This is the fourth of a six-part preview of the impending off-season. In
today’s edition, we hop on the Acela and take a tour of the National League

Part I: AL Central
Part II: NL Central
Part III: AL West

Philadelphia Phillies
2007 Record: 89-73, first place
2007 Attendance: 3.1 million, sixth in the NL
2007 Payroll: $89 million, 13th in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): CF-R Aaron Rowand, 2B-R Tadahito Iguchi, INF-S Abraham Nunez, C-R Rod Barajas (club option declined), RHPs Freddy Garcia, Jon Lieber, Kyle Lohse, Antonio Alfonseca, and Jose Mesa, LHP J.C. Romero
Key Free Agents (2008): LF-R Pat Burrell, 1B/3B-R Wes Helms (club option), LHP Jamie Moyer, RHP Tom Gordon (club option)
Key Long-Term Commitments: 2B-L Chase Utley, $13.1M/year through 2013; RHP Brett Myers, $10.25M/year through 2009; SS-S Jimmy Rollins, $7.3M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option; RHP Adam Eaton, $8.1M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: CF-L Michael Bourn, OF-R Jayson Werth, C-R Carlos Ruiz, RHP Carlos Carrasco
Needs: 1. 3B; 2. Two top SP; 3. Relief depth; 4. C, maybe
What They Should Do: Weak Buy. The Phillies are in a bit of an odd position. They have four superstar-caliber talents in Utley, Rollins, Cole Hamels, and Ryan Howard, all of whom should be under club control for at least the next four seasons. Beyond them, though, the roster is something of a blank slate; there are a lot of contracts coming off the books between this winter and next, and there are few high-impact players in the farm system. Fundamentally, a team with four superstars should be in a position to reach the World Series if they can be league-average everywhere else, and that’s what the Phillies should aim for. That would probably mean letting Aaron Rowand go and not attempting to sign another center fielder, and making do with some combination of Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, and Michael Bourn between center and right field. It also means being comfortable with Carlos Ruiz as your catcher. On the other hand, it would behoove Pat Gillick to increase his payroll by a net $10-$20 million, spending some of that on a solid third baseman and at least three decent pitchers between the rotation and the bullpen. Mike Lowell is the obvious target at the hot corner, and given what’s out there on the market, the Phillies would probably be better served to re-convert Brett Myers to the starting rotation and aim for relief pitching instead. This would a pretty interesting fit for Alex Rodriguez, which might give the Phillies the best infield of all time.
What They Will Do: Weak Buy. The writing is on the wall because the Phillies’ needs are so obvious, and here’s guessing that Pat Gillick
will read it.

New York Mets
2007 Record: 88-74, second place
2007 Attendance: 3.8 million, second in the NL
2007 Payroll: $115 million, third in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): LHP Tom Glavine (player option), C-Rs Paul Lo Duca and Ramon Castro, 2B-S Luis Castillo, UT-S Jose Valentin, OF-R Moises Alou (club option), RF-L Shawn Green (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008): RHPs Pedro Martinez, Orlando Hernandez, and Guillermo Mota, LHP Oliver Perez, OF-L Endy Chavez, 1B-L Carlos Delgado (club option)
Key Long-Term Commitments: CF-S Carlos Beltran, $18.5M/year through 2011; LHP Billy Wagner, $10.5M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option; 3B-R David Wright, $10.3M/year through 2012, plus 2013 club option; SS-S Jose Reyes, $6.25M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option; LHP Scott Schoenweis, $3.6M/year through 2009
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: OF-Rs Lastings Milledge and Carlos Gomez, RHPs Mike Pelfrey, Phil Humber, and Ambiorix Burgos, 2B-S Ruben Gotay
Needs: 1. C; 2. SP; 3. 2B
What They Should Do: Weak Buy. Repeat after me: there is no need to panic. The Mets absolutely have to find themselves a catcher, since both Paul Lo Duca and Ramon Castro are free agents. They need to re-sign Moises Alou in left field, but not Shawn Green in right, instead leaving the job to Lastings Milledge. And they may need to sign or re-sign a second baseman, as Ruben Gotay might or might not be a capable regular. But none of those swaps should require a substantial increase in payroll, and the starting pitching isn’t the disaster that it seems, since even assuming that Tom Glavine departs, Pedro Martinez has been resuscitated to take his place. Sure, it wouldn’t hurt if the Mets increased their spending a little, giving the 3.8 million fans who turned out to Shea Stadium last year something to chew on. But with Citi Field set to open in 2009, it’s more the talk radio jocks than the fans that need to be placated.
What They Will Do: Strong Buy. It’s not like Omar Minaya needs many excuses to be aggressive, and he’ll have several after the Mets’ performance in September. Let’s hope that youngsters like Milledge and Fernando Martinez aren’t collateral damage.

