Editor's Note: This is part of a three-day series that assesses each of baseball's 30 teams in a division-by-division format. Teams are listed according to the order in which they finished the regular season in their division in 2013.
Most of the baseball world was busy heaping praise on the Washington Nationals for their out-of-nowhere 2012 season. The Braves were not impressed, winning the NL East by a double-digit margin en route to the playoffs. The addition of Justin Upton and Chris Johnson, along with the continued progression of Freddie Freeman, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and a youthful bullpen allowed the Braves to win the NL East with ease. But now they will brace for the loss of franchise cornerstone Brian McCann.
A catcher, as the McCann era is coming to an end.
A second baseman, following Dan Uggla's abysmal season. Trade rumors have swirled around him as the former slugger wrapped up the 2013 season with a .671 OPS, a career low.
The Braves have no pressing need to spend, so expect many of their free agents to pursue work elsewhere while general manager Frank Wren relies on players from within the organization. Additionally, Jonny Venters could be non-tendered and Reed Johnson's $150,000 buyout likely will be utilized.
Losing McCann to free agency, where he'll be pursued by many, doesn't mean the Braves are in a rush to plug the gap. Evan Gattis slugged 21 home runs as a jack-of-all-trades during the 2013 season, but he is a catcher by trade. They also have a 22-year-old catching prospect who is very close to being major league-ready in Christian Bethancourt, who saw an OPS increase of nearly 200 points in his second year in Double-A.
At second base, Uggla will be 34 when the regular season starts; he is under contract for two more years at $13 million each, which makes him very unattractive in a trade. The Braves will attempt to shop him throughout the offseason, but unless they make significant concessions, expect interest in Uggla to be lukewarm at best. The Braves could instead phase him into a bench role while bringing on a lower-tier veteran on a short-term deal, such as Omar Infante, Mark Ellis or Kelly Johnson. They could also get creative and trade for Howie Kendrick or Brandon Phillips, but the Braves would have to part with a prospect or two as well.
As for the rotation, Wren did express interest in having a veteran presence, which could make Bronson Arroyo or Jake Peavy attractive. Alex Wood and David Hale will likely compete for at least one of the two vacant slots in the rotation while prospects J.R. Graham and Sean Gilmartin attempt to make an impression in 2014.
The Braves won't have a terribly active offseason, as they only need to make a few minor tweaks to a roster that already grades out as the best in the NL East. They will aim for an Opening Day payroll around $90 million as they have over the past three seasons. Once you factor in raises for arbitration-eligible players and league-minimum salaries, the Braves will be close to their target, making it unlikely they will make a play for Robinson Cano or a higher caliber free-agent starter like Matt Garza.
Assuming Wren makes reasonably smart personnel decisions, this is a club that should easily win 90 games in 2014 and will be the favorite in the NL East to open the season.
After putting their toes into the deep end of the pool in 2012, starting with a payroll above $100 million, the Marlins continued to toss cargo overboard as they traded veteran Ricky Nolasco to the Dodgers in July. Is Giancarlo Stanton the next Marlin to go? The team has been fielding calls on their outfielder for nearly two years and he is now entering his first year of arbitration eligibility, which might make him too expensive for Miami. If so, their 62-100 record in 2013 might be a high-water mark.
Offense. Lots of it. The club finished with a wRC+ (a stat like adjusted OPS found on FanGraphs) of 72, the fifth-lowest in the integration era and the lowest since the 1981 Blue Jays in a strike-shortened season. Among Marlins hitters to log at least 275 trips to the plate, Stanton was the only one to post league-average stats or better. Because the Marlins constrain themselves to one of the league's lowest operating payrolls, they don't have a lot of flexibility to do anything but continue to go with the same group of youngsters who produced so very little last season.
Polanco is seriously mulling retirement. Qualls could use his bounce-back season to jettison out of Miami to a contender. Diaz, Kearns and Pierre could all be shuffled out in favor of a new set of veteran bats or the young ones already in the system.
The Marlins have also shopped Stanton and Logan Morrison. As they have shown throughout the franchise's history, Miami will trade its cornerstone players for the right offer. The Marlins will field plenty of phone calls on Stanton this winter.
The Marlins are reportedly aiming for a payroll of $37 million. When you add up the league-minimum salaries and expected raises earned by arbitration-eligible players, the Marlins will have only a few million (between $5-10 million) left to play with, which severely limits their flexibility.
