Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, December 5, 2023 -- "NL East Notes"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: NL East Notes
Vol. 15, No. 143
December 5, 2023

With the winter meetings running a bit slow -- passing nod to Wade Miley -- I’ll skip sending out another doorstop and stick to just one of the two remaining divisions today. 

Atlanta Braves

The Braves’ side of the Mariners trade was basically them paying cash and a high-variance arm in Cole Phillips for Jarred Kelenic. The thing about the way they’ve built their roster is that they’re left without much to do in most offseasons. Eleven players got 100 PA for them last year, and nine of those are under contract for 2024; seven are under contract for 2025. Alex Anthopoulos has already stretched out the bullpen by signing Reynaldo Lopez and trading for Aaron Bummer, and there’s no path by which he’ll get under the 2024 luxury tax threshold.

The team could use some rotation depth, and given their payroll situation I could see them digging into the middle class -- Michael Wacha, Mike Clevinger, Michael Lorenzen -- to back up their top three. Mostly, though, the hole is in left field, where Eddie Rosario and Kevin Pillar are both free agents.

So dealing for a high-risk player in Kelenic makes sense. As I wrote yesterday, I’m not that excited about Kelenic, whose 2023 “breakout” was one good month followed by a return to being a disappointment. If you’re the Braves, though, you look at pairing him with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer and see some potential. Seitzer helped turn Austin Riley into a star, he proctored Ronald Acuña Jr.’s elevation into an MVP winner with an 11% strikeout rate, and he has been the coach for the best seasons by Orlando Arcia, Marcell Ozuna, and Matt Olson. Seitzer is one of the best hitting coaches of his era, and while we’ve already seen Kelenic be rebuilt once, this pairing has some upside that deserves attention. 

Because the Braves have been picked off by the Phillies in best-of-fives the last two years, they don’t get enough credit for the gap between them and the competition in the NL East. The Braves have won six straight division titles, and since 2021 they’re lapping the field.

Braves     293  192  .604     --
Phillies   259  227  .533   34.5
Mets       253  233  .521   40.5
Marlins    220  266  .453   73.5
Nationals  191  295  .393  102.5

Our modern emphasis on the playoffs has cost teams like the Yankees, Guardians, and Dodgers proper credit for their extended stretches of success. Let’s not lose sight of what the Braves are doing right now.

Miami Marlins

As with the Diamondbacks, maybe moreso than with the Diamondbacks, it’s important to evaluate the Marlins for what they were. Even as they squeaked into the expanded postseason for 28 hours or so, they were a bottom-half team in MLB.

The Marlins were outscored by a whopping 57 runs and had the eighth-best third-order record in the NL. Their offense was mostly empty batting average: second in the NL at .259, but tenth in OBP, SLG, and homers, 12th in doubles, 13th in steals, 14th in walks. The Marlins’ pitching was better, even wracked by injuries, in part because Skip Schumaker squeezed a strong year from a largely anonymous bullpen. Marlins relievers finished third in the NL in fWAR, as lefties Tanner Scott, A.J. Puk, and rookie Andrew Nardi all had breakout campaigns.

The Marlins head into the offseason already behind the eight-ball, knowing Sandy Alcantara will miss 2024 following Tommy John surgery. The Marlins have pitching depth, to be sure, but it was from that depth they were going to need to deal to fix their offense. Luis Arraez had a career year in 2023, but identifying the Marlins’ second-best hitter takes some work. Jorge Soler declined his option. Trade pickups Jake Burger and Josh Bell were excellent down the stretch but are 28 and 31, respectively. Jazz Chisholm Jr. has a career 103 OPS+ heading into his age-26 season, and he still looks more like a fantasy star than a real one. (The numbers on his defense in center field were split; I thought he looked awkward out there, and missing 67 games didn’t help him develop.)

Chisholm is representative of a serious Marlins problem: They’ve stopped developing hitters. For a while there in the 2010s, it was a real skill, as Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, J.T. Realmuto, and Marcell Ozuna were all drafted and developed...and traded...by the Fish. Over the last five years, though, the Marlins’ best hitters are all imports, and their homegrown bats have largely tanked. 

[“Fish” Pun Here] (homegrown Marlins hitters, 2019-23)

                     PA    AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS+
Brian Anderson     1597   .247  .333  .417   103
Jazz Chisholm Jr.  1193   .245  .304  .452   103
Nick Fortes         597   .220  .285  .358    76   

That’s the entire list of drafted/signed Marlins hitters who have gotten 200 or more PA with the team over the last five years. If you expand the pool to include young hitters the Marlins acquired in trade, it doesn’t make things better. Bryan De La Cruz (98 OPS+) and Jesus Sanchez (100) have been part of the problem. JJ Bleday, the fourth overall pick in 2019, hit .167/.277/.309 before being traded to the A’s. Garrett Cooper, with his 111 OPS+ in parts of four seasons, is the success story, and he was 27 when he was acquired.

New Marlins President of Baseball Operations Peter Bendix has many challenges in front of him, but near the top is getting the Marlins back to at least an average offense, and that will entail developing bats.

New York Mets

There may not be a tougher read right now than the Mets, who have been all over the map the last three seasons. They won 101 games in 2022 and got no credit for it. They spent more on players in 2023 than any baseball team ever has, and they got no success for it. They shifted gears midseason and collected a significant number of high-value prospects, and they pushed out the executive who did it.

David Stearns inherits a very good situation in Queens. The additions of Luisangel Acuña, Drew Gilbert, Ryan Clifford, and Marco Vargas, all by Billy Eppler in his final summer as GM, give Stearns a stronger base of minor-league talent than he had in Milwaukee. The major-league team isn’t as bad as it looked last year, though it lacks starting pitching. Few teams have both a core of contender-level talent, with Francisco Lindor, Brandon Nimmo, and Pete Alonso, and a group of young high-upside players such as Francisco Alvarez, Ronny Mauricio, and Brett Baty.

