NL East Clubs Get Early Start On Off-Season, Setting Stage For Fierce Five-Team Title Fight

 NL East Clubs Get Early Start On Off-Season, Setting Stage For Fierce Five-Team Title Fight

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League Championship - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Seven

Marcell Ozuna, now a coveted free agent, hits an RBI single for the Atlanta Braves against the Los … [+] Angeles Dodgers during the first inning in Game Seven of the National League Championship Series at Globe Life Field on October 18 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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With Thanksgiving almost a week away, all five denizens of the National League East are already making headlines that indicate baseball’s toughest division will get even more difficult in 2021.

The Atlanta Braves, seeking their fourth straight NL East title, beat the other 29 teams by making the first foray into the free-agent market for the second year in a row.

The Miami Marlins, who finished a surprise second in the division during the truncated 60-game season, parlayed a Manager of the Year and a new general manager within the same week.

Both the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies are not only searching feverishly for new general managers but have their eyes set on the same free agents.

So do the Washington Nationals, who fell to last place last summer while failing to defend the lone world championship in franchise history.

Only the Braves and Marlins reached the 2020 playoffs – even when it expanded to 16 teams – after four teams (all but Miami) started the virus-shortened season convinced they were contenders.

Now that the hot-stove season is heating up, all five teams in the division are believers again.

Here’s why: After going 35-25 in the regular season, winning its first seven playoff games, and leading the Los Angeles Dodgers through the first half of the final game in the NL Championship Series, the Atlanta Braves fired the first shot in the free-agent market again.

San Francisco Giants v Seattle Mariners

Southpaw Drew Smyly is the first of the 181 free agents to sign, joining the Atlanta Braves on a … [+] one-year, $11 million deal. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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Last year, they landed Will Smith, a hard-throwing southpaw most recently with San Francisco. Happy with that deal, which involved a three-year, $18 million commitment, the Braves landed another ex-Giants lefty, starter Drew Smyly, whom they signed to a one-year, $11 million pact earlier this week.

His 2020 average of 14.5 strikeouts per nine innings was a major factor in that decision. Like Dallas Keuchel and Cole Hamels before him, the 31-year-old Smyly is expected to fill the dual role of back-end starter and front-end mentor to a baby-faced rotation.

It wasn’t a spectacular signing but it was consistent with Atlanta’s tendency to avoid overpaying for top-of-the-market talents.

Last year, the club lost slugger Josh Donaldson when its offer was exceeded by the Minnesota Twins. Now the Braves may not ante up for Marcell Ozuna, who led the National League in home runs and runs batted in after taking a one-year, $18 million Braves deal.

Not knowing whether the NL will keep the designated hitter in force complicates the picture, since Ozuna has a negative reputation for his outfield defense. Still, he has many bidders, especially clubs from the American League, where the DH rule has been a guarantee since 1973.

Like Ozuna, a free agent who already has multiple suitors is J.T. Realmuto, an All-Star catcher who spent last season in Philadelphia. He liked the Phils and they liked him but he could follow the money out of town – and perhaps up the road to New York.

Before his 2020 contract was pro-rated, Realmuto was slated to earn $10 million. He could easily double that in a multi-year deal based on a 162-game schedule.

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals

Catcher J.T. Realmuto is commanding considerable attention at the top of the current free-agent … [+] market. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

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It’s not likely that the Phillies or Mets will make major moves until they hire new general managers. The under-achieving teams ousted Matt Klentak and Brodie Van Wagenen, respectively, though both had at least a year remaining on their contracts.

For the Phils and Mets, finding players may be easier than finding executives. The pool of available free-agent players will expand exponentially on Dec. 2, the deadline for teams to decide whether to offer players contracts or non-tender veterans who become eligible for arbitration – a process owners feel favors players.

When the expected tsunami of non-tenders hits, the list of available free agents will balloon past the 200 mark, the most since free agency began in 1976.