Their biggest holes are at catcher, third base and in left field. But they have Rob Brantly and Jeff Mathis there already, and prospect J.T. Realmuto working his way through the system. Adding a free agent catcher like Humberto Quintero or Gerald Laird wouldn't be a judicious use of their rather shallow pool of cash.
At third base, there aren't any free agents that would be both relatively cheap and a noticeable upgrade over career minor leaguer Ed Lucas. They could move Derek Dietrich to third base. If the Marlins do go after a free agent, Wilson Betemit could likely be had on a minor league deal after playing very little in the majors last season. The switch-hitter could team up with the right-handed Lucas to form a platoon.
In the outfield, the Marlins will give Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick a shot to compete for a starting job in 2014. If they sign a free-agent outfielder, it will be in a bench role. Jeff Francoeur, coming off of an abysmal season, could try to rebuild his value in Miami in a limited role.
With all of the focus on the Marlins' abysmal offense, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that they have some great pitching. Likely NL Rookie of the Year winner Jose Fernandez will anchor the rotation, followed by Jacob Turner, Nate Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez, the unlikely author of a no-hitter at the end of the season. In the bullpen, closer Steve Cishek is one of the more underappreciated relievers in baseball, and he's followed by quite a few young reliable arms in Ryan Webb, Mike Dunn and A.J. Ramos.
Still, the Marlins as likely constructed are a sub-70-win team. If Stanton can get to the plate 650 times while playing at an MVP level, if Morrison bounces back to his 2011 offensive level, if they can get even 80 percent of league-average offensive production out of their catchers and shortstops, then maybe they'll cross the 70-win threshold. It just isn't very likely, though.
The Mets' 2014 season has already begun on the wrong foot, as superstar starter Matt Harvey had Tommy John surgery and will miss the entirety of next season.
GM Sandy Alderson, entering his last year under contract, has operated with a payroll of around $93-95 million over the past two seasons. With the expected buyout of Johan Santana ($5.5 million) and Jason Bay's $3 million buyout on the books for 2014, the Mets could have some extra money to spend.
With Harvey gone and a rotation full of young arms, the Mets will likely target a second-tier (or lower) veteran starting pitcher.
As mentioned, Quintanilla will likely be non-tendered, as will Scott Atchison. Justin Turner and Mike Baxter could get the boot as well, but given how cheap they will come, the Mets could decide to hang on to them for insurance. The bullpen features a lot of young arms such that they don't need to rely on veterans the way they did this past season, so Aardsma, Byrdak, Francisco and Hawkins are unlikely to return.
Bronson Arroyo is one veteran starting pitcher who comes to mind, but if they are looking for shorter-length deals, Scott Kazmir, Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Bruce Chen could all provide veteran stability in the rotation.
The Mets are very interested in obtaining the services of Shin-Soo Choo, but they will be one of many suitors. Considering the expected interest, the relative scarcity of impact free-agent bats in a baseball world that has seen more and more players locked up to extensions and the infusion of money from new TV deals could drive Choo's price tag into the $15-20 million range annually on a basis of four years or longer.
Jhonny Peralta and Stephen Drew are obvious free-agent shortstop options, but depending on how much the Mets spend filling their other holes, a trade might make more sense for them. The White Sox could move Alexei Ramirez and wouldn't ask for too much, as he is relatively expensive for his production and on the wrong side of 30.
The Mets are the type of team that make it easy to be pessimistic, but every now and then, they shock you. Depending on how Alderson puts together the rest of the roster, this could be a team that, if everything goes right, finishes above .500 and competes for a wild-card spot. Realistically, they'll be a sub-.500 team again and will feel the loss of Harvey throughout the 2014 season.
After getting burned by pricey free agents over the past few years, has GM Ruben Amaro learned his lesson? There will be some tempting names on the market and the Phillies do have a protected first-round pick. But the recent signings of Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Adams, Delmon Young, Laynce Nix, Chad Durbin, Chad Qualls and Ty Wigginton have all seen poor returns as the Phillies have missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
The Phillies will need to fill out the back of the starting rotation behind Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. They need to address their catching situation, which likely involves bringing Carlos Ruiz back. And they need either a corner outfielder or a center fielder.
• Carlos Ruiz
• Roy Halladay
The Phillies will likely non-tender John Lannan, Roger Bernadina, John Mayberry Jr. and Casper Wells. The Phillies reportedly have some interest in bringing back Halladay, but it would have to be on an entirely incentive-laden contract. There likely will be at least one team out there willing to give him a guaranteed salary along with some incentives, so Halladay's presence in Philadelphia will depend on the two parties' comfort level with each other rather than financial motivation.
