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NL East Hot Stove Preview: Braves, Nationals battle for supremacy

Photo: Dave Tulis/AP

Evan Gattis (left) is just one option to replace seven-time All-Star Brian McCann at catcher in Atlanta.

This week, SI.com is breaking down the offseason plans for all 30 teams. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2013:

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Atlanta Braves

2013 Record: 96-66, first in NL East, lost to Dodgers in NLDS

Run differential +140, fifth in MLB

Pending free agents: C Brian McCann, SP Tim Hudson, SP Paul Maholm, SP Freddy Garcia, RP Eric O'Flaherty, RP Scott Downs, RP Luis Ayala, RP Kameron Loe, OF Reed Johnson

The list of those potentially leaving looks more daunting than it is, given the depth the Braves have built on the mound and behind the plate. The most high profile member of the above group is McCann, a seven-time All-Star to whom Atlanta extended a qualifying offer. He's about as good as gone given the price tag he'll fetch and the fact that the club has Evan Gattis, Gerald Laird and prospect Christian Bethancourt in the mix to replace him.

Even with three starters possibly leaving, four-fifths of the Braves' excellent rotation should return: Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran and Brandon Beachy. Also, Atlanta's historically good bullpen -- its 2.46 ERA was effectively tied for the majors' best since 1990 -- retains its most-used pieces. Of the free agents, only Ayala threw more than 20 innings last season, and his 31 were only tied for sixth on the club.

Top prospect on the verge: C Christian Bethancourt

Bethancourt rated as high as No. 91 on MLB.com's pre-2012 prospect list before struggling at the plate in Double A that season, but he bounced back while repeating that level in '13, with 12 home runs and a .741 OPS that represented a 175-point improvement. His forte, however, is his defense and he'll be a good long-term supplement to the offensive-minded Gattis.

Targets: Second base, starting pitching, relief pitching

The Braves didn't even put Dan Uggla on their postseason roster and now reportedly are interested in trading their second baseman, which would put them in the market for a replacement. Their best options may be to swing a trade for the Reds' Brandon Phillips, who's a Georgia native, or to bring back one of their former second basemen in either Omar Infante or Kelly Johnson, both of whom are free agents. The vote here is for Infante, who won't require the huge trade cost of Phillips, is a better defender than Johnson and, after hitting .318 for the Tigers in 2013, would be a nice, high-average balance to a power- and strikeout-heavy lineup.

Atlanta's rotation went through so much attrition that late-season pick-up Freddy Garcia wound up starting Game 4 of the NLDS, so the club understands the need for depth. It may look to add more than just the one starter it needs to fill out the rotation, and Hudson or Maholm could both be options.

The bullpen could also use some depth but has the high-leverage innings accounted for. General manager Frank Wren and his scouting staff have had remarkable success finding castaways on the waiver wire and may look in the bargain bin for a gem rather than splurge on a star.

Bottom Line: The Braves won the NL East by 10 games but could stand to make a few improvements to ensure they stay ahead of the Nationals. Generally, however, this club appears to be a likely playoff entrant again next year and thus needs only tinkering, not overhauling, this winter.

Washington Nationals

2013 Record: 86-76, second in NL East

Run differential +30, 14th in MLB

Pending free agents: SP Dan Haren, IF Chad Tracy, 1B Chris Marrero

Haren pitched well in the second half, but it wasn't enough to guarantee a return to D.C., where the Nationals ought to have been a title contender last season and hope to be again in 2014. GM Mike Rizzo instead may try to make an even bigger splash in rounding out his rotation behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler (who should be fully recovered after dealing with a herniated disk last year).

Top prospect on the verge: OF Eury Perez

Last year's designee in this space, Brian Goodwin, is the outfielder with a higher ceiling, but while Goodwin played the entire season at Double A, Perez made a big league cameo for the second straight season. Perez is a .310 hitter with 43 stolen bases in 136 career Triple A games and could push to make Washington's roster as a fourth or fifth outfielder supporting the terrific starting trio of Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth.

