouncing around in trade talks due to their stocks being so low. However, second baseman Cesar Hernandez had an impressive showing as he posted a .793 OPS and a 3.1 WAR while providing average defense. In the outfield, Aaron Altherr, Odubel Herrera, and Nick Williams all had impressive offensive outputs on very controllable contracts, while the first overall pick and top prospect Mickey Moniak struggled in Single-A ball. On the pitching side, Aaron Nola posted a very impressive 4.5 WAR and was 28 RAA in his third season in the big leagues. The under-26 quartet of Nick Pivetta, Jared Eickhoff, Ben Lively, and Vince Velasquez ate a majority of the starts for the Phillies in 2017 and proved to be a serviceable (and inexpensive) group, for the most part. Fireballing reliever Jeanmar Gomez was not able to bring his 2016 form into 2017, and he was cut midway through the year. His role as the closer was taken over by 28-year old Hector Neris, who put up a quality 10.9 K/9 while he was able to put away 26 saves. 2017 manager Pete Mackanin was replaced at the end of the year by 12-year MLB vet Gabe Kapler.

Biggest Needs:

The Phillies pitching staff was not good in 2017. They gave up the 6th worst OPS to opponents last season as their opponents posted a .780 OPS against them. They also finished in the bottom half of team ERA and Total Bases allowed in the majors, and they only converted 57.89% of saves, next to last in the majors. The Phillies offense showed signs of life with impressive individual performances from a few debutants, and they will mature as they get more plate appearances under the tutelage of Gabe Kapler. 2017 pitching coach Bob McClure isn’t likely to return in 2018, and it will be interesting to see who the Phillies replace him with.

Recommended Moves:

Getting his coaching staff squared away should be Kapler’s number one priority in the coming weeks. Acquiring a few veteran starting pitchers to take some games off the young pitching staff’s arms would also be ideal. In terms of starters, there are plenty of options that the Phillies could pursue. There are younger options like Brett Anderson, Mike Bolsinger, or Trevor Cahill, but also veteran options like John Lackey, Hisashi Iwakuma, RA Dickey, or everyone’s favorite athlete, Bartolo Colon. In their hitter-friendly ballpark, expect the Phillies to target pitchers with high groundball percentages, such as Doug Fister. With the team still in rebuilding mode, also expect the Phillies to acquire veteran relievers on short contracts in an attempt to flip them, like they did with Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit last season, or try to plug holes in their reeling bullpen. Adding a veteran backstop to platoon with the promising Jorge Alfaro would be beneficial in case the young catcher sputters in his official rookie season. Former all-star Miguel Montero and his left-handed bat would give the Phillies a good Lefty/Righty platoon, and a reunion with 10-year Philly vet Carlos Ruiz would be a move that would warm Phillies fans’ hearts. The Phillies outfield struggled on defense in 2017, especially in the corner positions. Austin Jackson and Franklin Gutierrez have provided near gold glove defense in the past, but in the center field position and several years ago. Another intriguing option is former Phillie Jayson Werth, who provided very solid play for the Nationals over the last few years, but there have been rumblings that the Nats could offer him a 1-year deal to let him stick around in his age-39 season.


 

 

Washington Nationals

by Max Smith

2017 Record: 97-65 (1st in NL East, lost in NLDS)

2017 Payroll: $189,292,654 (7th)

Current 2018 Outlook:

A model of consistency since 2012 – with 4 NL East banners and an MLB-second best 555 total wins – the Washington Nationals face a make or break season in 2018. While losing Jayson Werth’s beard hurts aesthetically, losing Bryce Harper in Free Agency following the season could be detrimental to the actual on-field product as well.

Yet despite the never-ending Harper rumors that are bound to ensue, and the narrative that it could be the Nationals’ last legitimate shot at World Series contention for a while, the immediate 2018 outlook remains rosy. New manager Dave Martinez – a Joe Maddon disciple and long-time in vogue name in managerial discussions – should hopefully bring some stability on a three-year contract; and if nothing else, he doesn’t own the longest streak of consecutive win-or-go-home Playoff losses. Plus, the roster at his disposal is not too shabby, either.

With a lineup featuring Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner, 2017 NL fWAR Leader Anthony Rendon, a resurgent Ryan Zimmerman, Playoff Hero Michael A Taylor, and a healthy Adam Eaton, the offensive side of things should be taken care of. And while underlying/Fielding Independent numbers might raise some doubts about Gio Gonzalez’s phenomenal 2017, Washington still returns three of the top six finishers in NL Cy Young voting. And if Baseball Prospectus’ #7 overall prospect Victor Robles forces his way into the everyday lineup after a September and playoff cameo in 2017, yet another Washington star might be in the making.

Now, with all that being said, stop me if you’ve heard this before (or every year since 2013), but on paper, the Nationals feature one of the best rosters in the Major Leagues, and 2018 might just be their year!

Biggest Needs:

Another season, another set of bullpen concerns in Washington. Though the Nationals list of 13 Free Agents features no major names, it does include five relievers from the 2017 Playoff roster. Midseason additions Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle can be expected to serve as the set-up man and closer respectively, but there are holes left to be filled.

Beyond that, not picking up Adam Lind’s player option was a peculiar decision, given both his outstanding production as a Pinch Hitter (.356 Avg in 45 AB, MLB-leading 4 pinch-hit HR) and overall production as a backup to the oft-injured Ryan Zimmerman (14 HR and 122 wRC+ over 116 games). Lind’s departure leaves the Nationals with a need for a new go-to Pinch Hitter and backup First Baseman.

Recommended Moves:

Though a potential Bryce Harper extension will receive all the attention this Winter, it is Mike Rizzo’s contract that the Nationals should extend first and foremost. Rizzo has proven himself time and time again with shrewd moves and trades, most recently boosting the 2017 team by acquiring Howie Kendrick, Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and the aforementioned Doolittle around the Trade Deadline without giving up any top prospects.

That being said, as soon as Rizzo is resigned, Bryce becomes the number 1 priority. Early reports have indicated that the Nationals will open those talks this offseason, despite the usual reluctance of Scott Boras clients to sign extensions over hitting the open market. Whatever deal Harper does end up signing will end up breaking somebody’s bank, Washington fans just hope it’s the Lerner’s.

In the Free Agent market, the Nationals might want to set their sights on bringing back fan favorite Matt Albers, whose 21.9% Hard Contact Allowed was lowest amongst all Free Agent relievers. If Rizzo and the Lerner’s really want to go all in though, look no further than Wade Davis and his 190 ERA+.

Stay tuned for the rest of the NL previews in the next few days!

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