The list could extend into outer space, depending on just how much shopping Amaro would like to accomplish. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury will top the Phillies' wish list, even though they have a young, cheap option already in Ben Revere. If the Phillies do acquire Ellsbury, they would push Revere to a corner (likely left field) or trade him.
The Phillies will be among roughly half of baseball's teams interested in signing Shin-Soo Choo. If Ellsbury is taken off the board quickly, the Phillies could get serious about Choo because he represents three things the Phillies have lacked in recent seasons: a legitimate leadoff hitter, a player who can get on base well above the league average and a 20-stolen base threat.
To fill out the back of the rotation, the Phillies likely will use some younger arms such as Jonathan Pettibone and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. Adam Morgan could compete for a job in spring training. If Amaro is very serious about putting together a competitive club for the 2014 season, Matt Garza would fit nicely into the middle of the rotation, as would Bronson Arroyo. Among the cheaper veteran arms, Bruce Chen, Jason Vargas and Scott Feldman could make sense.
As for the catching situation, it seems likely that the Phillies will bring back Ruiz, who is beloved by Phillies fans and has thoroughly enjoyed playing in Philadelphia. He will be 35 in January, so the Phillies won't be handing him a three-year deal, but a two-year deal in the $10 million range would make sense. Ruiz would allow the Phillies to bide their time bringing along Cameron Rupp and allow Tommy Joseph some time to regain his footing after suffering a season-ruining concussion.
As the core of the team will remain unchanged, the Phillies' success or failure will depend a lot on the health of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Utley bounced back and ranked among the game's most valuable second basemen once again, but over the past two seasons, Howard has mustered an OPS just barely above the league average. Additionally, Jimmy Rollins had an awful season that could be the beginning of the end of his career. Outside of an incredible May, Domonic Brown was pedestrian.
If Amaro spends and adds Ellsbury or Choo along with a mid-tier starter like Garza, and the older players don't continue sliding in the wrong direction, the Phillies could become an NL East contender again. The Phillies actually vastly overperformed their expected record last season, so as is, the team is not quite as good as it appears. At best, given 50th percentile expectations, they are still a team that will struggle to be anything better than .500 next season.
The Nationals were one of baseball's biggest disappointments last season. After ending the franchise's playoff drought which extended back to 1981, a roster that included Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Gio Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano hovered around .500 for a majority of the season. An 18-9 September helped them finish 10 games above .500, but they were too far out of the picture at that point for it to have been meaningful. During the offseason, they will attempt to make some peripheral changes in the hopes of dethroning the Braves in the NL East.
As entertaining as it would be to see the Nationals address their second base situation by pursuing Robinson Cano, prospect Anthony Rendon had a decent showing in his first taste of major league action and will get the opportunity to prove himself.
The Nationals have to complete the back of their starting rotation. That can very likely be done from within the organization, but GM Mike Rizzo has shown that he values veterans, adding Edwin Jackson and Dan Haren in the recent past.
Otherwise, the rest of the roster is comprised of young cost-controlled talent whose jobs are more or less set in stone.
• Dan Haren
• Chad Tracy
Haren and Tracy will both move on to greener pastures. The Nationals are expected to tender contracts to all that are eligible for arbitration.
There are a number of veteran starting pitchers that could fit into the back of the Nationals' rotation. Tim Hudson is working his way back from a fractured ankle and could be utilized in the same way Haren was used this past season. Lower-caliber starters such as Bruce Chen, Paul Maholm and Shaun Marcum would make sense as well. However, the Nationals can just as easily address the situation from within with a name like Tanner Roark.
At second base, Cano is interesting, but they'll have Rendon to play every day following up a decent debut. Mark Ellis or Kelly Johnson would make sense as a bench bat that would provide stability in a pinch if Rendon doesn't live up to expectations.
The Nationals showed why they're still a force to be reckoned with at the end of season. Jayson Werth had an MVP-caliber season, Bryce Harper continued to put up outstanding numbers for a player his age and the 1-2 punch of Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez is among the most formidable in baseball. Though the lesson of overhyping the Nationals was well-learned, don't sleep on them in a winnable NL East division. The Nationals should finish over .500 and at least compete for a wild-card spot.