NL East shaping up as the top division; Nationals, Marlins make moves

As a Braves fan, this offseason has made me more nervous than ever. Watching the rumors trickle down on top free agents Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes being linked to the NL East, and we’re not talking about the top teams, should have all Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies fans nervous.

The NL East has been known over the past few years (and over a decade for the Braves) to be dominated by the Phillies and Braves. First, it was the Braves, with over a decade of greatness. Now, it seems the Phillies could hold on for a few more years. But many think they will soon fall at the hands of the Braves as many top prospects in the organization ascend to the majors. Given all the recent talk and rumors, it’s safe to say the NL East might not go to either one this year.

We’ll start with the biggest threat of the NL East, the Miami Marlins (still feels weird typing that). The Marlins started the offseason by unleashing their new style (barf) uniforms and state-of-the-art stadium (click here for more details on those). They were linked to many top named players and were throwing out offers to big-name free agents earlier in the offseason. Many (including me) thought this whole process was to show fans they are going to “try”, and by trying, hopefully, more fans would watch next year. But, they aren’t trying they are doing. It’s a scary thought. They weren’t bad the past few years. They were just lacking a few pieces.

The Miami Marlins struck their second move, on November 22 with the Padres, by trading backup catcher John Baker for career swingman/SP Wade LeBlanc. Will LeBlanc make a difference? Probably not. He’s got an ERA over six away from pitcher-friendly PETCO Park. Not exactly stellar, but could provide some insurance there.

They got a little more serious with the next move, they landed a top closer in Heath Bell to a three year deal. Since Bell took over for future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman, he’s accumulated 132 saves and a whittled 2.36 ERA. The move will solidify the Marlins bullpen and move whatever his name is now to a setup roll if he returns.

Those Marlins who have seemed to grow deep pockets all of a sudden, have been linked or rumored to the below players in chronological order:

Sept 26 – White Sox release Ozzie Guillen from his contract and the Marlins sign him to a four year deal. The Marlins also received Ricardo Andres and traded Jhan Marinez and Osvaldo Martinez.
Sept 26 – Omar Infante signs an extension for a two-year, $8 million deal.
Sept 27 – Carlos Zambrano was linked to the Marlins in a possible trade.
Sept 29 – The Marlins apparently have faith in Matt Dominguez and said they aren’t interested in Aramis Ramirez.
October 23 – Zambrano becomes not likely and James Shields becomes a trade candidate.
November 7 – Yoenis Cespedes to gain free agency, guess who is in on him?
November 9 – Carlos Beltran becomes a target.
November 11 – Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle all receive offers from the Marlins.
November 16 – Interest in C.J. Wilson and Roy Oswalt grow.
November 21 – Marlins start talks for Gio Gonzalez.
November 22 – Swap between John Baker and Wade LeBlanc.
November 29 – Carlos Guillen becomes a target.
December 1 – Sign Heath Bell.

So, as you can see, there are some pretty big names there, and there are plenty of other names that are probably plan B’s to the ones above. For example, Prince Fielder is the plan B to Albert Pujols. Landing a top pitcher and a top position player instantly places them in the conversation for the top team in the NL East, perhaps NL.

The Washington Nationals finished one game below .500 in a competitive division. It was their best finish in recent memory and they look to build on it, as well. The Nationals are focusing hard on the rotation again and already have a formidable rotation in place. C.J. Wilson is their top target and they are seen as the early favorite. They also are in on several dominican players, Mark DeRosa, Fielder, Buehrle and others. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them jump into the Pujols category, as well. They, like the Marlins, are aiming high.

The rest of the division is pretty much standing pat so far, but big names have been rumored or linked. The Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon to a big contract and the Braves traded Derek Lowe to the Indians, paving the way for a top pitching prospect to start. They’ve also been linked to trading Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado, looking for a big time outfield bat and shortstop in return.

And last but not least, the Mets have done … nothing and aren’t expected to be seriously considered to be in the running.

The Phillies, Braves, Marlins and Nationals all provide what should be four teams over .500 next year in one division. This should give them arguably the toughest division in the majors. The AL East usually holds this reign, but with Boston’s uncertainty, the AL East pretty much boils down to two teams.

It’s early, but many fans in the NL East are sure glad to have that extra wild card spot.

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