NL East Hot Stove Preview: Top free agents, targets for every team
This week, SI.com is breaking down the off-season plans for all 30 teams, including top free agents, targets and winter needs. Below is Jay Jaffe's breakdown of theNational League East; to read Cliff Corcoran's analysis of the five teams in the American League East, click here. Jaffe and Corcoran will have a look at the AL and NL Central division teams on Thursday and the AL and NL West division clubs on Friday.
Teams are presented in order of finish from 2015. Free agents are listed in order of Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version). Age is their 2016 playing age. The listed salaries and bWAR totals are those for their final 2015 team only.
New York Mets
Results: 90–72 (.556), lost World Series to Royals
Pythagorean Record: 89–73 (.549)
If you were expecting the Mets' ownership to plunge its playoff-year windfall back into the team, think again; they're more likely to stick with a low- to middle-of-the-pack payroll, scattering several key players from their pennant-winning squad to the wind. Most notably, that means shedding Cespedes, who after hitting .291/.328/.542 with 35 homers between the Tigers and Mets, is in line to command a long-term deal worth upwards of $100 million. Worse for New York, based upon the terms of his expiring contract, he can't even be given a qualifying offer (even if he could, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement prevents players traded in midseason from receiving one). Likewise, playoff hero Murphy is probably bound for a new address; he's likely to receive a qualifying offer but should find a multi-year deal elsewhere.
Though he emerged as an unlikely icon, staff mentor and reliable, strike zone-pounding innings eater, the 42-year-old Colon is probably gone, too, unless he's willing to accept a swingman role and an average salary below $10 million. With Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Jonathon Niese all under contract, and Zack Wheeler expected to return from Tommy John surgery at midseason, there likely isn't room for another 180–200 inning workhorse barring injury, though the Mets will need some kind of backup plan because pitcher injuries are an unavoidable fact of life.
Speaking of unlikely icons, veteran infielder Uribe only makes so much sense for New York given that there's no apparent starting job for him and that he's a righty; the team is said to prefer a lefty bench bat, which could put the versatile and well-traveled Johnson (.265/.314/.435 with 14 homers in just 335 plate appearances for the Braves and Mets) in play. Also having a good chance to return is Blevins, who was limited to just five innings after fracturing his left forearm not once but twice.
Targets: Middle infield, bullpen
Assuming Cespedes does depart, don't expect the Mets to chase Justin Upton, Jason Heyward or another top-of-the-market corner outfielder to replace him. The team expects Michael Conforto to absorb some of Cespedes's production after the rookie made a strong showing (.270/.335/.506 with nine homers in 194 plate appearances) in the second half. The bigger question is what happens in the middle infield assuming Murphy departs. In Ruben Tejada (who should recover from his broken leg in time for spring training), Wilmer Flores and rookie Dilson Herrera, New York does have the material to cobble together some kind of solution, but the weakness of the infield defense that was on display throughout the World Series suggests the Mets should aim for a more sure-handed option at one position or the other. Shortstop Ian Desmond, whose value took a hit during his rough final season in Washington, might be their top target this winter.
As for the bullpen, it appears to need another righty setup man alongside Addison Reed, who is under contract. Clippard's late-season struggles (6.33 ERA from September onward, including the postseason) probably rule him out, particularly given that he made $8.3 million overall in 2015. A higher-leverage lefty than Sean Gilmartin is also in order, whether it's Blevins or somebody else, because manager Terry Colllins (who himself just received a two-year extension) lacked trust in any southpaw reliever other than Niese during the postseason.
The Mets are coming off their most successful season in 15 years, and they'll continue to build around their wealth of starting pitching. Particularly in a division that's in total disarray with rebuilding projects (Atlanta and Philadelphia) and managerial comings and goings (Miami and Washington), they've raised the level of expectations and are likely to contend again in 2016. Even so, general manager Sandy Alderson isn’t likely to be granted license for a spending spree, and with only $33 million in salaries coming off the books, New York is more likely to fill its needs with mid-priced veterans from outside the organization or low-cost youngsters from within.
