2018 Off-Season Preview: NL East

Today we continue our off-season preview series with a look at the NL East, which has the potential for a number of interesting moves before the 2019 season. Here, we discuss how the Mets might actually have a chance at competing (don’t hold your breath) and how the Braves will look for another NL East title. The Phillies and that Gabe Kapler guy are looking pretty interesting, too.

Atlanta Braves

By Will Pharo

2018 Record: 90-72 (1st in NL East)

2018 Payroll: $130,649,395 (18th in MLB)

2019 Outlook:

Well, this write-up may be a bit late for the Braves, as they have potentially already made one of the best moves of the offseason: signing superstar Josh Donaldson to a 1 year, $23-million dollar contract.  Johan Camargo had an excellent 2018 season, posting a very solid 3.3 fWAR with above average offense and defense. However, Donaldson is too good an opportunity to pass up, the perfect buy-low candidate. In his first five full seasons in the league, Donaldson averaged 6.86 fWAR.  Even last year-where he was “bad”-he still accrued a 1.3fWAR in barely 200 plate appearances. The last two seasons Donaldson has battled injuries, but in a one year “show me” deal he will be motivated to net himself a long-term contract. The Braves have a plethora of young position player talent, but outside of Freddie Freeman, the Braves lack other hitters who strike fear into the opposing pitcher (Ronald Acuña may become this as the 2019 season progresses, more on him later).

The Braves were ahead of schedule in 2018, winning 90 games after spending the previous three seasons near the bottom of the National League East.  However, this team received a ton of lucky breaks in 2018. First of all, nobody else wanted to win this division. The Marlins actively tried to lose, the Mets and Nationals were two of the biggest disappointments in the entire league, and the Phillies forgot how to baseball in mid to late August.  The Braves deserve credit but this division was waiting for them on a silver platter. The Braves also received many unexpected performances. At age 35 Nick Markakis had his best season in a decade and received his first all-star appearance. Anibal Sanchez at age 34 cut his ERA by more than half from a putrid 6.41 in 2017 to 2.83 in 2018.  This is not the Red Sox, far from a perfect team or juggernaut.

Biggest Needs:

The Braves pitching staff as a whole seemed to be lucky this year, with their top 7 pitchers according to Fangraphs all having ERAs lower than their xFIPs.  Mike Foltynewicz had a great year, but most people would agree the Braves do not have a true ace on this staff. I would stay away from Patrick Corbin, as I do not think he has enough of a track record to justify a $100 million+ contract.  Nobody on this staff has a track record of multiple good seasons recently (Julio Teheran simply is not that good). 22 year-old prospect Touki Toussaint is currently listed as the 5th starter for a team with World Series aspirations; this is concerning.  Toussaint is a fringe top 50 prospect ,but I would not be comfortable giving him a spot in the starting rotation.

Right field is a concern at the moment as well, with Nick Markakis set to depart.  The Braves could explore bringing him back, but I believe some team will overpay for him after a great season.  Johan Camargo will most likely play a ton of outfield next season with the infield set with Freeman, Albies, Swanson, and Donaldson.  With a lack of experience in the outfield, I would be tempted to move Acuña to right field and have Camargo in left but the Braves could just have Camargo play right field.

The bullpen is also an area of concern for the Braves: closer Arodys Vizcaíno had a good but lucky season with an ERA of 2.11 but an xFIP of almost exactly double that of 4.21, so regression is expected.  Johnny Venters is a great story, but he’s certainly nothing close to what he was in the last era of good Braves teams.

Suggested Moves:

The Braves could use some established pitching both for starters and relievers.  I tend to stay away from the top free agents because the Braves will have to pay this great young core eventually.  A name I would look into is Nathan Eovaldi.  He has always had talent and has been a better pitcher then his ERA indicates, since he has spent the majority of his career in Yankee Stadium and Fenway park, not exactly known for being kind to pitchers.  I think Eovaldi can be an anchor for this rotation as the young kids grow up a bit. I think he could be obtained for about 4 years/ $62 million.

The reliever I think the Braves should target is Adam Ottavino.  Many people agree getting him out of Coors Field will do him wonders ,as he has managed to have a career ERA and FIP in the mid 3s.  Ottavino might not be as good long-term as he was in 2018 but he definitely will not be as bad as he was in 2017. I think Ottavino could be signed for about 3 years/$ 32 million.

