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The proletarian revolution in the NL East wasn't hatched overnight. The ascension of the Marlins and the Nationals—neither franchise has ever won a full season's division title—has been in the works for years, plans that culminated this winter in unprecedented fashion for the two teams that have had the division's smallest payrolls every season since 1997.
Each franchise is reliant on a cache of young, emerging homegrown players who are now being supplemented with big-ticket additions. This winter the National League East saw an influx of eight newcomers who were All-Stars at least once in the past four seasons; seven of them landed in Miami or Washington. There were nearly more. "I was a big fan this winter of the Angels and the Tigers because there were rumors that [Albert] Pujols was going to the Marlins and [Prince] Fielder was going to the Nationals," says Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, a smile creeping across his face. "I hate for good players like that to leave our league, but when they went to the other league and not our division, it was like, Phew, where's the Rally Monkey at?"
Even without those slugging first basemen, the NL East is "as good as I can remember it, from top to bottom," says Atlanta general manager Frank Wren, who has been in the division for 22 of the past 23 seasons while working in the front offices of the Expos, Marlins and Braves. The Phillies remain the NL East royalty (five straight division crowns and a league-leading $173 million payroll this year) and are the favorites to repeat in 2012. But the division's talent and monetary gaps have narrowed considerably.
The Marlins nearly doubled last year's $57 million payroll, jumping to almost $100 million (SI, March 5), and the Nationals will spend a franchise-record $84 million this year (a roughly $16 million increase over 2011). The Braves remained static, holding their payroll around $90 million, while the Mets came back to the pack by shearing about $52 million from last season's $143 million payroll, the largest single-season payroll cut ever.
The addition of the second wild-card berth this year adds to the intrigue. "It's not out of the realm of possibility that [the NL East] has three teams get to the playoffs," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. says. Yes, there's an extra postseason opportunity—but also more emphasis on winning the division (and avoiding the wild-card play-in game), at a time when that task has never been more difficult.
The Nationals didn't exactly draft a revolutionary manifesto, but after the 2010 season G.M. Mike Rizzo created a thick, colorful marketing presentation and gave it to free-agent outfielder Jayson Werth. The binder mapped out the progress of the Washington farm system and how the major league club intended to spend money. The point: to convince the bushy-bearded ex-Phillies outfielder that the Nationals would soon be competitive. "It was a sales pitch," Rizzo says. "We were trying to get one of the premium, sought-after free agents to a team that won 59 and 69 games [the previous two seasons]."
Rizzo's seven-year, $126 million contract offer was an effective carrot, but Werth insists he was swayed to accept it by the club's "young, unadulterated talent," a group headlined by consecutive No. 1 overall picks—righthander Stephen Strasburg (2009) and outfielder Bryce Harper ('10)—and deep enough that this winter Baseball America rated the farm system the game's best. In December, Rizzo traded four of his many prospects to Oakland for lefthander Gio Gonzalez (10th in the AL in ERA in 2011, at 3.12). Washington also signed righthander Edwin Jackson and former Phillies closer Brad Lidge—whom Werth helped recruit—to one-year free-agent contracts. "That's when it hit me," Gonzalez says, "these guys mean business."
By locking up franchise third baseman Ryan Zimmerman last month (he's signed for the next eight years for $126 million), Rizzo has 11 core players under control through 2015—not counting last year's breakout name, slugger Michael Morse (31 HRs, .910 OPS), who is signed for two more years. Says Lidge, "Nationals stock is like Apple right now."
The franchise hasn't made the playoffs since 1981, when it was the Montreal Expos. But last year was a sign that things are turning: The Nats won 80 games (their most since '05), even though Werth (.718 OPS) had a disappointing debut season, Zimmerman missed 61 games with injuries and Strasburg made only five starts. This year the righty will be held to about 160 innings as he continues his return from Tommy John surgery. Harper didn't make the Opening Day roster, but at some point this year the prodigies will, at last, be teammates in D.C. "I expect us to contend," manager Davey Johnson says. "If we don't, I haven't done my job."
Around the same time that the Nationals were selling Werth on their future, the Marlins were making a similar pitch to a lower-profile free agent: catcher John Buck, whom the team pursued before the 2011 season. "They told me they had plans to open it up [before '12]," says Buck, who signed a three-year, $18 million deal. He recalls Marlins execs mentioning plans to go after shortstop and free-agent-to-be Jose Reyes, as well as a pitcher who sounded suspiciously like then White Sox starter Mark Buehrle, who was also headed for free agency after the '11 season. "An established lefty and innings-eater," Buck recalls. "They described him without saying his name."