Results: 83–79 (.512)
Pythagorean Record: 89–73 (.549)
Despite a rotation that looked like the best in the game coming into the season, the Nationals got nowhere with it, and now they'll lose a pair of key pieces in Zimmermann, who was very good (3.66 ERA in 201 2/3 innings), and Fister, who was not (4.19 ERA in 103 innings while serving time on the DL for a forearm strain and then a season-ending stint in the bullpen). The former is expected to receive a qualifying offer and land a deal in excess of the five-year, $105 million extension he bypassed from Washington last winter. The latter is probably worth an offer as well, but the team may be too skittish to put one forth for fear of overpaying.
Speaking of qualifying offers, Desmond will likely receive one even after an abysmal season; after averaging a 114 OPS+ from 2012-14 he posted just an 80 OPS+ this year on a .233/.290/.384 line. He led NL shortstops in errors for the second year in a row but still grades out as average on defense thanks to his range. The Nationals will let him move on because they have prospect Trea Turner and holdovers Yunel Escobar and Danny Espinosa as options. Span, who's now represented by Scott Boras, should get a qualifying offer as well despite coming off an injury-riddled season in which he played just 61 games and wound up requiring season-ending surgery to repair his left hip labrum. Michael Taylor is geared to take over centerfield and build on a bumpy rookie season.
Thornton, picked up off the scrap heap after being designated for assignment by the Yankees less than halfway through a two-year, $7 million deal, won't struggle to find work after posting a 2.18 ERA in 60 appearances totaling 41 1/3 innings. McLouth didn't play at all in 2015 in the aftermath of '14 shoulder surgery; Janssen scuffled his way to a 4.95 ERA in 40 innings; and Uggla served as an occasional bench bat while finishing off a five-year, $62 million contract that helped topple the Frank Wren regime in Atlanta.
Targets: Catcher, rotation, bullpen
Though healthy enough to play in more than 100 games for the first time since 2011, catcher Wilson Ramos hit just .229/.258/.358, though he was above-average defensively (44% caught-stealing rate, +10 Defensive Runs Saved). Washington could look to pair him with a more effective counterpart than Jose Lobaton (.199/.279/.294), though don't bank on the team pursuing free agent Matt Wieters despite the presence of Boras as his agent. Beyond that, the rotation may need some depth behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg (who's a year away from reaching free agency and could be traded) and Gio Gonzalez, though Tanner Roark, Joe Ross and top prospect Lucas Giolito (who could be ready at some point in the second half) may be enough.
A more pressing issue is sorting out the bullpen, from which only a few usable parts—lefties Felipe Rivero and Sammy Solis and righties Blake Treinen—might be salvaged. After attempting to choke Bryce Harper late in the season, closer Jonathan Papelbon should be disposed of, but his $11 million salary and his penchant for disruptive drama may make finding a taker difficult (though watching new manager Dusty Baker take him to the woodshed would be worth the price of admission). Likewise, Drew Storen could use a change of scenery after posting a 7.56 ERA and then breaking his right thumb in the downward spiral that ensued after he lost the closer's job after the acquisition of Papelbon. Given how often GM Mike Rizzo has been linked to Reds closer Aroldis Chapman in the past, it wouldn't be surprising to see Washington attempt to reunite the Cuban flamethrower with his former manager Baker in his final year before free agency.
The recently resolved managerial mess that resulted in Baker's hiring is just the latest embarrassment for an organization that has not lacked them during the past 13 months (including its 2014 postseason failure). Rizzo is in the final guaranteed year of his deal and probably has zero chance of returning without a team that at least reaches the NLCS, so a few tweaks to the 2015 roster likely won't cut it; Washington needs a more significant shakeup.
Cutting bait with 36-year-old outfielder Jayson Werth (owed $42 million through 2017, some of which would have to be absorbed) and making a run at Cespedes, Upton (whom Rizzo drafted in Arizona) or Heyward is one route to a total makeover. It's not a likely one, however, particularly if this team just pockets some of the roughly $58 million coming off the books and reduces payroll from $162 million into the $110–120 million range, as has been suggested.
