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."
The usually frugal Marlins began preparing for a winter 2011--12 shopping spree three years earlier, when they got government approval for a $515 million, retractable-roof stadium that will open on April 4. This off-season the newly named franchise—it's now the Miami Marlins—committed $191 million to three free agents (Reyes, Buehrle and closer Heath Bell) and added a new manager (Ozzie Guillen). The Marlins have twice won the World Series as flash-in-the-pan, wild-card success stories that followed a three-step blueprint: assemble, win, dismantle. But with the new ballpark providing increased revenue streams, the front office believes success will be sustainable.
Still, the two most important Marlins may be holdovers. Ace Josh Johnson is one of the game's best starters (36--13, 2.80 ERA since 2008) when healthy, but he hasn't pitched since last May 16, when he was shut down after nine starts with shoulder inflammation. Then there's Hanley Ramirez, who is moving from shortstop to third base to make room for Reyes. A .313 hitter before '11, Ramirez batted .243 last year and saw his season end with a shoulder injury in early August.
He and Reyes join promising young corner outfielders Logan Morrison (23 home runs, .797 OPS in 2011), 24, and Giancarlo (né Mike) Stanton (34 homers, .893 OPS), 22, and All-Star first baseman Gaby Sanchez in what could be one of the NL's most dangerous lineups. "If healthy, we're going to be deadly," Morrison says.
The Braves, on the other hand, resisted the temptation to overhaul after a disastrous final month marred an excellent first five last season. On Aug. 25, Atlanta had the third-most wins in the majors, with 79, but it tied for second fewest (10) the rest of the way. The collapse was complete when the Braves lost to the Phillies in the season's final game and finished a game behind the Cardinals in the wild-card race.
Atlanta made the first trade of the off-season, shipping starter Derek Lowe to the Indians for a low-level prospect in October, but did little after that, holding on to its abundance of good young pitching. The Braves have four major league starters age 26 or younger—righthanders Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy and lefty Mike Minor—and three of Baseball America's top 50 prospects (Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado).
Wren was surely tempted to move one or two of those young arms for a bat because Atlanta scored only 641 runs (10th in the NL). Instead, the Braves are filling a lineup void with shortstop prospect Tyler Pastornicky, who hit .314 at Double and Triple A. Wren also counts on a full year from leadoff hitter and major league stolen-base leader Michael Bourn, who was acquired from Houston at the trade deadline last season, as "our big addition for this year." Atlanta needs a bounce-back year from Jason Heyward, who rebuilt his swing "from scratch" in order to regain his 2010 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up form. "We talked internally," says Wren, "and felt like the best thing we could do was let our young guys show how good they are."
The stripped-down Mets are also left to bank on rebound seasons from key players. "There's virtually no one on our roster that had a career year last year," says G.M. Sandy Alderson. "Almost everybody has room for improvement."
The focus, though, will be on three well-compensated former All-Stars: lefthander Johan Santana, third baseman David Wright and leftfielder Jason Bay. Santana, a two-time Cy Young winner, hasn't pitched since undergoing shoulder surgery in September 2010; he's expected to be ready for Opening Day. Wright and Bay, both bedeviled by injuries and hitter-unfriendly Citi Field, combined to hit just 26 home runs last year. The lineup should get some pop from the return of promising young first baseman Ike Davis, who hit 19 home runs as a rookie in '10 but went down for the year when he suffered a left-ankle injury last May.
There were some encouraging signs for the Mets last season. New York's on-base percentage rose 21 points to .335 (second best in the NL) in 2011, and the Mets actually outscored the division-champion Phillies by five runs despite hitting 45 fewer homers. Still, plate discipline is not the only kind of patience the Mets need right now, given the divisional company they keep.
The Phillies remain, in the words of Rizzo, "the king of the mountain" in the NL East. With a relentless rotation headed by three aces—Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels—Philadelphia won a franchise-record 102 games and had the majors' best starters' ERA (2.86) since 1985. The Phillies allowed only 529 runs, the fewest in a 162-game schedule since 1969.
This year's rotation won't attract the same attention—righthander Roy Oswalt was let go as a free agent—but righthander Vance Worley's emergence (11--3, 3.01 ERA as a rookie last year) will soften the loss. The lineup, the majors' oldest each of the last two years, remains mostly intact. The current core, together since 2005, scored an average of 837 runs per season from '05 though '09 before dipping to 772 in '10, then just 713 in '11. That number could sink further, with slugging first baseman Ryan Howard—who tore his left Achilles tendon while making the final out of the Phillies' upset NLDS loss to the Cardinals—out at least until June. And second baseman Chase Utley, who is plagued by a chronic right-knee tendinitis, played only 103 games last season and had his worst OPS (.769) since he was a rookie in 2003.