Targets: Starting pitching, lefthanded relief pitching, bench

The Nationals have had mixed success with their recent plan of signing veteran starters to expensive one-year deals to serve as a fifth starter (Edwin Jackson in 2012, Haren in '13). If the opportunity presents itself, the Nationals will surely explore a longer-term option -- they have the financial resources for Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, et al. -- or they could go with another short-term contract to a veteran like A.J. Burnett or Tim Hudson.

Washington's other glaring need is a lefty reliever, as it couldn't replace Sean Burnett's excellent 2012 season. Scott Downs, Matt Thornton, J.P. Howell and Javier Lopez are some veteran options. Another would be Eric O'Flaherty, if his Tommy John rehab goes according to schedule.

The Nats' bench was a season-long problem; the .625 OPS produced by Scott Hairston, who wasn't acquired until midseason, was the best by a non-regular.

Bottom Line: The Nationals will return most of their roster from the 2013 club -- except, notably, retired manager Davey Johnson, who was replaced by Diamondbacks third base coach Matt Williams -- that was anointed as preseason World Series favorites. They underachieved last year but have the talent for another strong run, especially if they fill their needs listed above.

New York Mets

2013 Record: 74-88, third in NL East

Run differential -65, 22nd in MLB

Pending free agents: SP Johan Santana, SP Daisuke Matsuzaka, SP Aaron Harang, RP LaTroy Hawkins, RP Frank Francisco, RP David Aardsma, RP Tim Byrdak

Many of the Mets' pending free agents were merely midseason injury fill-ins and won't be missed, though Hawkins was good in the bullpen. The end of the Santana era is notable even if he didn't throw a pitch in two of the last three seasons, as the lefthander delivered three high-end seasons from 2008-10 and the first no-hitter in franchise history in '12.

Top prospect on the verge: RHP Noah Syndergaard

Syndergaard, a former supplemental first-round pick of the Blue Jays, arrived last winter in the R.A. Dickey trade with Toronto and sufficiently impressed over two minor league levels. Syndergaard had a 3.06 ERA and 10.2 K/9 over 23 starts and 117 2/3 innings split between High A and Double A and could see the majors later in 2014, setting up an Opening Day rotation in '15 with Matt Harvey (who should be back from Tommy John surgery by then) and Zack Wheeler.

Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Mets haven't tasted much success lately but getting a star like Shin-Soo Choo would help.

Targets: Outfield, middle infield, relief pitching

This is supposed to be the winter when New York finally spends in the free-agent market. The outfield, which ranked 28th in the majors in OPS, is in dire need of more production that could bolster the lineup. Shin-Soo Choo is a perfect fit because of his first-rate on-base skills and moderate power, but Jacoby Ellsbury and Curtis Granderson would also be valuable additions.

The Mets could use some help at either middle infield spot -- second baseman Daniel Murphy can hit but remains sub-par defensively -- and especially at shortstop. Stephen Drew is the best available at that position, but he received a qualifying offer from Boston and he's probably not worth forfeiting a draft pick over. (It's worth noting, however, that the Mets' first-round pick is protected. If they sign one of the big three outfielders mentioned above, they'd only forfeit a third-round pick for Drew, which might be more palatable.) Jhonny Peralta is a good offensive shortstop but not an ideal fit defensively. Otherwise, New York would be best served exploring a trade than signing anyone else from a bleak shortstop class.

The team could also use a few arms for its bullpen, though that should be the lowest priority. Giving relievers multi-year deals is a notoriously fickle enterprise, and the Mets are more likely aiming for serious contention in 2015, which gives them a year to consider their options.

Bottom Line: The Mets should be moving from a rebuilding year in 2013 to a transition year in '14 to a contender in '15, but to follow that trajectory will require some stockpiling of key pieces now.

Philadelphia Phillies

2013 Record: 73-89, fourth in NL East

Run differential -139, 28th in MLB

Pending free agents: SP Roy Halladay, C Carlos Ruiz, SP John Lannan, IF Pete Orr, OF Roger Bernardina, OF Casper Wells, RP Zach Miner

Neither Halladay nor Ruiz had good walk years, but the latter should at least still have a healthy market, given the paucity of catchers with good defensive reputations as well as solid offensive track records. It doesn't help that his down season (.268 average, .688 OPS) followed a suspension for stimulants, however.

