Biggest question facing each NL East team ahead of the offseason originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
The 2020 season was a disappointing one for most of the NL East.
Four teams went into spring training hoping to contend for a World Series title. The Braves were the only one of those four (Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York Mets, Nationals) to qualify for the playoffs -- though the surprising Miami Marlins did make their first NLDS appearance since 2003.
The Nationals’ World Series title defense fell well short. They finished with a losing record for the first time in nine years. The Mets’ pitching staff was decimated by injuries and the Phillies finished with one of the worst statistical bullpens of all time. Even the Braves blew a 3-1 lead in the NLCS, extending their streak of 21 consecutive seasons without a World Series appearance.
With the World Series now in the books, all five NL East teams head into the 2020-21 offseason looking to add pieces to their rosters in order to make a run at the postseason next year. That should set up an exciting winter for the division, especially considering every team comes with its own set of roster needs.
Here's the biggest question facing each team as the offseason begins.
Atlanta Braves (35-25)
With no universal DH expected for 2021, does Marcell Ozuna warrant a long-term deal?
MLB has yet to announce whether it will utilize the universal DH in 2021. Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed his “reluctance” in September to eliminate pitchers hitting in the National League and one report suggests that MLB and the players union would have to return to the negotiating table before such a decision would be made.
That’s significant for every team in the NL, but particularly the Braves. Atlanta’s one-year deal with Marcell Ozuna is up, sending him back to free agency after he led the Senior Circuit with 18 home runs in 2020. Spotrac pegged the Braves’ 2020 payroll as the 14th highest in baseball, so there’s room to spend money if ownership is willing to dole it out.
However, Ozuna turns 30 in November and his defense at the corner outfield spot has begun to deteriorate. The Braves used him at the DH spot for 39 of the 60 games he played this season. Ozuna also played much better during the shortened season (1.067 OPS) than he has for most of his career (.801), raising the question of whether his pace of offensive production was sustainable.
Even if Ozuna isn’t the answer, the Braves still have to figure out who will hit behind Freddie Freeman moving forward.
Miami Marlins (31-29)
Who will start for them in right field next season?
The Marlins will return in 2021 with most of their young core intact, boasting a talented rotation and a bullpen that will feature Brandon Kintzler at closer if they pick up his $4 million option. On the offensive side, their lineup is projected to include several unproven graduated prospects alongside Starling Marte ($12.5 million option), Corey Dickerson, Miguel Rojas, Brian Anderson and Jesús Aguilar.
One opening they will have to address, however, is right field. Matt Joyce played the position for most of the year but struggled to perform in his age-35 season and ended up on the bench by the end of the NLDS against the Braves. They do have some in-house options in Jon Berti, Magneuris Sierra and Lewis Brinson, but none of them inspire confidence for producing more than the average player.
If the Marlins turn toward free agency, they likely won’t be in the running for high-priced stars like Ozuna or George Springer. The next tier down could be very enticing, though, with names such as Adam Eaton (if his option is declined), Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig that could be a fit.
Miami doesn’t have a star hitter to anchor the middle of its lineup. It probably won’t sign one in free agency, but an above-average position player could be enough to put the Marlin back in the running for the playoffs next season.
Philadelphia Phillies (28-32)
Should they open up the checkbook once again, this time to keep J.T. Realmuto?
The Phillies finished the 2020 season with the fifth-highest payroll in baseball but still failed to make the playoffs in Bryce Harper’s second year with the team. They have three players slated to make over $20 million in 2021 — Harper, Zack Wheeler and Andrew McCutchen — but may need to add a fourth if they want to retain All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto.
Harper has publicly stumped for the organization to re-sign the veteran catcher, but it’s unclear the Phillies’ level of interest given how expensive he’s expected to be. Owner John Middleton also expressed regret over how Philadelphia traded prized pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez to the Marlins for Realmuto with only two years left on the latter’s contract.
Realmuto will be one of this winter’s top free agents, likely seeking a deal with a similar average annual salary to that of former catcher Joe Mauer ($23 million). There will be plenty of interest in him just in the NL East alone, as the Nationals and Mets will both be in the market for a catcher.
No matter the price tag, the Phillies can’t be counted out in the Realmuto sweepstakes until the ink has dried on a contract with another team.
New York Mets (26-34)
Who pitches alongside Jacob deGrom atop the rotation?
A team once built on its rotation, the Mets head into this offseason with Jacob deGrom and David Peterson representing the only dependable starters on their roster. They lost Zack Wheeler to free agency in 2019 and could see Marcus Stroman meet the same fate this winter. Noah Syndergaard is working his way back from Tommy John surgery but isn’t expected to be ready by Opening Day.
The Seth Lugo experiment didn’t work, so he will likely return to the bullpen. Steven Matz (5.09 ERA since 2019) and Robert Gsellman (5.56) will return for 2021, but neither presents a ton of upside coming off consecutive down years. New York may instead have to turn to free agency, where very few ace-caliber starters will be available.
Trevor Bauer is the headliner of this year’s pitching market, followed by Stroman and Masahiro Tanaka. The Mets are reportedly looking to make a splash under new owner Steve Cohen, which should put them in the market for at least one of those three arms. However, they could also target George Springer or J.T. Realmuto to bolster their lineup and instead target bounce-back candidates such as Mike Minor, Robbie Ray, Alex Wood or James Paxton.
With few in-house options to fill out their rotation, the Mets figure to be among the more active teams in the pitcher market this winter.
Washington Nationals (26-34)
What will they do to protect Juan Soto in the middle of the lineup?
The Nationals are facing one of their most important offseasons in recent memory, poised to see significant roster turnover after their veteran-laded group fell well short of expectations in 2020. As critical as it will be to replace Sean Doolittle in the bullpen and fill out the back half of the rotation, no position will be more important to address than the one that hits behind Juan Soto in the lineup.
George Springer, J.T. Realmuto, Michael Brantley and DJ LeMahieu all jump out as potential candidates, though not all free agents are created equal. Realmuto makes sense as a cleanup hitter but Springer has hit predominantly leadoff throughout his career. LeMahieu and Brantley profile more as No. 2 or 3 hitters thanks to their high on-base percentages.
So depending on who the Nationals sign, Soto might have a new spot in the batting order next season. By signing Springer, they could push Trea Turner back to the No. 3 spot and line up Springer, Soto, Turner and Starlin Castro at the top of the order. If they go after Realmuto, the could try Turner, Castro, Soto, Realmuto. Adding LeMahieu could give them a look of Turner, LeMahieu, Soto, Castro.
Never before has the Nationals’ offensive success hinged so much on one player. But if Soto continues to play at the caliber he’s displayed, the Nationals would be remiss to not put him in the best possible situation to succeed.