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NL East Hot Stove Preview

2007 Record: 89-73, first place2007 Attendance: 3.1 million, sixth in the NL2007 Payroll: $89 million, 13th in MLBKey Free Agents (2007)CF-R Aaron Rowand2B-R Tadahito IguchiINF-S Abraham Nunez (club option declined)C-R Rod Barajas (club option declined)RHP Freddy GarciaRHP Jon LieberRHP Kyle LohseRHP Antonio AlfonsecaRHP Jose MesaLHP J.C. RomeroKey Free Agents (2008)LF-R Pat Burrell1B/3B-R Wes Helms (club option)LHP Jamie MoyerRHP Tom Gordon (club option)Key Long-Term Commitments2B-L Chase Utley, $13.1M/year through 2013RHP Brett Myers, $10.25M/year through 2009SS-S Jimmy Rollins, $7.3M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club optionRHP Adam Eaton, $8.1M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club optionKey Ready-Now YoungstersCF-L Michael BournOF-R Jayson WerthC-R Carlos RuizRHP Carlos CarrascoNeeds: 1. 3B; 2. Two top SP; 3. Relief depth; 4. C, maybe

What They Should Do:Weak Buy. The Phillies are in a bit of an odd position. They have four superstar-caliber talents in Utley, Rollins, Cole Hamels, and Ryan Howard, all of whom should be under club control for at least the next four seasons. Beyond them, though, the roster is something of a blank slate; there are a lot of contracts coming off the books between this winter and next, and there are few high-impact players in the farm system. Fundamentally, a team with four superstars should be in a position to reach the World Series if they can be league-average everywhere else, and that's what the Phillies should aim for. That would probably mean letting Aaron Rowand go and not attempting to sign another center-fielder, and making do with some combination of Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, and Michael Bourn between center and right. It also means being comfortable with Carlos Ruiz as your catcher. On the other hand it would behoove Pat Gillick to increase his payroll by a net $10-$20 million, spending some of that on a solid third baseman and at least three decent pitchers between the rotation and the bullpen. Mike Lowell is the obvious target at the hot corner. (Though this would a pretty interesting fit for Alex Rodriguez, which might give the Phillies the best infield of all time.) Given what's on the market, the Phillies would probably be better served to re-convert Brett Myers to the starting rotation and aim for relief pitching instead.

What They Will Do:Weak Buy. The writing is on the wall because the Phillies' needs are so obvious, and here's guessing that Gillick will read it.

2007 Record: 88-74, second place2007 Attendance: 3.8 million, second in the NL2007 Payroll: $115 million, third in MLBKey Free Agents (2007)LHP Tom Glavine (player option declined)C-R Paul Lo DucaC-R Ramon Castro2B-S Luis CastilloUT-S Jose ValentinOF-R Moises Alou (club option exercised)RF-L Shawn Green (club option)Key Free Agents (2008RHPs Pedro MartinezRHP Orlando HernandezRHP Guillermo MotaLHP Oliver PerezOF-L Endy Chavez1B-L Carlos Delgado (club option)Key Long-Term CommitmentsCF-S Carlos Beltran, $18.5M/year through 2011LHP Billy Wagner, $10.5M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option3B-R David Wright, $10.3M/year through 2012, plus 2013 club optionSS-S Jose Reyes, $6.25M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club optionLHP Scott Schoenweis, $3.6M/year through 2009Key Ready-Now YoungstersOF-R Lastings MilledgeOF-R Carlos GomezRHP Mike PelfreyRHP Phil HumberRHP Ambiorix Burgos2B-S Ruben GotayNeeds: 1. C; 2. SP; 3. 2B

What They Should Do:Weak Buy. Repeat after me: There is no need to panic. The Mets absolutely have to find themselves a catcher, since Paul Lo Duca and Ramon Castro are free agents. They were wise to re-sign Moises Alou in left field, but should not do the same with Shawn Green in right, instead leaving the job to Lastings Milledge. And they may need to sign or re-sign a second baseman, as Ruben Gotay might or might not be a capable regular. But none of those swaps should require a substantial increase in payroll, and the starting pitching isn't the disaster that it seems, since even assuming that Tom Glavine departs, Pedro Martinez has been resuscitated to take his place. Sure, it wouldn't hurt if the Mets increased their spending a little, giving the 3.8 million fans who turned out to Shea Stadium last year something to chew on. But with CitiField set to open in 2009, it's more the talk radio jocks than the fans that need to be placated.

What They Will Do:Strong Buy. It's not like Omar Minaya needs many excuses to be aggressive, and he'll have several after the Mets' flop in September. Mets fans will have to hope that youngsters such as Milledge and Fernando Martinez aren't collateral damage.

2007 Record: 84-78, third place2007 Attendance: 2.7 million, 10th in the NL2007 Payroll: $87 million, 15th in MLBKey Free Agents (2007)CF-R Andruw JonesPH-R Julio FrancoRHP Octavio Dotel (player option)Key Free Agents (2008)1B-S Mark TeixeiraRHP John Smoltz (club option)RHP Rafael SorianoRHP Oscar VillarrealLHP Mike Hampton (club option)3B-S Chipper Jones (vesting option)Key Long-Term CommitmentsRHP Tim Hudson, $13M/year through 2009, plus 2010 mutual optionC-L Brian McCann, $5.0M/year through 2012, plus 2013 club optionKey Ready-Now YoungstersLHP Jo-Jo ReyesMI-R Yunel EscobarSS-R Brent LillibridgeOF-L Brandon JonesNeeds: 1. CF; 2. one or two good SPs; 3. Relief depth

