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NL East Hot Stove preview: Identity of Bourn's team is key

SI.com's breakdown of the offseason plans for all 30 major league teams continues today with Joe Lemire's look at the NL East. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2012. For previous division breakdowns, see below:

JAFFE: NL Central

JAFFE: AL West

CORCORAN: NL West

JAFFE: AL Central

SHEEHAN: AL East

2012 Results: 98-64, NL East champions, lost Division Series

Third-Order Record: 96-66

Pending Free Agents: 1B Adam LaRoche, RHP Edwin Jackson, RHP Chien-Ming Wang, LHP Sean Burnett, Util. Chad Tracy, Util. Mark DeRosa, LHP Zach Duke

LaRoche had an outstanding year for the Nationals (33 HRs, .853 OPS), but general manager Mike Rizzo has made it no secret that he craves a true centerfielder. If he signs one in free agency, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth become full-time corner outfielders and Michael Morse becomes the everyday first baseman, thereby pushing LaRoche out of a job.

Jackson could return, but he's likely to get a multi-year offer for more money from a team with a more dire need for rotation help -- the Nationals do, after all, return four starters who all enjoyed very good 2012 seasons. Tracy and DeRosa could return in their reserve and pinch-hitting roles.

Top Prospect on the Verge: Brian Goodwin, CF

The Nationals won an NL-best 98 games in 2012 and believe they should only get better, as evidenced by Rizzo's polarizing decision to shut down ace Stephen Strasburg. That means Washington may not want to trust an everyday job, especially at a key defensive position to a rookie with fewer than 200 plate appearances above A ball, but Goodwin dominated at the lower level, with nine homers, 15 steals and a .979 OPS in 58 games at Class A Hagerstown. He struggled in Double A, however, with five homers, three steals and a .680 OPS in 42 games there, but he has come on strong in the elite Arizona Fall League with three homers and a .988 OPS in 13 games.

Targets: Centerfield, fifth starter

With Goodwin not being a sure thing for 2013 -- or even for 2014, given his inexperience in the mid-to-upper levels of the minors -- look for Rizzo to be aggressive in courting either of the two big free agent centerfielders, B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn. Washington may either retain Jackson or go outside the organization for a hard-throwing starter to replace him; restoring John Lannan to his spot in the rotation would not be a bad option, though it's unlikely to happen.

Bottom line: The Nationals spent a franchise-record $93 million on payroll last year, an increase of some $25 million on its previous high, and that number could continue to trend north. This is a ballclub coming off a wildly successful season that has a chance to be even better, especially if it receives the injection of a big time free agent.

2012 Results: 94-68, second in the NL East, lost in NL wild card game

Third-Order Record: 92-70

Pending Free Agents: CF Michael Bourn, OF Matt Diaz, C David Ross, 1B/LF Eric Hinske, RHP Chad Durbin, OF Reed Johnson, RHP Peter Moylan, Util. Jeff Baker, 1B Lyle Overbay

Bourn was an outstanding pick-up by general manager Frank Wren at the 2011 trade deadline, as he played first-rate centerfield defense and had a solid on-base percentage (.341 in his year and a half in Atlanta) for a leadoff hitter while stealing 64 bases and making the 2012 All-Star team. His agent, however, is Scott Boras so expect a maximum-length and maximum-value contract this winter, which may not be a wise investment for a player about to turn 30 whose speed is his best asset.

Several of the lesser-stature free agents are likely to return in their supplementary roles, especially Ross, who may well be baseball's best backup catcher and who could shoulder the position if Brian McCann does miss the first month or so while recovering from shoulder surgery.

Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Julio Teheran

The caveat here is that he's been on the verge for a couple years now, though he still won't be 22 years old until January. Baseball America ranked Teheran the No. 5 prospect in the game before each of the last two seasons but dropped him to No. 24 at its midseason evaluation during a brutal Triple-A campaign in which he had a 5.08 ERA in 131 innings, a far cry from his 2.55 ERA in 144 2/3 innings the previous season at age 20. Teheran and fellow prospect Randall Delgado are both pitching in the Dominican Winter League to get back on track before likely competing for the No. 5 spot in the Braves' rotation during spring training.

Targets: Centerfield and third base or leftfield

It'll be odd for Atlanta not to run out future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones as its regular third baseman next year, but the organization at least a has a good replacement in-house in Martin Prado. He played mostly leftfield last year but is an infielder by trade and could play either position next year, granting Wren the opportunity to seek either position this winter. The reality, however, is that there are more capable corner outfielders than third basemen, so look for Prado to be installed at third base, while the club looks at leftfielders in free agency.