Halladay, meanwhile, wasn't anywhere near his normal self, going 4-5 with a 6.82 ERA and making just 13 starts because of injury. The two-time Cy Young winner may well be offered only a one-year, incentive-laden deal.

Top prospect on the verge: LHP Jesse Biddle

Biddle reportedly suffered from whooping cough and plantar fasciitis at various times this past season but still managed a respectable 3.64 ERA and 10.0 K/9 in 138⅓ innings at Double A. His season highlights occurred before his ailments in back-to-back April starts in which he threw 13 innings and allowed two hits while recording two-thirds of his outs (26 of 39) by strikeout. The former first-round pick is a Philadelphia native who may not have too long to wait for a chance to pitch for his hometown team.

Targets: Catcher, third base, starting pitching, relief pitching

After scoring just 610 runs last season, the third-fewest in the NL, the Phillies need more offense. Keeping Ryan Howard healthy would help, and getting more out of catcher and third base is the next logical option. Philadelphia may re-sign Ruiz and hopes he reverts to pre-2013 form; if not, signing Jarrod Saltalamacchia would seem to be a good fit.

Cody Asche got most of the playing time at third base down the stretch -- his Triple A numbers (.837 OPS) suggest he should have a brighter future than his first 50 big league games (.691) -- but there could be a way to upgrade here, perhaps by signing Peralta. Whomever they add offensively ought to be a righthanded hitter to balance a lefty-leaning lineup.

The rotation also needs support behind Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, who remain a dynamic 1-2 punch. Jonathan Pettibone impressed as a rookie and Kyle Kendrick has his moments where he looks like a viable back-of-the-rotation starter, but there's room for at least one addition here. The bullpen ranked 27th in the majors with a 4.13 ERA and needs more depth.

Bottom Line: The Phillies are not quite good enough to make a major addition and be right in contention and are saddled with too many aging veterans (Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, etc.) who are trying to make one more title run. Unfortunately for them, this current course means that run is less likely than a few more seasons of winning between 70 and 80 games before bottoming out.

Miami Marlins

2013 Record: 62-100, fifth in NL East

Run differential -133, 27th in MLB

Pending free agents: OF Juan Pierre, OF Austin Kearns, OF Matt Diaz, 3B Placido Polanco, RP Chad Qualls

After promoting a number of their prospects to the majors after the start of the season, the Marlins showed marked improvement, as a 14-41 (.255) record in April and May was replaced by a 48-59 (.449) showing the rest of the season -- still not good, of course, but much better. None of Miami's free agents figure into its long-term plans and would only return as bench players to ensure a veteran influence in the clubhouse.

Top prospect on the verge: OF Jake Marisnick

The Marlins debuted three rookie outfielders in 2013: Marisnick, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. Marisnick's cameo was the briefest, as he logged just 118 plate appearances which keeps his rookie eligibility, and he projects as the team's centerfielder of the future. Baseball America named him the "best defensive outfielder" and owner of the "best outfield arm" among all of Miami's prospects.

Marisnick, a former Blue Jays farmhand acquired in last winter's blockbuster trade that shipped Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and others to Toronto, had 12 homers and a .860 OPS in 67 games in Double A last season, though he struggled mightily in the majors (1 HR and .478 OPS in 40 games).

Targets: Infield, catcher

The Marlins' offense was a disaster in 2013, ranking last in the majors in runs, hits, homers, average, on-base percentage and slugging, so the club could stand to improve anywhere and everywhere, with the obvious exception of franchise rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton. The aforementioned outfield prospects, as well as Justin Ruggiano, means the more pressing concern is around the infield dirt, where no position (catcher or infield) should be locked in.

Bottom Line: Miami doesn't need to upgrade everywhere in one winter -- the franchise is more than one season away from contending -- but it needs to start filling holes either through trades or strategic free-agent signings. New GM Dan Jennings has said Stanton won't be moved, but first baseman Logan Morrison, closer Steve Cishek and any other asset who has value should be shopped.

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