Blame coronavirus, which chopped four months off this year’s schedule and prompted numerous experimental rules changes. Hoping that the advent of a reliable vaccine will calm the pandemic and allow fans into ballparks again, teams that took a financial bath in 2020 are now taking a cautious approach toward all things financial.

Long-term, megabucks deals may still be available – but only to the most talented free agents in the market.

Realmuto, at the top of that list because he excels at a demanding position, should command a contract big in both dollars and years. The Mets, Phils, and Nationals all have money and figure to be involved – recalling their run at Donaldson before he left the Braves last year.

New York, with newly-approved owner Steve Cohen widely considered the wealthiest in the game, got a $24 million break Wednesday when Robinson Cano drew an unpaid 162-game suspension for using performance-enhancing substances. Some of that money (Cano’s one-year salary) could go to Realmuto, Ozuna, slugging center-fielder George Springer, or versatile ex-Yankee infielder DJ LeMahieu, the American League’s reigning batting champ.

Even the budget-conscious Marlins are making waves these days. Don Mattingly won NL Manager of the Year partly because last year’s under-the-radar acquisitions helped the Fish flourish after a floundering start caused by COVID-19.

First baseman Jesús Aguilar, claimed off waivers from Tampa Bay, and outfielder Corey Dickerson, signed as a free agent, were instrumental in the ability of the Marlins to grab their first playoff spot since 2003 – and to knock off the favored Chicago Cubs in the Wild Card Series.

Press Conference to Announce New Efforts Benefiting Education In the Dominican Republic

Kim Ng of the Miami Marlins made baseball history when she became the first female general manager … [+] in the major leagues. (Photo by Santiago Vida/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

MLB Photos via Getty Images

Now that Derek Jeter’s club has hired Kim Ng, the first female GM in baseball history, she will be anxious to make her first transactions in that role. Don’t look for anything lavish but don’t underestimate her baseball savvy either. She’s spent years working for several clubs, including the Yankees, as an assistant GM.

The Marlins, who used a record 61 players last season, were the only NL East team besides the Braves to win more than they lost in 2020. They finished 31-29, four games behind Atlanta and three games ahead of the third-place Phillies. The Mets and Nationals, both 26-34, wound up nine games out.

Washington lost Bryce Harper to Philadelphia via free agency two years ago and would love to strike back by signing the 29-year-old Realmuto, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. The Nats never filled the twin holes created by Harper and Anthony Rendon leaving for free agency in successive years and also need a younger, more durable, more productive catcher than Yan Gomes, who’s now 33. They tried to trade for Realmuto two years ago before the Marlins took a better offer from the Phillies.

New York’s need behind the plate is also acute after Wilson Ramos and Henry Chirinos played out their contracts, leaving light-hitting Tomas Nido as the only signed backstop on the roster. The Mets have also been linked to Gary Sanchez, a former All-Star whose stock has fallen so far with the Yankees that he might wind up in the coming non-tendered group. But he could be traded first, even though the Mets and Yankees are hardly frequent trading partners.

Should Realmuto relocate, the Phils will need a replacement. They also have a hole at shortstop, where Didi Gregorius is testing the waters of free agency, and in their rotation, where former Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta is trying to find a new home too.

As usual, the title chase is a matter of money and the willingness to spend it. According to Spotrac, the Mets have the highest payroll ($137,691,668) of the five NL East clubs, just ahead of the Nationals ($131,066,575) and Phillies ($127,238,462), while the Braves stand in the middle of the majors at $100,909,375 and the Marlins rank dead last among the 30 clubs at $46,550,000.

Spending could be guided by the $208,000,000 luxury tax threshold, which few clubs are willing to exceed. Should the Mets, for example, sign three top-tier free agents, plus a handful of lower-paid veterans, they could exceed that plateau – especially with raises and arbitration cases yet to be decided.

By the time the dust clears next February, it may be hard to tell the players without a scorecard – or at least by the names on the back of the uniforms. But it’s a good bet that the teams that made headlines in November will jostle for position all winter, much like thoroughbreds at the starting gate. Five of those teams just happen to be in the same division.