NL East Hot Stove Preview: Nationals try to hold off Mets, Braves, Marlins
This week, SI.com is breaking down the offseason plans for all 30 teams. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2014.
Results: 96-66 (.593), first place in NL East, lost Division Series
Third-Order Wins: 97-65 (.597)
The Nationals cut ties with LaRoche in order to move Ryan Zimmerman, who is five years younger than LaRoche and signed through 2019, across the diamond to first base. That will allow Anthony Rendon to remain at third base, his natural position. However, that leaves an opening at second base that, despite shedding LaRoche's $12 million salary, will be difficult to fill given the underwhelming free agent options, making a reunion with Cabrera a possibility.
Washington also declined Soriano's $14 million option, which is no surprise given that he coughed up the closer's job, posted a 6.48 ERA after the All-Star break and will turn 35 in December. The team will likely look to spend that savings on alternative solutions for the bullpen.
Targets: Second base, relief pitching, cost-certainty
The Nationals seem more likely to trade for a second baseman than they are to sign one. The top target there is the Angels' Howie Kendrick, who is rumored to be on the market entering his walk year. There will be ample competition for Kendrick given how many other teams need help at the keystone, but Washington's organizational surplus of young starting pitching matches up well with the Angels' continued need for same.
In the bullpen, the Nats are well stocked from the left side, with Jerry Blevins, Ross Detwiler and Matt Thornton (signed for $3.5 million for 2015), all on the roster, but they could use another high-leverage righty to replace Soriano and possibly even bump Drew Storen back to a setup role. Soriano's contract suggests that Mike Rizzo is the rare general manager willing to spend big bucks on a closer these days. That puts top free-agent closer candidates David Robertson and Sergio Romo in play for Washington, though the Yankees' qualifying offer to Robertson could scare away even Rizzo.
Just as important as setting up their roster for 2015, the Nationals need to take some steps this offseason to gain some cost certainty over the remainder of the decade. Starters Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, shortstop Ian Desmond, centerfielder Denard Span and setup ace Tyler Clippard are all entering their walk year. Storen and catcher Wilson Ramos are arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, Stephen Strasburg is arb-eligible for the second time and Bryce Harper will be eligible for the first time next winter.
The Nats need to sign some of those players to extensions this offseason, both to secure their services beyond their scheduled free agency and to help them make better decisions regarding the rest, as well as potential upgrades in the interim. Zimmermann and Desmond should be their top priorities there.
Bottom Line: Washington's core is strong but getting expensive. The team's priority this year should be to take the long view in terms of controlling costs and keeping as much of that core together as possible. The required replacements at second base and in the bullpen must happen within the context of that bigger picture.
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New York Mets
Results: 79-83 (.488), tied for second place in NL East
Third-Order Wins: 77-85 (.474)
Free Agents: RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka
Nothing to see here, move along.
Targets: Corner outfield
The Mets actually outscored their opponents in 2014, despite a down-year from David Wright and the absence of ace Matt Harvey, thanks to improvements at the plate from the likes of Travis d'Arnaud, Lucas Duda, Juan Lagares and Ruben Tejada, and the continued emergence of young pitchers such as likely Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, sophomore starter Zack Wheeler, closer Jenrry Mejia and rookie Jeurys Familia. As such, they appear poised to take another step forward in 2015 with a rebound from Wright and the return of Harvey, the latter of whom is now more than 12 months removed from his Tommy John surgery.
The team's finances are still a mess, but New York is wealthy when it comes to starting pitching (the major league rotation is six-deep with Harvey, DeGrom, Wheeler, Jonathon Niese, Dillon Gee and Bartolo Colon, the last entering his walk year, with top prospects Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard knocking on the door). That could make the Mets active in the trade market, where their top target should be a leftfielder or a rightfielder who can push Curtis Granderson to left.
The Dodgers are an obvious match there, given their outfield surplus and Josh Beckett's retirement. Another possible short-term solution could be a reunion with Marlon Byrd via a deal with the rebuilding Phillies, though such a trade would be the first between the two intra-division rivals since 2001.
Bottom Line: New York's fortunes in 2015 will be largely dependent on the players already in the organization, but if it finds the right match, it could make a significant upgrade in the outfield.
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Results: 79-83 (.488), tied for second place in NL East
Third-Order Wins: 76-86 (.471)
The Braves have extended a qualifying offer to Santana and will likely try to re-sign him or Harang, the latter of whom is coming off his best season since his prime with the Reds nearly a decade ago. Floyd, however, has been healthy enough to make a total of just 14 starts over the last two seasons and thus can't safely be projected into any team's rotation. There's no need for Atlanta to bring back any of the three bench players.
Targets: Starting pitching, centerfield, second base, third base
Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy are due to return from their respective Tommy John surgeries in spring training, but given that it was a second TJ surgery in both cases and that Beachy never fully recovered from the first, neither can be counted on for a full season in the team's rotation. The Braves thus need at least one reliable starter to add to Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Mike Minor. Per the above, the team could simply opt to retain Santana or Harang.
Doubling down on Harang seems foolhardy, but there's some chance that Santana, after having his market value gutted by a qualifying offer last year, leading to his one-year deal with the Braves, could simply accept the qualifying offer. That might be the best-case scenario for the team, given the minimum commitment involved (one year, albeit at $15.3 million). Whatever their solution, Atlanta seems unlikely to spend big on the rotation, both because it just might get something out of Medlen and Beachy and because there is other work to be done.
