The NL East has been the talk of the offseason so far. And the most significant addition to baseball’s most compelling division may still be coming.
At different times after the World Series, four teams in the NL East looked at their rosters and their competition and decided the division was winnable the very next season. In a suddenly ambitious environment, the fifth team saw their hyper-competitive shared ecosystem as an opportunity to extract the best assets from the highest bidder for their most valuable piece. It’s a great sign of the fierce urgency developing in the NL East that potential trades aren’t just about how to make your team a serious contender; they’re also about keeping your rivals from getting any better. The NL East got cutthroat on the rumor mill. The division is sizzling right now.
Not a lot happened beyond wild gossip during the Winter Meetings—that’s true for almost all of baseball—but taking the entirety of the offseason into account, late night Twitter freakouts have mostly been dominated by the higher-ground Marlins, the ludicrously-motivated New York Mets, the do-it-again Atlanta Braves, the not-dead-yet Washington Nationals and the perpetually in-play Philadelphia Phillies.
Where to begin? The Mets made the flashiest move so far with the Robinson Cano blockbuster, then took over baseball twitter from Las Vegas with their intense interest in Miami’s J.T. Realmuto. The names that were thrown out there—Syndergaard, Conforto, Rosario, Nimmo, Andujar, Realmuto—sent three different fanbases into three drastically different frenzies. There were levels to the bad language. If part of new GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s strategy was to get the off-field Mets on the tip of every tongue and the top of every feed before the on-field product even had a chance at taking them out of the conversation, he’s done a masterful job. At times this past week (usually late into the night), the Mets seemed to be operating under the guiding principle that no retweet is a bad retweet, no newspaper a bad back page.
For the deals made, the team has gotten better. Cano is still productive, Edwin Diaz could regress from untouchability and still be devastatingly effective, and bringing back Jeurys Familia, better cast in a setup role, is a fine between-the-foul-poles move. But persistent trade rumors have undoubtedly created some exhaustion in the fanbase. After the Cano and Diaz deal, there was bubbling excitement around what was next. Now, the same question comes with an anxious pang. There were versions of Realmuto rumors that included the Mets sending a high-powered arm and/or a young shortstop/young, promising outfielder for a catcher to cross-town and intra-divisional rivals, at that. The Mets are better, but their amped pursuit of instant contention might kill someone.
The Atlanta Braves’ addition of Josh Donaldson on a low-risk, one-year prove-it deal was an inspired piece of early work. Donaldson is coming off an injury-riddled season that could be written off as a sunk cost. But he flashed promising numbers in his Cleveland cameo to close out 2018. His .280/.520/.920 BA/SLG/OPS was more in line with his best, albeit across a tiny sample size.
It should be noted that his struggles were spread over a small sample size, too. Donaldson’s injuries were devastating, but he hit the DL for only the first time in his eight seasons in 2017. Atlanta is hoping the 33-year-old third baseman is closer to his 2013-16 peak, when he accumulated 31.3 bWAR, made three All-Star Rosters, and collected an MVP and two Silver Sluggers. At $23 million for one season, betting that his one awful campaign was an anomaly is a relatively low-risk wager. Projections don’t expect Donaldson will be a 7-WAR player again, but they do expect him to rebound quite nicely. Forecasts don’t expect the Braves will be a 90-win team again, but signing Donaldson will help them defend the crown.
The Donaldson signing, coupled with the acquisition of Brian McCann, gives Atlanta a crucial need every contender hopes to have: depth. Johan Camargo is more than adequate cover for Donaldson should injuries be his new normal, and Camargo can be more than just insurance. He can be a dynamic utility man across the diamond—Atlanta’s depth chart lists Camargo at three different positions.
2018 was disappointing for the Washington Nationals, who came into the year shouldering the uncertainty of Bryce Harper’s contract situation. As of now, it still looks like Harper will leave D.C., but the Nationals aren’t yet ready to rebuild. They’re still the darlings of record projections; Fangraphs predicts the current roster will win 91 games en route to a divisional crown.