Results: 71–91 (.438)
Pythagorean Record: 74–88 (.457)
Suffice it to say that the Marlins' hopes of contending in 2016 don't rest on their retaining any of their current free agents. Kelly played in just one game for the Fish due to a fractured right ring finger and then a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Mathis, ironically, broke his right ring finger the same day Kelly did; he hit a mere .161/.214/.290 in 103 plate appearances for the season. McGehee, the NL Comeback Player of the Year for the Marlins in 2014, returned to Miami after being released by the Giants in July; he hit a combined .198/.264/.274 with two homers in 258 PA.
Of slightly more interest, Ichiro Suzuki re-signed with the team in early October after hitting a robust .229/.282/.279 in 438 plate appearances. The Japanese legend, who recently turned 42 years old, is just 65 hits away from 3,000 career in MLB.
Targets: Starting pitching, outfield
With Don Mattingly hired to manage, GM-turned-manager Dan Jennings gone and the lead front office duties turned back over to president of baseball operations Michael Hill, the Marlins are apparently ready to address their roster. They'll need to round out their rotation beyond Jose Fernandez (who isn't about to sign a long-term extension) and Tom Koehler, particularly with Henderson Alvarez unlikely to be ready for Opening Day after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum. Don't expect Miami to go fishing in the deep end of the free-agent pool; the likes of Ian Kennedy, Mike Leake and Brett Anderson are more realistic if the team goes that route.
A trade involving Marcell Ozuna could be in play: Jennings's departure has been linked to a squabble with owner Jeffrey Loria over playing the going-on-25-year-old centerfielder, who entered the season out of shape, slumped to .259/.308/.383 and was sent to Triple A for more than a month. If there's good news, it's that Ozuna is short of the Super Two cutoff, which should give him additional value in a deal. Also in play for a trade is Martin Prado, who is versatile, coming off a solid season (.288/.338/.394, 3.1 WAR) and has just one year and $11 million remaining on his contract. Dealing either hitter to get some pitching would create another need to be filled, of course, and you can bet the Marlins won't break the bank for that, given a payroll that's expected to be in just the $80 million range.
Last year, the Marlins overhauled their roster to the point that some believed they could contend in the weakened NL East, but it turned out to be just another dismal season in the endless boom-bust cycle under Loria's ownership. No matter what optimism greets Mattingly's arrival or how exciting the nucleus of Fernandez, Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Dee Gordon and J.T. Realmuto may be, there's zero reason to believe this team can outrun its owner's cynicism and bottom-line focus, particularly because attendance has ranked dead last in the league since the "brand new" tag was taken off Marlins Park.
Results: 67–95 (.414)
Pythagorean Record: 67–95 (.414)
Though he obviously doesn't figure in the team's long-term plans at his age, Pierzynski was one of the bright spots for the rebuilding Braves, rebounding from a dismal 2014 to hit .300/.339/.430, though his defense remains suspect (-8 DRS, -2 framing runs). He'll need more than $2 million to return, but if Atlanta doesn't pay for him, it will have to find somebody else to pair with Christian Bethancourt, whose rookie season was so woeful at the plate (.200/.225/.290 in 160 plate appearances) and sometimes behind it (eight passed balls, fourth in the league despite just 357 innings played) that he may no longer be seen as starting catcher material.
Jackson, who was released by the Cubs with more than a year to go on his four-year, $52 million deal, did solid work in a low-leverage bullpen role, posting a 3.07 ERA and 3.82 FIP in 55 2/3 innings, though he didn't miss many bats (6.5 per nine); any team that signs him need only pay the minimum salary while the Cubs pick up the rest. Moylan pitched 10 1/3 innings in his second comeback from Tommy John surgery, running his total to 39 over the past four seasons amid a slew of injuries. Detwiler began the year in the Rangers' rotation but made just seven starts; he was tarred and feathered for a 7.25 ERA and 6.12 FIP in 58 1/3 innings between the two teams, walking 36 and giving up 10 home runs.