Stearns could go in a couple of directions here, either shopping for starting pitching depth in an effort to move to the front of the wild-card class in the NL, or moving Pete Alonso and, if there’s a market for them, Starling Marte and Jose Quintana, with an eye towards 2025 and beyond. It is unlikely that the Mets can challenge the Braves in 2024, though we’ve seen the value of just getting into the tournament the last two years. There’s value in bouncing back quickly, especially given Steve Cohen’s desire to build a casino complex next to Citi Field. As we’ve seen in other places, the success of a baseball team can be the driver of goodwill for non-baseball projects.

Still, looking at the talent the Mets have on hand, what they have coming, and the 2024-25 free agent class, an eye towards the future seems a better play. The Mets could have a top-ten farm system shortly, to go with the young players who debuted a year ago. Their 2024 payroll is still feeling the effects of the shopping sprees the last two years, but the team’s 2025 commitments are cut nearly in half, down to $141 million, as Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and likely Pete Alonso come off the payroll. Next winter’s free-agent class could be led by Juan Soto and include Gerrit Cole, Zack Wheeler, Corbin Burnes, Tyler Glasnow, and Gleyber Torres. The next year might feature Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Kyle Tucker, Zac Gallen, and Dylan Cease. There are going to be opportunities to bring in superstars to augment the young players the Mets have, and to build a team that can challenge not for wild-card slots, but for division titles.

So a quiet first offseason for Stearns won’t be the worst thing. Maybe he chases Ohtani and Jung Hoo Lee and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, taking the tax hit -- Cohen can afford it -- to get high-level talent. If he whiffs on those, though, he’s better off waiting out the winter and keeping a focus on the future. 

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies made what may be their big move of the offseason by retaining Aaron Nola on a seven-year contract. With the decision made to leave Bryce Harper at first base, their roster holes are now in the outfield, and even “holes” elides them having Kyle Schwarber, Nicholas Castellanos, and Brandon Marsh on the team, as well as glove men Cristian Pache and Josh Rojas. Still, if they were going to take a swing at upgrading, it would have to be in the pasture. 

The combination of Dave Dombrowski’s predilection for the big transaction, the win-now focus of the Phillies, and the limited free-agent pool, makes me wonder if Philadelphia will be Jung Hoo Lee’s landing spot. Lee, 25, has been posted by the Kiwoom Heroes and is eligible to sign with any MLB team. The left-handed hitter is a career .340/.407/.491 hitter in the KBO, with a 383/304 K/BB. While he’s hit for power in some seasons, he’s more of a gap hitter, and in fact, the kind of leadoff man we don’t have much of in MLB these days. Deferring to Keith Law here...

He’s the best hitter in Korea right now, and while the pitching he’s faced isn’t at the level of MLB pitching, he’s done everything you might reasonably ask a hitter to do in that environment, making a lot of hard contact and rarely swinging and missing, with some platoon split and not a ton of power.

I find the match in Philadelphia to be interesting because signing Lee might provide an out for the Kyle Schwarber problem. Schwarber moved into the Phillies’ leadoff spot around Memorial Day 2022, and he’s been there ever since. Now, I’m all in favor of non-traditional leadoff men, but in ’23 Schwarber’s skill set went full Adam Dunn, with a .197 batting average thanks to 215 strikeouts. He’s stayed there as much out of inertia as anything else, but there’s no question he’d be a better fit lower in the lineup. Adding a true leadoff man in Lee would provide an avenue for Rob Thomson to restructure the batting order with Lee and Trea Turner up top, Harper and J.T. Realmuto following, and then Schwarber in the #5 hole.

Schwarber batted 429 times with no one on base last year and hit 29 solo home runs. Giving him more opportunities to drive in teammates in 2024 will make the Phillies’ offense work more efficiently.

Washington Nationals

Go back and look at those 2021-23 standings. The Nationals have been the worst team in baseball since we got back to playing 162-game seasons, and they haven’t made much progress in that time. I have written repeatedly that I’m sympathetic to the Nationals, who won the World Series in 2019 and got no bump from that success; the pandemic cost them more than it did any other team in baseball. 

However, it’s four years later and it’s time for them to get off the mat. The Nationals got some production last year from their rebuild trades, with Keibert Ruiz and CJ Abrams establishing themselves as average to average-plus regulars up the middle. The two are 25 and 23 heading into the 2024 season, and they still have some projected growth. Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore combined for 295 innings and five WAR. They will be 26 and 25 next year. It was a rough year in the farm system, as James Wood and Robert Hassell III both struggled, and 2020 first-round pick Cade Cavalli underwent Tommy John surgery. Adding the second pick in the draft, outfielder Dylan Crews, helped bolster their prospect list, and Brady House played well at three levels in his first year as a third baseman. 

What we haven’t seen in a while is the Mike Rizzo of old, the guy who makes big moves to make the MLB team better. Whether feeling burned by the Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin deals, or having his hands tied by Mark Lerner, Ted’s son and the new managing partner of the Nats, Rizzo has kept his powder dry in recent years. His biggest signing last winter was Trevor Williams for two years and $13 million. He added Jeimer Candelario for one year at $5 million. The year before he signed Nelson Cruz for $15 million for one year. Rizzo is playing in the lower reaches of free agency with a roster crying out for six-win players.

As we keep saying, it’s a tough year for teams needing star power. The Nationals, though, have to start climbing out of the cellar. Look at those NL East standings again. The Nats are making themselves irrelevant right at the moment the Orioles are becoming one of the most interesting teams in baseball. Rizzo has to, whether through free agency or trades, begin to elevate the Nationals to that level again.