Sizing up the NL East in 2022
PHILADELPHIA — No offense to the Braves, agent Scott Boras said last month before offending the Braves, but he sees Atlanta’s World Series triumph as the clinching evidence that not enough Major League Baseball teams are actively trying to win.
The Braves did rebuild a decimated outfield on the fly with not one, not two, not three, but four trades in July, an uncommon volume of activity that Boras attributed to the “race to the bottom” created by the league’s draft structure.
They obtained Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario, and eventual World Series MVP Jorge Soler from four teams that were a combined 28 games below .500 at the AllStar break en route to finishing an aggregate 64 games under.
Left unsaid, though, is that the Braves didn’t poke their heads over the .500 mark until Aug. 6. Contenders may have picked over their carcass, too, except the rest of the National League East kept them afloat long after they should have capsized.
The Phillies’ flaws were exceeded only by the topheavy, depth-challenged New York Mets, whose 91game run atop the division always felt like a house of cards. The Miami Marlins couldn’t contend over a sixmonth season after a surprising 60-game sprint to an expanded-field wild-card berth in 2020. The Washington Nationals lost 11 of 13 games to begin July and folded the tent, turning Juan Soto into Juan Solo.
Atlanta won 88 games, five fewer than any division champion, still raised the NL East flag by 6 1/2 games, and left the Mets and Phillies with regrets over fumbling away something that was so winnable.
With rosters frozen until the owners and players hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement, let’s consider a few questions that will determine if the NL East will be better in 2022 — and where the Phillies stand.
CAN THE METS BUY BACK THE NL EAST?
Steve Cohen is, by far, baseball’s wealthiest owner, with a net worth of $16 billion, according to Forbes. The hedge-fund manager reportedly once spent $155 million for a Picasso. What, then, is $130 million for Max Scherzer? At least Mad Max can still paint — with sliders and curveballs.
But this was more than merely a Cohen wallet flex.
The Mets have the best pitcher on the planet (Jacob deGrom) and a $341 million franchise player in his prime (Francisco Lindor), but no playoff appearances since 2016 and a midlevel farm system. Their greatest competitive advantage is Cohen’s cash. So although they have never exceeded the luxury-tax
threshold, they are poised to do it in 2022 (if there is a luxury tax in the next CBA) to chase a World Series.
In addition to pairing deGrom with Scherzer, the Mets bought a leadoff hitter (Starling Marte), a replacement for free-agent outfielder Michael Conforto (Mark Canha), and a third baseman (Eduardo Escobar) in a $254.5 million pre-lockout free-agent binge. They hired veteran manager Buck Showalter last week. And they reportedly are still looking for starting pitching.
Maybe the big spending will work, as it did for the tax-paying 2018 Boston Red Sox. Maybe it won’t. These are the Mets. Dysfunction seems to be in their water supply. But it’s impossible to look at Cohen’s new collection and say it won’t be better than what hung on the walls in Queens before he arrived last year.
WHY HAVEN’T THE
BRAVES SIGNED FREDDIE FREEMAN?
But for the lack of urgency by owners and players to reboot an $11 billion industry,
Freeman’s persisting free agency would be the offseason’s biggest head-scratcher.
If Freeman still wants to be in Atlanta (he does) and the Braves want to retain the face of their franchise (they do), the sides will agree on contract terms, right? Right? Most rival executives were all but certain after the World Series, and although prevailing opinion is that the 32-year-old first baseman will stay put, the fact that he didn’t sign before the lockout raises some doubt.
What if, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers come out swinging after losing Scherzer and Corey Seager last month and make a huge-money, shortterm offer to Freeman, a Southern California native? There are crazier scenarios.
The Braves won it all despite young star Ronald Acuña Jr.’s season-ending knee injury. Given all that Freeman means on the field and in the clubhouse, losing him may be more damaging to their run of four consecutive division titles. It’s little wonder, then, they’ve reportedly explored trading for Oakland’s Matt Olson, a sensible Freeman replacement and one of several A’s who could be dealt after the lockout.
ARE THE MARLINS
In three seasons after getting traded by Miami, J.T. Realmuto has 11.8 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. Marlins catchers have a total of 1.8 WAR.
The Marlins addressed a major need, then, by trading for Gold Glove catcher Jacob Stallings from Pittsburgh. Stallings, 31, is 15 months older than Realmuto and not nearly as accomplished. But he figures to bring stability behind the plate, which can only help a young starting rotation (Sandy Alcantara, Trevor Rogers, Pablo López, Jesús
Luzardo, Elieser Hernández, Edward Cabrera, Sixto Sánchez, and Braxton Garrett are all 26 or under).
After trading Marte at the deadline, the Marlins hoped to bring him back. But the Mets offered four years, $78 million, and that was that. Instead, the Marlins signed on-again, off-again outfielder Avisaíl García (four years, $53 million) coming off a 29-homer, .820-OPS season in Milwaukee, and traded for versatile infielder Joey Wendle, who may also see time in left field.
García and Wendle should help a lineup that produced the second-fewest runs in the NL. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Marlins dipped into their pitching stable to trade for another bat.
WHERE DOES IT ALL LEAVE THE PHILLIES?
A top rival’s quarter-billion dollar spending spree isn’t a good reason to stray from the plan. If slugging left fielder Kyle Schwarber had been ready to sign last month, the Phillies probably would’ve grabbed him. Many of their other targets didn’t jump either, so other than signing reliever Corey Knebel and backup infielder Johan Camargo to oneyear deals, neither did the Phillies.
Dave Dombrowski insists the second phase of the offseason, whenever it begins, will offer ample time to address a long list of needs. How much money the Phillies spend will depend on the luxury tax rules in the next CBA. They have $183 million in luxury tax commitments, which leaves them $27 million below this year’s $210 million threshold.
Pay close attention to that bar — and the penalties set forth for spending past it — when the owners and players finally return to the bargaining table.