They opened their offseason by signing Patrick Corbin to a massive six-year contract, a deal that was met with some derision. The criticism is along the same lines as what the Mets faced with their Cano trade: the backend of Corbin’s contract is alarming. But the immediate impact is undeniable: as the rest of the division loads up on bats, Washington heads into 2019 with two of the top five strikeout totals from 2018 fronting their rotation. Both Corbin and Max Scherzer pop up at or near the top of nearly all positive contact percentage leaderboards: they throw chase, swing, miss stuff as good as any tandem in baseball.
They could have the best frontline trio in baseball if Stephen Strasburg improves. Strasburg had a difficult injury-pocked 2018 which saw his velocity dip. His soft contact rate hit a career low, and hard contact rate elevated to a career high. He did finish the season well enough despite lower radar gun readings, and an in-form Strasburg makes Washington’s rotation virtually impossible to square up three of every five games.
Further proof that the Nationals are going all-in on shutdown pitching: they brought in Yan Gomes, who instantly adds value to the rotation with his pitch framing and overall defensive skills. As a notable plus, he and Kurt Suzuki are a useful tandem that won’t have to do much to outperform Washington’s Matt Wieters-led offensive dead zone from the 2018 backstop.
Since last offseason, every Phillies transaction comes with future expectations, as if every deal made was prelude to a looming bigger one. A popular dark-horse playoff contender in 2018 prognostications, Philadelphia seemed perpetually in the market for the move that would show they also endorsed their revival. Jake Arietta was a sign, but Chris Archer or Manny Machado deals that lingered on the mill all the way to and through July would be the stamp.
This offseason isn’t much different, but the moves the Phillies have already done strengthen a team that was leading the division as late as August before a gory September dropped them below .500 on the year. Jean Segura solves a middle infield problem that all the unrealized promise of now-traded J.P. Crawford couldn’t, both with bat and glove. Bringing in Andrew McCutchen was a good get for many reasons: like Donaldson, the declining production of an aging former MVP looks terrible when compared to their best. He’ll never meet his prime again, and there’s more evidence that suggests McCutchen’s decline reflects his current ability, but he has been a 2-3 offensive bWAR player for a couple seasons now. His defense hasn’t been great, though he’s not catastrophic at a corner outfield spot, and he brings some versatility to Philadelphia’s 25-man.
The Phillies’ two marquee moves look like well-reasoned deals. They also feel like a preamble.
For the Phillies, and really all the NL East, there’s still plenty of roster-building to be done. But aside from Realmuto and whatever polarizing Noah Syndergaard rumor leaks next, the most intriguing story left to tell in baseball’s most active division involves baseball’s best free agents: Harper and Machado.
Harper is a divisional guy, and whether he stays in the division or not, his movement will be impactful. Machado has long been connected to the contender edition of the Phillies. Philadelphia, for that matter, has remained linked to both, though Machado felt like a great fit a year ago, then half a year ago, and still does to this day. The Segura trade doesn’t change that. Both players are young studs with years of productivity ahead of them, and for the immediate future, each is the kind of player that will swing a tight race. Two mid-20s generational talents circle around a busy scrum, if either or both jump in on a side, the odds tilt dramatically. It seems like a good bet at least one will be in the NL East next season.
Harper and Machado are good enough to decide a division winner. And make no mistake: these four rivals are playing for the division. 10 teams in the National League could contend for five spots. In the history of the Wild Card Game, four of the 14 matchups featured division rivals (that’s happened three out of seven times in the NL), but on paper, there’s only one tomato can in the east to kick around and fatten up records. The best path to the postseason is the division, and that’s the goal for New York, Atlanta, Washington, and Philadelphia.
The NL East (and their patron, the Seattle Mariners) has kept the stove burning this offseason. The next big move in the division will keep the heat on through baseball winter.
Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.