What They Should Do:Strong Buy. The Braves have already traded shortstop Edgar Renteria (to the Tigers for pitcher Jair Jurrjens and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez). With Escobar ready to be at least a league-average regular, and Brent Lillibridge not far behind him, there was simply no reason not to do that; as the market for shortstops this winter is nearly as weak as that for starting pitchers. The next question is in center field, where the Braves could go for the Banana Republic option with Torii Hunter or Aaron Rowand, fill the Gap with Corey Patterson or Mike Cameron (who'll miss the first 25 games of next season after testing positive a second time for a banned stimulant), or take the cheap-o Old Navy route by entrusting Willie Harris with the position. My target would be Rowand, who should be cheaper than Hunter and is probably the better defensive player at this stage of his career. Cameron would be more appropriate for a team looking for a quick fix, but with Jordan Schafer still several years away, this is a position that the Braves need to address for the longer term than a year or two. As for Harris, the best-case scenario is that he can duplicate Juan Pierre's performance, and the worst case is that he matches his .247/.318/.321 career norms -- that's not how you want to head into Opening Day.

The Braves still then have a little work to do, since the back end of the rotation was so porous last year. If you can get Tom Glavine at some kind of hometown discount, he's probably worth the upgrade over Buddy Carlyle, even assuming that Jurrjens wins a rotation spot. The bullpen would probably be fine if both Villarreal and Dotel came back, but otherwise Atlanta will need to sign comparable talents, since there's very little pitching in the farm system. In some ways, then, this is a hand that kind of plays itself. With a lineup of Johnson/Rowand/Chipper/Teixeira/McCann/Francoeur/Diaz/Escobar and a rotation of Smoltz/Hudson/Glavine/Jurrjens/James, the Braves would quite probably be the best team in the division, and very possibly the best in the National League. Turner Field fans are hungry again after overcoming their fatigue, and with the farm system in a relative lull and a host of players like Teixiera and Smoltz all questionable beyond 2008, now is the time to deliver.

What They Will Do:Weak Buy. What I'd worry about is that Frank Wren will sign Glavine and think he's scored a coup, when in fact the 41-year-old isn't much better than a fourth starter.

2007 Record: 73-89, fourth place2007 Attendance: 1.9 million, 14th in the NL2007 Payroll: $37 million, 28th in MLBKey Free Agents (2007)MI-S D'Angelo Jimenez1B-L Robert FickKey Free Agents (2008)MI-S Felipe LopezOF-R Wily Mo PenaRHP Luis AyalaSS-S Cristian GuzmanPrez-R George W. BushKey Long-Term CommitmentsRF-R Austin Kearns, $6.5M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option1B-L Nick Johnson, $5.5M/year through 20091B-S Dmitri Young, $5M/year through 2009, plus 2010 vesting optionC-L Brian Schneider, $4.9M/year through 20092B-R Ronnie Belliard, $1.8M/year through 2009Key Ready-Now YoungstersLHP Ross DetweilerRHP Collin BalesterNeeds: 1. As many starting pitchers as possible; 2. CF; 3. SS; 4. C

What They Should Do:Weak Buy. I'm not generally an advocate of delving into the free-agent market when those signings aren't likely to propel you into playoff contention, but the Nationals' organization is extremely thin from top to bottom, and they need to do a little bit to stock the pantry, while giving fans at Nationals Park more reasons to turn out than the cherry trees in left field. Therefore I'd suggest a revised version of the Tiger Plan, where you're looking to sign a couple of free agents not so much for 2008 but to set yourself up for 2009. This does not mean that the Nationals need to throw money at anyone who will take it; I don't like the idea of bringing on Torii Hunter, for example, when Ryan Church ought to be very capable of handling center field, and when you've got Kearns and Pena on the corners. On the contrary, it means being flexible and looking for both good buys and good trade opportunities. It's Jim Bowden's turn to leave his door open at the winter meetings and play arbitrage.

What They Will Do:Weak Buy. It wouldn't surprise me if Bowden has a mandate to start behaving like he's got a big-market team, which is really what the Nationals ought to be in their new ballpark. But the Nats need to be careful not to make what assets they do have redundant, as they did with Nick Johnson last year, and as they're in danger of doing with someone like Church this year.

2007 Record: 71-91, fifth place2007 Attendance: 1.4 million, 16th in the NL2007 Payroll: $31 million, 29th in MLBKey Free Agents (2007)INF-R Aaron BooneRHP Armando BenitezRHP Byung-Hyun KimKey Free Agents (2008): NoneKey Long-Term Commitments: NoneKey Ready-Now YoungstersCF-L Alejandro De AzaRHP Rick Vanden HurkNeeds: 1. CF; 2. SP, lots and lots; 3. C

What They Should Do:Strong Buy. That's right: As of this writing the Marlins don't have a single player signed to a contract for next season. Not one. If you had a fantastic farm system, this might be considered desirable, but unfortunately, the Marlins don't. It's not that they can't develop talent, but that all of the talent they have developed has already been farmed by the big league club. There's just not much else left.

You've got two of the five or 10 best players in baseball in Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez -- I think you've got to take your shot here. Bring on Mike Cameron in center field and give your pitching staff a chance. Sign fan favorite Mike Lowell at third base, move Cabrera to first, and pull the plug on Mike Jacobs. Make a pitch to Hiroki Kuroda and hope that he confuses "Marlins" for "Mariners." This is a team that desperately needs to buy back some credibility from its fan base, as well as the politicians of South Florida. Merely making the effort would restore hope and good faith.

What They Will Do:Weak Sell. There are no indications that the Marlins are ready to increase payroll. On the other hand, they only have so many assets that they could plausibly sell off. I would guess that the market for pitching talent is so thin that somebody would be willing to overpay for Dontrelle Willis, even when his 5.17 ERA would normally leave him undervalued. My guess is that Willis departs, but that the Marlins aren't quite ready to move Cabrera, who is set to become a free agent after 2009.

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