With Hamels and centerfielder Shane Victorino each in the final season of his contract, the club's window of dominance is narrowing, even if the Phillies don't agree. "We have that urgency every year," Amaro says. Certainly. But this year their competitors are better equipped to overthrow them.
HOW THEY'LL FINISH
HANLEY RAMIREZ, MARLINS
He's recovering from left-shoulder surgery, a dismal offensive season and orders to change positions, but he's only 28 and his pre-2011 career numbers (.313 average, .905 OPS) should return. Ramirez lost eight pounds while working out with Toronto's Jose Bautista this off-season, and his opposite-field power was back this spring.
ROY HALLADAY, PHILLIES
Who else? In the past six seasons Halladay, 34, has six top five Cy Young finishes (winning one), throwing no fewer than 220 innings with a cumulative 2.86 ERA, and he's led the majors in strikeout-walk ratio for the last four years. The division's best pitcher shows no sign of slowing down.
BRIAN MCCANN, BRAVES
The only major leaguer to appear in the last six All-Star Games, McCann, 28, is a steady run producer who was having a career year (.306, .889 OPS, 18 homers in 91 games) before an oblique injury slowed him in 2011. The Braves were 60--44 before the injury, 29--29 after it.
ROOKIE TO WATCH
BRYCE HARPER, NATIONALS
G.M. Mike Rizzo has said, "I think we'll see him in 2012. We're not sure when." It will be soon. Harper, an SI cover boy at 16, is now 19 and the game's best hitting prospect—and the Nats' lineup needs some lefthanded pop.
STAR ON THE RISE
GIANCARLO STANTON, MARLINS
He's now called Giancarlo, but Miami hopes he'll be just like Mike. Last year the slugger formerly known as Mike Stanton mashed 34 home runs, slugged .537 and more than doubled his 2010 walk total (34 to 70)—at age 21. He'll have a season of 40 homers and .600 slugging before long.
STAR IN DECLINE
CHASE UTLEY, PHILLIES
Utley, who's battling chronic knee tendinitis, is aiming to play 140 to 150 games, but he hasn't played more than 115 since 2009. He got into only 103 last year and had career full-season lows in homers (11) and OPS (.769). Once an All-Star, he's now merely an above-average starter.
THE PAYOFF PITCH ...
The rotation carries them in the first half, then Ryan Howard returns from his Achilles tear as good as new. The Phils win the World Series—and sign Cole Hamels to a long-term extension.
Father Time wreaks havoc on the aging infield, and injury claims one of the three aces. A broken-down team watches the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Josh Johnson takes the Cy Young, Hanley Ramirez or Jose Reyes nabs the MVP, Giancarlo Stanton is the home run champ—and Marlins Park hosts a World Series in its inaugural year.
Reyes pulls a hamstring, Johnson requires shoulder surgery, Ramirez sulks after struggling at third—and Marlins Park fails to attract fans, forcing a payroll slash in 2013.
Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper each hit 30 HRs; Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann rival Philly's top three; the Nats win their first playoff berth.
Werth repeats last year's poor performance, Morse's 2011 proves a fluke, and Harper struggles enough after his much-hyped call-up that he's returned to the minors.
Jason Heyward hits like he did in 2010 (.849 OPS), not in '11 (.708), and Brandon Beachy lives up to Bill James's prediction that he will be baseball's second-best starter. Atlanta wins its first division title since '05.
With essentially the same lineup that didn't score enough last year, the Braves don't score enough this year. The retooled Marlins and Nationals leapfrog Atlanta, which falls to fourth.
David Wright, Jason Bay, Lucas Duda and Ike Davis take advantage of the moved-in Citi Field fences, and Johan Santana pitches like a $24 million ace. The Mets are in the hunt for the second wild card until August.
The rest of a hypercompetitive division overwhelms the Mets, who lose 100 for the first time since 1993. Wright is traded, and attendance dwindles further, leaving Citi Field desolate.
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
CAPITAL GAINS Ryan Zimmerman and the young Nationals won't topple Carlos Ruiz and the Phillies, but they have enough to bring home the franchise's first winning season since its move to D.C.