Targets: Catcher, bullpen, rotation
The Braves don't have much money coming off the books, but they're believed to have around $30 million to spend this winter. If they don't retain Pierzynski, they'll be in the market for a catcher. Wieters's name will surface based upon his time at Georgia Tech and the fact that, even if he's issued a qualifying offer, Atlanta owns a protected first-round pick. More likely, the team will shop at a lower price point, with Alex Avila, Chris Iannetta and Geovany Soto as some of the names that will surface, along with ex-Braves Brayan Pena and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
For as rich as the team is in young pitching options, a veteran innings eater to join Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran in the rotation is a priority. So is bullpen help, particularly with 39-year-old closer Jason Grilli working his way back from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Clippard and Georgia native Jonathan Broxton are two names to keep an eye on—not exciting ones, but the Braves aren't going to be making big headlines this winter.
After a sudden plunge into rebuilding mode last winter, Atlanta is more focused on being competitive in 2017, when its new suburban ballpark opens, than it is on '16. That said, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Braves try to convert some of that surplus of young arms into other assets they could use long-term.
Results: 63–99 (.389)
Pythagorean Record: 62–100 (.383)
Billingsley, Harang and Williams sopped up 57 of the Phillies' 162 starts last year, though they hardly distinguished themselves. Billingsley, pitching in the majors for the first time since 2013, made just seven starts amid shoulder and flexor strains; after a resurgence in '14, Harang slumped to a 4.86 ERA with 1.4 homers and just 5.6 strikeouts per nine; Williams was a veritable tomato can, getting crushed for a 5.80 ERA. Lee, meanwhile, hasn't pitched since July 2014 due to a torn flexor tendon for which he never underwent surgery; Philadelphia declined his option by paying a steep $12.5 million buyout on his $27.5 million option, and in all likelihood, he's hanging up his spikes after a stellar but abbreviated career.
On offense, Francoeur provided some amount of levity and clubhouse leadership, batting .258/.286/.433 with 13 homers in 343 plate appearances as the team's regular rightfielder. He's said he would consider returning, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he does, though the new regime of president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak will no doubt put its own imprint on the team.
Targets: Rotation, outfield, first base
Youngsters Jerad Eickhoff, Adam Morgan and Aaron Nola figure to be part of the team's rotation from the outset of the season, but Klentak will have to find other hurlers to cover a whole lot of innings, and it's not like Zack Greinke or David Price is going to walk through that door. At best, the Phillies could land somebody from the Kennedy/Fister/Yovani Gallardo tier—solid mid-rotation types. This could be a landing spot that makes sense for Colon if he intends to remain a starter. Colby Lewis, Mike Pelfrey, another round with Harang … the possibilities are endless but not all that inspiring in this particular aisle.
While Rule 5 pick Odubel Herrera put up an impressive 3.8 WAR season as the team's centerfielder and Aaron Altherr made a solid showing in 39 games in right, Cody Asche struggled at the plate (.245/.294/.395) and in left (-8 DRS in just 63 games). He could be trade bait for a team that wants to return him to the hot corner. With Domonic Brown finally out of the picture, a complementary corner outfield option is needed, whether or not Francoeur returns.
With Ryan Howard in the final year of his five-year contract—he's owed $35 million (including his $10 million buyout for 2017)—it's possible that the new regime could admit he's a sunk cost and turn the page, a move that would carry some added amount of symbolic value given the transition from the Ruben Amaro Jr. era. Howard hit just .229/.277/.443 with 23 homers and -1.4 WAR in 503 plate appearances. That said, his would-be replacement, Darin Ruf, wasn't much to write home about, either (.235/.300/.414 with 12 homers and -0.6 WAR in 297 PA).
Better days are ahead for the Phillies, who have replenished their system thanks to recent drafts and by trading veterans like Cole Hamels, who went to Texas in a July blockbuster. The team will have to bide its time until more of that talent is ready, so 2016 looks to be a year spent in a holding pattern as the aforementioned youngsters find their footing.