Atlanta Braves
2007 Record: 84-78, third place
2007 Attendance: 2.7 million, 10th in the NL
2007 Payroll: $87 million, 15th in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): CF-R Andruw Jones, PH-R Julio Franco, RHP Octavio Dotel (player option)
Key Free Agents (2008): 1B-S Mark Teixeira, RHPs John Smoltz (club option), Rafael Soriano, and Oscar Villarreal, LHP Mike Hampton (club option), 3B-S Chipper Jones (vesting option), SS-R Edgar Renteria (club option)
Key Long-Term Commitments: RHP Tim Hudson, $13M/year through 2009, plus 2010 mutual option; C-L Brian McCann, $5.0M/year through 2012, plus 2013 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: LHP Jo-Jo Reyes, MI-R Yunel Escobar, SS-R Brent Lillibridge, OF-L Brandon Jones
Needs: 1. CF; 2. two good SPs; 3. Relief depth
What They Should Do: Strong Buy. Let’s assume for a moment that the Braves go ahead and trade Edgar Renteria for a third starter along the lines of Jon Garland. With Escobar ready to be at least a league-average regular, and Brent Lillibridge not far behind him, there’s simply no reason not to do that; as the market for shortstops this winter is nearly as weak as that for starting pitchers, they should find plenty of takers. The next question is in center field, where the Braves could go for the Banana Republic option with Torii Hunter or Aaron Rowand, fill the Gap with Corey Patterson or Mike Cameron, or take the cheap-o Old Navy route by entrusting Willie Harris with the position. My target would be Rowand, who should be cheaper than Hunter and is probably the better defensive player at this stage of his career. Cameron would be more appropriate for a team looking for a quick fix, but with Jordan Schafer still several years away, this is a position that the Braves need to address for the longer term than a year or two. As for Harris, the best-case scenario is that he can duplicate Juan Pierre‘s performance, and the worst case is that he matches his .247/.318/.321 career norms–that’s not how you want to head into Opening Day.

The Braves still then have a little work to do, since the back end of the rotation was so porous last year. If you can get Tom Glavine at some kind of hometown discount, he’s probably worth the upgrade over Buddy Carlyle, even assuming that the Braves pick up another starter by trading Renteria. The bullpen would probably be fine if both Villarreal and Dotel came back, but otherwise Atlanta will need to sign comparable talents, since there’s very little pitching in the farm system. In some ways, then, this is a hand that kind of plays itself. With a lineup of Johnson/Rowand/Chipper/Teixeira/McCann/Francoeur/Diaz/Escobar and a rotation of Smoltz/Hudson/Glavine/Garland/James, the Braves would quite probably be the best team in the division, and very possibly the best in the National League. Turner Field fans are hungry again after overcoming their fatigue, and with the farm system in a relative lull and a host of players like Teixiera and Smoltz all questionable beyond 2008, now is the time to deliver.
What They Will Do: Weak Buy. What I’d worry about is that Frank Wren will sign Tom Glavine and think he’s scored a coup, when in fact Glavine’s not more than a fourth starter.