Miami Marlins

By Felipe Zwanzger

2018 Record: 63-98 (5th in NL East)

2018 Payroll: $91,817,860 (26th in MLB)

2019 Outlook

The 2018 season kicked off what seems to be the newest version of a Miami Marlins rebuild. Increased optimism can be attributed to the new Jeter regime in town, but winning baseball is still at least two years away from returning to Miami. The young starting rotation showed promise with Pablo Lopez, Trevor Richards and Caleb Smith holding their own at the major league level. Each should be a favorite to land a spot in the 2019 rotation which also features Jose Urena and Dan Straily. Unfortunately, the bullpen was the team’s kryptonite in 2018 as they posted a major league-worst 5.34 ERA and must be addressed this offseason.

JT Realmuto is an All-Star catcher and arguably the best offensive catcher in the game of baseball. The JT Riddle and Miguel Rojas platoon at SS provided the team a combined WAR of over 3.0. Brian Anderson’s solid rookie season was led by his 158 hits while providing above average defense at third base and right field. Starlin Castro proved he has plenty left in the tank by posting a .733 OPS with 12 HR’s, good for a 3.4 WAR (his highest since his 2012 All-Star season with the Cubs).

Biggest Needs

The rotation is about seven deep if you include Wei-Yin Chen, who posted an ERA of 1.62 in 78 home innings last year. Nonetheless, signing a guy like Trevor Cahill could provide the team with much-needed flexibility as a starter and reliever. The lineup also needs at least one external reinforcement, especially after the team decided to not tender Derek Dietrich a contract, who was arguably their best offensive piece last year aside from JT Realmuto. The relief corps needs help as well. They wore down as the season progressed (expected from young relievers), and a free agent veteran signing or two wouldn’t hurt. The Marlins also surprised the baseball world by signing MLB Pipeline’s #1 international prospect, Victor Victor Mesa and his younger brother, Victor Mesa Jr. The former is a candidate to fill the vacancy in left field created by the departure of Derek Dietrich.

Suggested Moves

A few savvy, veteran free agent signings would go a long way in shoring up the relief corps while serving as mentors for the young guys. Strong starts to their seasons could also turn these veterans into trade chips which always become a hot commodity at the trading deadline. Reunions with AJ Ramos, David Phelps, or Dan Jennings, should be in play as it may only take a one-year deal to bring them to Miami. 

Prospects Nick Neidert and Robert Dugger, acquired in separate deals with the Mariners, should make their major league debuts by next summer with outfielder Monte Harrison not far behind. Expect the team to be active in the free agent market but with more cost-effective options rather than big splashes (Manny Machado is not coming back home to Miami). Despite the growing pains of his first season in Miami, Lewis Brinson should be given every opportunity to remain the starting center fielder, but another poor first half could have the Marlins moving on from their prize of the Christian Yelich trade.

New York Mets

By Max Brill

2018 Record: 77-85 (4th in NL East)

2018 Payroll: $150,187,987 (12th in MLB)

2019 Outlook:

The Mets started 2018 an MLB-best 11-1. Things went downhill quickly after that; the Amazins were the only team in the National League without 40 or more wins at the All-Star break. Despite the abysmal first half, the Mets were the best team, record-wise, in the NL East in the second half, bringing fans some hope for the future. As the old Mets mantra goes: there’s always next year.

And next year is going to be a fun one. Brodie Van Wagnenen, a former player agent and the newly minted Mets general manager, has already gone to work — a deal is in place with the Mariners to acquire perennial All-Star Robinson Cano, young flamethrower Edwin Diaz, and about $60 million in cash for Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak, Gerson Bautista, Justin Dunn, and Jarred Kelenic. It isn’t ideal for the Mets to have to give up their first-round pick from the most recent draft in Kelenic, but nearly every other player is expendable—Bruce and Swarzak will not be missed considering the money they are owed—so this move looks like a net positive for the Mets.

Aside from the new faces coming to town, the Mets will have a solid returning corps of hitters in Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, and Jeff McNeil. Todd Frazier and Juan Lagares will also be returning, Yoenis Cespedes should come back from his injury at some point in the middle of the season, and TJ Rivera will also be back full-time. Not a bad group of guys.

