But as one top baseball operations executive from outside the division said recently, “The Nats should be happy they won their World Series when they did.”
The NL East is changing, in ways both obvious and subtle. The end result: At a time when it’s reasonable to question the commitment to winning for maybe a third of baseball organizations, there is no such franchise in the Nats’ division. Not the Braves, who have won the past three NL East crowns. Not the New York Mets, who have a new owner and new swagger. Not the Philadelphia Phillies, who spent more than $143 million to bring back their catcher and their shortstop this offseason. And not even the Miami Marlins, a playoff team in 2020 with a trailblazing general manager and a CEO who is used to winning rings.
There’s not a pushover among them. Every single one of those teams would expect and hope to be a buyer, not a seller, at the trade deadline. There’s not another division in baseball that can say that. Not the NL Central, where the bottom-dwelling Pittsburgh Pirates peddled their incumbent first baseman, Josh Bell, to Washington for distant prospects. Not the NL West, where the Colorado Rockies dealt their franchise third baseman, Nolan Arenado, to St. Louis for players who could help in the future but not now.
And not any of the American League divisions. Boston and Baltimore are in major rebuilds; Cleveland traded its franchise shortstop, Francisco Lindor, as well as starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco to the Mets; and until it agreed to a two-year deal with reliever Ken Giles, Seattle’s most significant offseason addition was acquiring reliever Rafael Montero in a trade with Texas. Who? Exactly. That’s not remotely enough to push the Mariners into contention with Houston.
This is not a column about tanking in baseball. Pitchers and catchers haven’t even reported yet. There’s time for that.
But it’s also reasonable for anyone in the NL East to look around and think, “We’ve got to play these teams 76 times. Why aren’t any of them rebuilding?”
Consider the five times since 2012 the Nationals have made the playoffs. Every year, there was at least one division opponent they dominated, going at least 13-6 — which is a nearly 111-win pace. The year they won the World Series, they went 15-4 against the 105-loss Marlins and 14-5 against the mediocre Phillies. They were 20 games over .500 against those two teams and four games over .500 against the rest of their schedule. That’s how postseason berths are secured: by finding the weaklings and beating them up.
When there are no obvious weaklings — and in modern MLB, that means no teams that aren’t trying — it’s that much harder to get to 90 or 95 wins.
The landscape in the NL East is fascinating in general, but the most interesting team in baseball might be the Mets. New owner Steve Cohen immediately removes the team from the pall cast by the Wilpon family and any financial limitations brought on by the Bernie Madoff scandal. Their trade for Lindor — the 27-year-old energizer who was the best player on the 2016 pennant-winning Cleveland team — was the offseason’s most statement-making transaction. It says that under Cohen, the Mets can and will be bold and brazen. Indeed, most in baseball expect New York to make a significant effort to sign Lindor to a long-term extension before he becomes a free agent at the end of this season — exactly the move the Dodgers made after acquiring outfielder Mookie Betts from the Red Sox last offseason. How’d that work out?
This offseason shows that the Mets — who also signed free agent catcher James McCann — could even try to model the Dodgers, who have used financial strength and creativity to win eight consecutive division titles. Plus, as one rival executive said, pulling out an English Premier League analogy, they have a little of that Manchester City energy — where the Yankees are Manchester United, of course.
Yes, the Mets tied for last with the Nats in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and no, they won’t have right-hander Noah Syndergaard for at least the first couple of months of 2021. Even so, Baseball Prospectus’s Pecota projections — which should be used as the starting point for speculation and debate, not as gospel — have the Mets running away with the division, winning 10 more games than the runner-up Nats.
But what about the Braves? They have the reigning NL MVP in first baseman Freddie Freeman, the mesmerizing Ronald Acuña Jr. roaming the outfield and lefty Max Fried fronting their rotation. Plus, when the rest of the division was improving, Atlanta kept pace, signing veteran right-hander Charlie Morton — a key piece of Tampa Bay’s pennant-winning operation — and, more importantly, making the bold stroke to bring back outfielder Marcell Ozuna on a four-year, $65 million deal. Freeman is due to be a free agent after this season. It’d be shocking if the Braves allowed him to wander away from the team he has pushed to those three straight division titles.
Here’s something that stunned me: Since winning five straight NL East crowns from 2007 to 2011, the Phillies have appeared in zero postseason games. Owner John Middleton is desperately trying to change that, and he brought in Dave Dombrowski — an architect of pennant winners in Miami, Detroit and Boston — to make sure he does. The Phillies’ most significant moves were to keep last year’s team intact, re-signing catcher J.T. Realmuto to a five-year, $115.5 million deal and bringing back shortstop Didi Gregorius for two years and $28 million. According to Spotrac, no team in the NL East has a higher payroll than the Phillies — who have the cash but now just need to translate it to wins.
And finally, to the Marlins. Since 2012, no team in baseball has more losses. But CEO Derek Jeter, entering his fourth full season, has helped Miami transform what had been a barren farm system into the best in the division, and he made the groundbreaking hire of Kim Ng as general manager this offseason. The Marlins aren’t likely to win a first division title this year, but they’re not the easy out they once were. They reached the playoffs and swept the Chicago Cubs in two games in a miniseries. More importantly, their rotation features a young, live arm every night — most notably right-hander Sixto Sánchez. This is a team on the rise.
Throw in the Nats, and there are five teams expecting to contend for the postseason. No other division can say that. No other division has three teams among the top 10 in payroll. No other division is like the NL East, where the title is completely up for grabs — and will be hard-earned.