NL East Not Defined by Bryce Harper (Daryll)

The MLB off-season is in full swing, and several teams are already making some big waves as we look ahead into 2019. While last year free agency stalled all winter, this year there has already been some significant activity while the two biggest domino’s in Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have yet to fall. Perhaps no bigger shift in competitiveness has taken place than in the National League East.

Last year the Nationals lost the division Atlanta Braves won the division thanks to some youth (Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies), maturation (Mike Foltynewicz), and veteran leadership(Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis). While half of their catching platoon was extended last year in Tyler Flowers, they brought back fan favorite and leader Brian McCann to complement him. That same afternoon they signed former MVP Josh Donaldson for one season, giving them a more than solid infield and freedom to use/sub Johan Camargo wherever is demanded of him.

The New York Mets have a new GM who traded for 36 year old Robinson Cano and All Star Closer Edwin Diaz. They also appear to shopping some of their vaunted starting pitchers in order to possibly make a 2 or 3 for 1 trade to bolster the overall team. The Philadelphia Phillies – favorites in landing either Harper or Machado – also traded for SS Jean Segura and dumping disappointment Carlos Santana who was also one of the few players signed beyond 2019 for the team aside from de facto ace Jake Arrieta.

The Marlins hold a big trade chip in catcher JT Realmuto, but given that several teams that were looking for catching (Braves, Nationals) have already traded for catching, it will be interesting to see where he lands. The Marlins appear to be the only group in this division not going for it in 2019.

Because contrary to popular belief(or hope), the Nationals aren’t just going to let Bryce Harper walk and enter a decade long rebuilding phase. There is a great article by Travis Sawchik on FiveThirtyEight.com talking about how the Nationals very likley will be better without Harper. Since it leaked they had offered and he had declined a 10 year, $300M offer – the Nationals have moved on quickly. They signed SP Patrick Corbin who was heavily rumored to sign with the Yankees for about half of that from a dollar amount and only a 6 year deal compared to a 10 year. Also, the emergence of Juan Soto last year and Michael Taylor brings the question up if they even need Bryce Harper in the outfield. Sawchik talks about the idea that baseball teams are often defined by their weakest player – not their best like a basketball team can be. He writes:

Baseball is a weak-link sport, meaning that the quality of the minor contributors on a team is more important than in a sport like basketball, where star power is paramount. Baseball, by rule and nature, spreads around opportunity more uniformly. A slugger hits only once every turn through a lineup, an ace pitcher pitches once every five days. The same is true for the light-hitting starting shortstop and the back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. While it’s possible to win with a stars-and-scrubs approach, that’s inherently riskier, given that one injury can derail a club’s entire season. That’s one reason that a successful MLB team rarely allocates more than 16 percent of its payroll to one player.

Since 2003 no team that has won the World Series has committed more than 20% of their payroll to one player when the Florida Marlins did.(Ivan Rodriguez – not rookie Miguel Cabrera who later would often command more than 20% of his Tigers teams payroll). For many teams – Harper or Machado would easily fit that bill when you talk about $400M contracts. The average is between 10-15%. Teams can get more by committing to less.

What is interesting about that observation is that looking at the Mets payroll right now – they would have TWO players over 20% in Robinson Cano and Yoenis Cespedes. Josh Donaldson leapfrogged into the highest annual salary on the Braves though a 1 year deal dramatically spreads out the risk. Jake Arrieta currently is at 35% of the Phillies payroll – but their payroll is guaranteed to go up and possibly up to around $150M, which would reduce that percentage to around 17%.

This free agency year has been anticipated for years, and though Mike Trout and his Angels extension years ago and Clayton Kershaw reworking his contract quickly to stay a Dodger took out the other two top players, Machado and Harper remain. Whoever they sign with will send ripples throughout that division, league, and all of Major League Baseball. The Baseball Winter Meetings begin Sunday and go through Thursday. It is expected that by the end of these rumors will become stronger if no deals are actually consummated. If one or both land in the NL East – the division will a crazy one to watch in 2019.

 

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