NL East Hot Stove preview: Identity of Bourn's team is key
Michael Bourn was a key part of the Braves but would fit well with Washington
The Braves and Nationals both look strong to return to the postseason
The Mets and Marlins both have work to do this winter to get back to contention
SI.com's breakdown of the offseason plans for all 30 major league teams continues today with Joe Lemire's look at the NL East. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2012. For previous division breakdowns, see below:
JAFFE: NL Central
JAFFE: AL West
CORCORAN: NL West
JAFFE: AL Central
SHEEHAN: AL East
2012 Results: 98-64, NL East champions, lost Division Series
Third-Order Record: 96-66
Pending Free Agents: 1B Adam LaRoche, RHP Edwin Jackson, RHP Chien-Ming Wang, LHP Sean Burnett, Util. Chad Tracy, Util. Mark DeRosa, LHP Zach Duke
LaRoche had an outstanding year for the Nationals (33 HRs, .853 OPS), but general manager Mike Rizzo has made it no secret that he craves a true centerfielder. If he signs one in free agency, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth become full-time corner outfielders and Michael Morse becomes the everyday first baseman, thereby pushing LaRoche out of a job.
Jackson could return, but he's likely to get a multi-year offer for more money from a team with a more dire need for rotation help -- the Nationals do, after all, return four starters who all enjoyed very good 2012 seasons. Tracy and DeRosa could return in their reserve and pinch-hitting roles.
Top Prospect on the Verge: Brian Goodwin, CF
The Nationals won an NL-best 98 games in 2012 and believe they should only get better, as evidenced by Rizzo's polarizing decision to shut down ace Stephen Strasburg. That means Washington may not want to trust an everyday job, especially at a key defensive position to a rookie with fewer than 200 plate appearances above A ball, but Goodwin dominated at the lower level, with nine homers, 15 steals and a .979 OPS in 58 games at Class A Hagerstown. He struggled in Double A, however, with five homers, three steals and a .680 OPS in 42 games there, but he has come on strong in the elite Arizona Fall League with three homers and a .988 OPS in 13 games.
Targets: Centerfield, fifth starter
With Goodwin not being a sure thing for 2013 -- or even for 2014, given his inexperience in the mid-to-upper levels of the minors -- look for Rizzo to be aggressive in courting either of the two big free agent centerfielders, B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn. Washington may either retain Jackson or go outside the organization for a hard-throwing starter to replace him; restoring John Lannan to his spot in the rotation would not be a bad option, though it's unlikely to happen.
Bottom line: The Nationals spent a franchise-record $93 million on payroll last year, an increase of some $25 million on its previous high, and that number could continue to trend north. This is a ballclub coming off a wildly successful season that has a chance to be even better, especially if it receives the injection of a big time free agent.
2012 Results: 94-68, second in the NL East, lost in NL wild card game
Third-Order Record: 92-70
Pending Free Agents: CF Michael Bourn, OF Matt Diaz, C David Ross, 1B/LF Eric Hinske, RHP Chad Durbin, OF Reed Johnson, RHP Peter Moylan, Util. Jeff Baker, 1B Lyle Overbay
Bourn was an outstanding pick-up by general manager Frank Wren at the 2011 trade deadline, as he played first-rate centerfield defense and had a solid on-base percentage (.341 in his year and a half in Atlanta) for a leadoff hitter while stealing 64 bases and making the 2012 All-Star team. His agent, however, is Scott Boras so expect a maximum-length and maximum-value contract this winter, which may not be a wise investment for a player about to turn 30 whose speed is his best asset.
Several of the lesser-stature free agents are likely to return in their supplementary roles, especially Ross, who may well be baseball's best backup catcher and who could shoulder the position if Brian McCann does miss the first month or so while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Julio Teheran
The caveat here is that he's been on the verge for a couple years now, though he still won't be 22 years old until January. Baseball America ranked Teheran the No. 5 prospect in the game before each of the last two seasons but dropped him to No. 24 at its midseason evaluation during a brutal Triple-A campaign in which he had a 5.08 ERA in 131 innings, a far cry from his 2.55 ERA in 144 2/3 innings the previous season at age 20. Teheran and fellow prospect Randall Delgado are both pitching in the Dominican Winter League to get back on track before likely competing for the No. 5 spot in the Braves' rotation during spring training.
Targets: Centerfield and third base or leftfield
It'll be odd for Atlanta not to run out future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones as its regular third baseman next year, but the organization at least a has a good replacement in-house in Martin Prado. He played mostly leftfield last year but is an infielder by trade and could play either position next year, granting Wren the opportunity to seek either position this winter. The reality, however, is that there are more capable corner outfielders than third basemen, so look for Prado to be installed at third base, while the club looks at leftfielders in free agency.
Though one national columnist speculated that the Braves may end up with Josh Hamilton, he alone might cost most of Atlanta's offseason budget. Another option would be to split their resources between the two outfield positions, such as on Angel Pagan to play center and one of Cody Ross, Nick Swisher or Shane Victorino to play left.
Another option would be to package a few prospects -- Atlanta remains deep in young pitching -- and trade for an impact player at one of the positions.
Bottom line: Despite their quick exit from the playoffs, the Braves were one of the NL's best last year from start to finish and should be aggressive in filling their few holes.
2012 Results: 81-81, third in the NL East
Third-Order Record: 83-79
Pending Free Agents: 3B/2B Placido Polanco, OF Juan Pierre, C Brian Schneider, Util. Ty Wigginton, RHP Jose Contreras
The Phillies elected not to exercise a $5.5 million mutual option for Polanco, who missed 112 games the past two seasons. Pierre was a great value this past season, batting .307 in 130 games while making less than a million dollars; given Philadelphia's uncertain outfield situation, re-signing Pierre with the raise he deserves is a possibility. The others are not likely to return.
Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Phillippe Aumont
The hard-throwing 23-year-old averaged 96 mph with his fastball during his big league cameo late last year, striking out 14 in 14 2/3 innings after saving 15 games in Triple A with a 12.0 K/9 ratio. With Jonathan Papelbon firmly entrenched as the closer, the Phillies won't need Aumont in the ninth, but he can be an asset in the eighth, presuming he keeps his walks under control (6.9 BB/9 in 44 1/3 Triple A innings in 2012).
Targets: Outfield, third base, middle
The Phillies return John Mayberry Jr., Domonic Brown and Nate Schierholtz in the outfield, but none has yet to prove himself as an everyday player, meaning the club is best suited to sign an established outfielder -- ideally in center, though such players are in short supply -- and allow the other three to rotate through the other two spots.
The Phillies have already stretched their budget to $172 million last year, but if they were going to splurge again, this might be a decent time, given the narrow window of contention they have. In 2012, stars Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley all missed significant time due to injuries,suggesting a downward trend on their career primes, with Cliff Lee's eventual decline likely to follow.