All of the above is secondary to the pitching staff. Jacob deGrom, reigning Cy Young, will look to continue making opposing hitters look silly. Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler will surely compete with deGrom for the Cy Young award, provided they stay healthy. Steven Matz and Jason Vargas are perhaps the best #4 and #5 starters in the league. This starting staff is good.

The bullpen needs work, though. I’ll leave it at that.

Biggest Needs:

With the Cano/Diaz trade, the Mets are addressing their biggest need: the bullpen. Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman are the only relief pitchers on this team who were worth their salt in 2018 and adding Diaz to the mix is moving toward a solution but certainly not solving the problem.

The Mets also need a catcher. They tendered a contract to Travis d’Arnaud ahead of Friday’s deadline, but he will miss most (if not all) of the 2019 season and a platoon of Kevin Plawecki and Tomas Nido isn’t going to cut it.

Suggested Moves:

It would behoove Brodie Van Wagenen to go after a top-of-the-line relief pitcher considering the surfeit of relief talent on the market. David Robertson on a three-year deal seems like he would be a good fit. Additionally, the Mets should sign a middle-tier reliever like Joakim Soria or Brad Brach to help bolster the bullpen. Daniel Zamora should be able to fill in for the departed Jerry Blevins as the lefty specialist, so there’s no need for the Mets to chase lefties specifically.

The next need they must address is their catcher. Yan Gomes is off the trade market and with Kelenic likely on the way out, it will be difficult for the Mets to scrape together the prospect capital necessary to land J.T. Realmuto via trade. The best options in free agency are Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos, though adding a defensive-minded catcher like Martin Maldonado to improve an already-elite pitching staff would not be a bad move either.

Aside from picking up a catcher and reliever, the Mets may want to look into acquiring an outfielder. Billy Hamilton would be a good fit with the team—he plays an excellent centerfield, runs the bases well, and will likely not command a multi-year commitment. A Hamilton-Lagares platoon in centerfield until Cespedes returns would all but guarantee that nothing gets down in the Mets outfield.

Philadelphia Phillies

By Alex Fischer

2018 Record: 80-82 (3rd place NL East)

2018 Payroll: $104,297,471 (23rd in MLB)

2019 Outlook:

The Phillies were a good story from last year, as they were in first place in the NL East until mid-August. This was a major improvement from a last-place finish in the NL East the year before.  The Phillies improved in 2018 by acquiring the ace Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana to fill the void left by the great Ryan Howard. The Phillies also had a great season out of star outfielder Odubel Herrera, phenomenal pitching from Aaron Nola and the rise of what looks like an elite closer in Seranthony Dominguez.  There were other pieces and reasons for the Phillies success, but these players orchestrated this run and could play a major role this upcoming season.

The Phillies are a nice young team that is steadily improving. Their outfield is anchored by All-Star Odubel Herrera and includes the young power hitter Rhys Hoskins with Nick Williams in RF.  Maikel Franco will play the hot corner, the multi-positional Cesar Hernandez will man second base and the reliable Carlos Santana should slot in at first if the Phillies don’t end up trading him.  The Phillies do have one of the best young aces in baseball as well in Aaron Nola complemented by the great veteran Jake Arrieta.  The Phillies play in a relatively interesting division in the NL East, making it a fun division to watch this upcoming season.  The Phillies have a great chance to make the playoffs and are going to be major players this offseason.  As quoted by owner John Middleton regarding this upcoming free agency “We’re going into this expecting to spend money”.  The Phillies have the financial capabilities to do this, and with the players they signed last season, history does tend to repeat itself.

Biggest Needs:

The Phillies are a well-rounded team, but a need that can be addressed immediately this free agency period is the bullpen.  Besides Seranthony Dominguez, the Phillies really do not have any marquee players there.  This is a star-studded year in free agency for relief pitchers and the Phillies have a plethora of options.  The top option is Craig Kimbrel, but he could be in for a huge payday, which may make the Phillies pass on him.  Not to say Kimbrel isn’t valuable, but he is 31 years old and the Phillies could be hesitant to sign him to a long-term deal.  The Phillies could also go with cheaper options in Andrew Miller, Ryan Madson, Cody Allen, Kelvin Herrera, and/or implement the use of an “opener” in Sergio Romo. Seranthony Dominguez is their closer for the future, but it would be great for them to have a good setup man outside of Hector Neris, and even another reliable reliever on top of that pair.