The Braves fired general manager Frank Wren in late September amid a collapse that saw them fall from a wild-card position on Sept. 6 to a losing record just 10 days later. Former Indians and Rangers GM John Hart, now the Braves' president of baseball operations, and assistant GM John Coppolella, still under that title, have been charged with fixing some of Wren's mistakes. Chief among those were the acquisitions of B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. Uggla was released in July, but it's not clear that Tommy La Stella, who was a replacement-level player as a rookie this past season, is the solution. Meanwhile, the elder Upton did improve in the second year of his five-year, $75.25 million deal, but after hitting .198/.279/.314 in his first two years as a Brave, he should have to earn a starting job on the team.
Unfortunately, second base and centerfield are thin positions on this year's market, and Atlanta lacks the obvious trade chips of the Nationals and Mets. However, there are options at third base, where Chris Johnson gave the team a third replacement-level performance in 2014. Desperate for offense after outscoring only the Padres this past season, the Braves could court free-agent shortstop Hanley Ramirez to play the position. They could also upgrade on both sides of the ball with the less productive but slicker-fielding and more reliably healthy Pablo Sandoval or Chase Headley, both of whom have spent their careers in extreme pitchers' parks.
Bottom Line: After making the playoffs three times in four years and being favored to do so again coming into 2014, Atlanta has come to a crossroads. It will be up to the new front office team to steer the team to safety, lest the Braves find themselves looking up at the Mets and Marlins.
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Results: 77-85 (.475), fourth place in NL East
Third-Order Wins: 76-86 (.469)
Johnson can still hit lefties, but he'll be 38 in December. The other three are younger but even further past their sell-by dates.
The Marlins have a talented young outfield led by MVP candidate Giancarlo Stanton, whom the team hopes to sign to a significant extension this winter, and a pitching staff deep enough to have weathered the loss of Jose Fernandez to Tommy John surgery last year and to which they hope to add Fernandez again during the first half of the 2015 season. They also made a three-year commitment to Jarrod Saltalamacchia at catcher last December. That leaves the infield as their primary area for improvement, and there's ample room for that at all four infield positions.
Though fascinating to contemplate, a reunion with Hanley Ramirez is extremely unlikely, and the organization may not have what it takes to compete for Kendrick. However, bringing in Michael Morse or LaRoche, who turns 35 on Thursday, as a short-term upgrade at first base could move the needle. The righthanded Morse would be a better match for Marlins Park, but the lefty LaRoche would be a better complement for Miami's largely righthanded lineup.
A sober evaluation of Casey McGehee's second half (.243/.310/.310) could also put the Marlins in play in this winter's solid third-base market. But while the Marlins do appear to be offseason players, it's not clear just how much they have to spend this winter, particularly with Stanton earmarked for a major deal.
Bottom Line: Miami's top priority this offseason will and should be extending Stanton, who may not necessarily be amenable to keeping his talents in South Beach. Upgrading the infield, however, could help the Marlins climb over .500 in the coming season and give Stanton a reason to stick around.
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Results: 73-89 (.451), fifth place in NL East
Third-order wins: 73-89 (.451)
The Phillies have already re-signed a pair of would-be free agents, outfielder Grady Sizemore and pitcher Jerome Williams, to incentive-laden one-year contracts with base salaries of $2 million and $2.5 million, respectively. Those moves indicate their need for warm bodies, particularly in the starting rotation. That could lead the Phillies to bring back the 30-year-old Kendrick, who at the very least can reliably eat innings.
Burnett, who led the majors in losses (18), walks (96) and earned runs allowed (109) in 2014 and will be 38 in January, declined a $12.5 million player option and thus seems unlikely to return. Adams, once an ace setup man, is 36 and has been limited to 43 2/3 innings over the last two seasons by a worn-out shoulder. Nieves is a 37-year-old backup catcher the team doesn't need.
Targets: Starting pitching, youth
Philadelphia owned the oldest roster in baseball in 2014, and after its second consecutive 89-loss season, the team is finally going to try to get younger, an organizational shift rumored to have come at the urging of interim president and former general manager Pat Gillick. That means the Phillies are less likely to try to make major additions than they are to try to unload some of their veterans. Rightfielder Byrd, closer Jonathan Papelbon, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley could all be on the block, though the extensive no-trade protections enjoyed by Papelbon (he can block 17 teams), Rollins and Utley (both of whom can veto any trade) could prove problematic.
The Phillies are unlikely to be able to move Cliff Lee, who is owed $37 million between his 2015 salary and 2016 buyout and is coming off a season in which he was limited to 13 starts by forearm and elbow injuries. The same is true of Ryan Howard, who is owed $60 million over the next two seasons plus his buyout for 2017. Both Lee and Howard also have extensive no-trade protection.
As it stands, Philadelphia could use some help in the rotation, which currently consists of Cole Hamels, David Buchanan, Williams and Lee. That's four pitchers if Lee can stay healthy, explaining the likely interest in retaining Kendrick and creating a need to add at least one other arm.
"We're going to try to find as many pitchers as we can that fit the mold of short-term deals that can provide some depth," GM Ruben Amaro Jr. told the Philadelphia Inquirer last week. Amaro also said that the team will look to make one big splash this winter. That will probably be a serious run at Cuban outfielder Yasmani Tomas, who will turn 24 next week, though it seems highly unlikely that they'll be able to land the coveted defector.
Bottom Line: The Phillies' long-overdue rebuild will finally begin if they can convince their veterans to approve the trades that send them out of town.