Though one national columnist speculated that the Braves may end up with Josh Hamilton, he alone might cost most of Atlanta's offseason budget. Another option would be to split their resources between the two outfield positions, such as on Angel Pagan to play center and one of Cody Ross, Nick Swisher or Shane Victorino to play left.

Another option would be to package a few prospects -- Atlanta remains deep in young pitching -- and trade for an impact player at one of the positions.

Bottom line: Despite their quick exit from the playoffs, the Braves were one of the NL's best last year from start to finish and should be aggressive in filling their few holes.

2012 Results: 81-81, third in the NL East

Third-Order Record: 83-79

Pending Free Agents: 3B/2B Placido Polanco, OF Juan Pierre, C Brian Schneider, Util. Ty Wigginton, RHP Jose Contreras

The Phillies elected not to exercise a $5.5 million mutual option for Polanco, who missed 112 games the past two seasons. Pierre was a great value this past season, batting .307 in 130 games while making less than a million dollars; given Philadelphia's uncertain outfield situation, re-signing Pierre with the raise he deserves is a possibility. The others are not likely to return.

Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Phillippe Aumont

The hard-throwing 23-year-old averaged 96 mph with his fastball during his big league cameo late last year, striking out 14 in 14 2/3 innings after saving 15 games in Triple A with a 12.0 K/9 ratio. With Jonathan Papelbon firmly entrenched as the closer, the Phillies won't need Aumont in the ninth, but he can be an asset in the eighth, presuming he keeps his walks under control (6.9 BB/9 in 44 1/3 Triple A innings in 2012).

Targets: Outfield, third base, middle

The Phillies return John Mayberry Jr., Domonic Brown and Nate Schierholtz in the outfield, but none has yet to prove himself as an everyday player, meaning the club is best suited to sign an established outfielder -- ideally in center, though such players are in short supply -- and allow the other three to rotate through the other two spots.

The Phillies have already stretched their budget to $172 million last year, but if they were going to splurge again, this might be a decent time, given the narrow window of contention they have. In 2012, stars Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley all missed significant time due to injuries,suggesting a downward trend on their career primes, with Cliff Lee's eventual decline likely to follow.

It'd be a shock to see them land Hamilton, but Upton and their former prospect, Bourn, are in play. They've surprised by reaching deep into their coffers before (see the free agent contract for Cliff Lee or the extension for Cole Hamels). Pursuing Pagan or taking a chance on Melky Cabrera might work, as would trading for someone to fill that hole -- Jacoby Ellsbury, Dexter Fowler and Denard Span are all players who could be available at various prices.

At third base Philadelphia recanted on an early whim to try Chase Utley at the position. Kevin Frandsden had an .834 OPS in 55 games last season, but he'll be 31 in the spring and his track record doesn't suggest he'll be able to sustain that production, making him best suited to be a backup infielder. Jeff Keppinger or Eric Chavez could be reasonably priced options to pair with Frandsden.

Bottom line: Ravaged by injuries in the first half of last season, the Phillies sputtered early and never fully recovered despite a late run at the periphery of wild card contention. With better health -- and the addition of an impact offensive player (or two) -- Philadelphia should have the pitching to remain in next year's hunt.

2012 Results: 74-88, fourth in the NL East

Third-Order Record: 80-82

Pending Free Agents: OF Scott Hairston, RHP Jon Rauch, RHP Ramon Ramirez, RHP D.J. Carrasco, IF Ronny Cedeño, RHP Chris Young, LHP Tim Byrdak, C Kelly Shoppach

Hairston acquitted himself well against lefthanded pitching, and Rauch and Byrdak were generally effective relievers. But Byrdak will miss most of the year after shoulder surgery while Hairston and Rauch fit the mold of role players who'll help fill gaps on contenders, which the 2013 Mets will not be. Young, if affordable, would be good for rotation depth.

Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Zack Wheeler

Matt Harvey's brilliant first 10 starts (2.73 ERA in 59 1/3 innings) means he won't be eligible for 2013 Rookie of the Year consideration, but the timing of Wheeler's promotion could give him a chance at the award. Wheeler, a former first-round pick who was No. 10 in Baseball America's midseason prospect rankings, made a half-dozen starts in Triple-A last season and should reach the majors by midseason. He has a 3.49 ERA and 9.7 K/9 in three minor league seasons.

Targets: Relief pitching, outfield, rotation depth

The Mets had the majors' second-worst bullpen ERA (4.63) last season, so look for them to target stability for the late innings. They probably won't sign an expensive closer, as that's a luxury this club won't need for a year or two.