Suggested moves:

Whether the Phillies sign Manny Machado or Bryce Harper is the big question of the offseason for this squad.  The Phillies are generating a lot of noise, alluding to signing any of these players and have money to spend.  Much like how The Phillies have been in a rebuild mode recently, patience has panned out for them.  Quoting fellow Philadelphia sports star Joel Embiid, “Trust the process…” The Phillies will likely make a huge splash this offseason and I wouldn’t be surprised if either superstar Bryce Harper or Manny Machado ends up on this team.  Personally, I feel that both players are not worth the amount of money they are asking for, but if the Phillies’ goal is to go into next season with a lot of hype and noise, signing either of these two players accomplishes that goal. Either player can improve the Phillies in their respective positions and will be the star of this franchise for years to come.  The Phillies are an upstart team that can contend, so if I’m Harper or Machado I would be drooling.  Having the chance to be the star of a contending team makes Philadelphia an intriguing place to play.  Ideally, the Phillies get either Harper or Machado and can also add get some pieces to bolster their bullpen like David Robertson or Andrew Miller.  The Phillies have a good chance to make the playoffs this year and should be able to land a star signee to lead this franchise.

Washington Nationals

By Max Smith

2018 Record: 82-80 (2nd in NL East, Missed Playoffs)

2018 Payroll: $181,382,609 (9th in MLB)

2019 Outlook:

The best thing about 2019 for the Nationals will be that it’s not 2018, which was a year to forget apart from a few sterling individual seasons. Yet 82-80, without any semblance of a late-season divisional or even Wild Card push, is beyond underwhelming for a team with a payroll and talent base as significant as Washington’s.

That being said, a lot of that talent will return to DC in 2018. As for the pretty significant, hotly debated, highly sought-after talent that might not be back at Nats Park (read: Bryce Harper), the team might well be better off without it. Adam Eaton’s team-friendly contract, the absolutely sensational breakout season from 20-year old outfielder Juan Soto–whose 146 wRC+, .292/.406/.517 and 16.0 BB% put him in the conversation for the greatest teenage season of all time–and the anticipated full-time arrival of MLB.com’s #4 prospect Victor Robles mean that the outfield has the potential to be even better without Harper and his year-to-year wild inconsistency.

Outfield aside, Anthony Rendon (quietly the NL’s most consistent and certainly underappreciated player of the past few years) and Trea Turner haven’t gone anywhere, and the top line pitching probably outweighs current depth issues that remain to be addressed. 300 Strikeout Cy Young runner-up Max Scherzer’s 2018 was actually even better than his two previous award-winning seasons, and maybe Stephen Strasburg remains healthy, who knows? Anchoring an often-maligned bullpen will be the returning Sean Doolittle, while Mike Rizzo has taken an interesting gamble with the addition of Trevor Rosenthal.

In an NL East that could be pretty wide open between Philly, Atlanta, DC and even the recently aggressive Mets, the Nats will have their eyes on a playoff spot. Now whether the Nationals actually bounce back from such a disappointing season remains to be seen, but on paper, the talent is there–kinda like it has been each of the past 5 seasons that have featured no playoff series victories.

Biggest Needs:

One of the team’s biggest offensive needs was already addressed with the DC return of Kurt Suzuki on a two-year deal and yesterday’s trade for All-Star Yan Gomes, while the hole at second base still looms large. Fortunately, both positions will almost automatically be upgraded after both Pedro Severino and Wilmer Difo featured on M-SABR’s NL Gallardo Awards ballot, taking home two precious Aluminum Sluggers.

Pitching-wise, arms to round out the end of the rotation will be the main priority after the departure of the beloved Gio Gonzalez near the trade deadline.

Suggested Moves:

If we are talking adding solid depth to the end of a strong frontline rotation, names like Nathan Eovaldi or JA Happ could be phenomenal additions to the Nats’ rotation. If we are talking signing another headline free agent pitcher to a massive contract, Patrick Corbin could be an even more exciting name that the Nats already happen to be in contact with. Either type of move would be a win for the team, but with an already high payroll and tax penalties looming, the Nationals might be better off going the former route while saving some money to add a second baseman and maybe another bullpen arm. A reunion with Daniel Murphy on a reasonable contract could be an interesting turn.



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