Washington Nationals
2007 Record: 73-89, fourth place
2007 Attendance: 1.9 million, 14th in the NL
2007 Payroll: $37 million, 28th in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): MI-S D’Angelo Jimenez, 1B-L Robert Fick
Key Free Agents (2008): MI-S Felipe Lopez, OF-R Wily Mo Pena, RHP Luis Ayala, SS-S Cristian Guzman, Prez-R George W. Bush
Key Long-Term Commitments: RF-R Austin Kearns, $6.5M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option; 1B-L Nick Johnson, $5.5M/year through 2009; 1B-S Dmitri Young, $5M/year through 2009, plus 2010 vesting option; C-L Brian Schneider, $4.9M/year through 2009; 2B-R Ronnie Belliard, $1.8M/year through 2009
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: LHP Ross Detweiler, RHP Collin Balester
Needs: 1. As many starting pitchers as possible; 2. CF; 3. SS; 4. C
What They Should Do: Weak Buy. I’m not generally an advocate of delving into the free agent market when those signings aren’t likely to propel you into playoff contention, but the Nationals’ organization is extremely thin from top to bottom, and they need to do a little bit to stock the pantry, while giving fans at Nationals Park more reasons to turn out than the cherry trees in left field. Therefore, I’d suggest a revised version of the Tiger Plan, where you’re looking to sign a couple of free agents not so much for 2008, but to set yourself up for 2009. This does not mean that the Nationals need to throw money at anyone who will take it; I don’t like the idea of bringing on Torii Hunter, for example, when Ryan Church ought to be very capable of handling center field, and when you’ve got Kearns and Pena on the corners. On the contrary, it means being flexible and looking for both good buys and good trade opportunities. It’s Jim Bowden’s turn to leave his door open at the Winter Meetings and play arbitrage.
What They Will Do: Weak Buy. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bowden has a mandate to start behaving like he’s got a big market team, which is really what the Nationals ought to be in their new ballpark. But the Nats need to be careful not to make what assets they do have redundant, as they did with Nick Johnson last year, and as they’re in danger of doing with someone like Church this year.

Florida Marlins
2007 Record: 71-91, fifth place
2007 Attendance: 1.4 million, 16th in the NL
2007 Payroll: $31 million, 29th in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): INF-R Aaron Boone, RHPs Armando Benitez and Byung-Hyun Kim
Key Free Agents (2008): None
Key Long-Term Commitments: None
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: CF-L Alejandro De Aza, RHP Rick Vanden Hurk
Needs: 1. CF; 2. SP, lots and lots; 3. C
What They Should Do: Strong Buy. That’s right: as of right now, the Marlins don’t have a single player signed to a contract for next season. Not one. If you had a fantastic farm system, this might be considered desirable, but unfortunately, the Marlins don’t. It’s not that they can’t develop talent, but that all of the talent they have developed has already been farmed by the big league club. There’s just not much else left.

You’ve got two of the five or ten best players in baseball in Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez–I think you’ve got to take your shot here. Bring on Mike Cameron in center field and give your pitching staff a chance. Sign fan favorite Mike Lowell at third base, move Cabrera to first, and pull the plug on Mike Jacobs. Make a pitch to Hiroki Kuroda and hope that he confuses “Marlins” for “Mariners.” This is a team that desperately needs to buy some credibility back from its fan base, as well as the politicians of South Florida. Merely making the effort would restore hope and good faith.
What They Will Do: Weak Sell. There are no indications that the Marlins are ready to increase payroll. On the other hand, they only have so many assets that they could plausibly sell off. I would guess that the market for pitching talent is so thin that somebody would be willing to overpay for Dontrelle Willis, even when his 5.17 ERA would normally leave him undervalued. My guess is that Willis departs, but that the Marlins aren’t quite ready to move Miguel Cabrera, who is set to become a free agent after 2009.

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