Meanwhile, New York ranked 28th in the majors in offensive production from its outfielders with just a .696 OPS. Mike Baxter and Lucas Duda are creeping later and later into their 20s -- Baxter will be 28 next year and Duda will be 27 -- making one wonder if they still have room to grow or will persist as complementary players. Jason Bay is under contract for one more (expensive) season. The Mets could use an impact player or two to join the mix, but it's unclear whom they'll pursue. A low-risk deal for Melky Cabrera might make sense.

Given the uncertainty surrounding Johan Santana (only 21 starts last season), Dillon Gee (surgery to remove a blood clot) and Matt Harvey (rookie who made only 10 big league starts), the Mets would be wise to add a starter or two, whether it's Young or someone comparable.

Bottom line: The Mets' dalliance among the division's leaders ended in a wretched month of July from which they never recovered. They have two blue-chip pitching prospects in Harvey and Wheeler, but the cupboard is mostly barren when it comes to position players, meaning the club should at least listen to trade offers for corner infielders David Wright or Ike Davis, as moving one or both could quickly re-stock the system with a bevy of prospects. Given Wright's stature as the face of the franchise and Davis' relative youth (he'll be 26 next year), however, the Mets should tread carefully and only make such a move if the deal is an obvious organization-changing long-term win.

2012 Results: 69-93, fifth in the NL East

Third-Order Record: 72-90

Pending Free Agents: 1B/OF Carlos Lee, RHP Carlos Zambrano, RHP Juan Carlos Oviedo RHP Chad Gaudin, OF Austin Kearns

Lee arrived when the Marlins still thought they had a chance to compete last summer, and he proved to be a dud, hitting just four homers with a .654 OPS in 81 games. Miami could move Logan Morrison, a first baseman converted to leftfield, back to first or find a better match in the free agent market. Zambrano wasn't much better as a reliever (4.15 ERA) than as a starter (4.54 ERA) and should only return if he'll do so for a fraction of the $18 million he earned a year ago. Gaudin and Kearns provide decent depth and could return.

Top Prospect on the Verge: 3B Zack Cox

Cox's first full professional season, split between High Class A and Double-A in the Cardinals' organization, was a successful one, with a .306/.363/.434 slash line, but his average and on-base skills took a tumble against Triple-A pitching, posting a .254/.294/.421 line in 84 games before his midseason trade to the Marlins, who placed him at Double-A. In 24 games he had a .253/.321/.368 line that doesn't suggest he's ready for the big leagues just yet, though Miami has enough of a hole a third that he'll get a look in spring training.

Don't assume that Miami's system is depleted because it doesn't have an elite on-the-verge prospect. The Marlins' two most highly touted young players -- righthander Jose Fernandez and centerfielder Christian Yelich -- haven't advanced past High A ball, and righthander Jacob Turner has already thrown 67 2/3 big league innings, rendering him ineligible for this consideration. The club's trade deadline moves gave the organization a big boost.

Targets: Third base, set-up relievers, outfielder(s) and maybe second base

Trading Hanley Ramirez, Omar Infante and Gaby Sanchez opened up several holes in the Marlins' lineup. Among the returning players are Morrison, who could play either first base or leftfield, and Emilio Bonifacio, who could play either second base or centerfield, giving Miami some flexibility in the way it targets whom to add this winter. Also, if the club believes Donovan Solano (.342 OBP in 316 plate appearances) can be an everyday option at second base, then surely Bonifacio remains in the outfield.

The Marlins had the majors' worst production from their lefthanded hitters last season with just a .648 OPS and their 30 home runs were tied for second-fewest, meaning some balance would be helpful. Given that the club as a whole had a .308 OBP -- 13th in the NL -- someone like LaRoche or Swisher would be a great fit but both may be too pricey for Miami this offseason. If Lance Berkman is interested and in shape, he'd be an intriguing fit. Also, Carlos Peña could be worth an incentive-laden contract.

Similarly, trading Heath Bell opened the door for 2012 revelation Steve Cishek to remain the club's closer, but the rest of the bullpen still needs significant work.

Bottom line: In their first year in their new ballpark the Marlins stole headlines with their big name free agent haul of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Bell. Reyes and Buehrle had good seasons -- Bell did not -- but it wasn't nearly enough to put Miami in the playoff race, leading to several mid-summer trades. This winter expect the Marlins to be active in the free agent market but with more of an eye on low- and mid-level acquisitions. This franchise needs work, but management likely won't splurge on big names in the same fashion again.

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