Tuesday, November 18, 2014

NL East Offseason Action

Hot Stove season is alive and kicking. While the Nationals have stayed above the fray for now, the NL East has seen a bulk of the action. How will these moves affect the Nats this offseason and in 2015?

Stanton signs for all the money

The front page news has certainly been Giancarlo Stanton’s 13 year $325 million extension with the Marlins. Shocking for the length, shocking for the dollar figure, and probably most shocking for coming from the Marlins. There are a couple of items in this contract that everyone should keep in mind that might have a big impact on the Nationals and the NL East. First, the contract is back loaded, specifically requested by Stanton to allow the Marlins the flexibility to add pieces around their young slugger. In the big picture, what they are paying Stanton for the next few seasons is far below his market value. This will allow the Marlins to still be big players in the free agent market and, in fact, they have been linked to Adam Laroche and James Shields in recent days. Additionally, they are looking to lock up their core of young talent now and at a discount. As currently constructed, the Marlins aren’t huge competition for the Nationals on paper. That young talent looks very promising, but ace Jose Fernandez is coming off of Tommy John surgery and the rest of the group is still developing. What the Stanton extension’s details show, though, is that the Marlins aren’t content to stand on the sideline the rest of this offseason. For a team that hung around the Wild Card race a lot longer than most people expected last year, they have the potential to look like a contender by spring training.

The other thing to keep in mind while people freak out over the dollar amount, there is a good chance that Stanton doesn’t end up playing out the 13 year deal and earning all that back loaded money. Stanton worked in an opt out clause into the deal. That is a win-win for Stanton and lose-lose for the Marlins. If Stanton continues to mash until his opt out year (supposedly year 6 of the extension), there is a good chance he can earn more on the free agent market at that point (considering inflation and the direction money in MLB is headed, driven by the massive TV deals) than what this contract is paying him. In that case, he forgoes the remaining years on the contract and leaves the Marlins for greener pastures during some of his peak years. On the other hand, if something happens to Stanton and he wouldn’t earn that pay increase in the market (his performance drops, his horrible HBP from last season is more serious than we think), he won’t opt out and the Marlins are stuck with an albatross of a contact.

Braves rebuild?

The next biggest headline so far this off season has been the Braves wheeling and dealing. Their biggest move was to trade young gun Jason Heyward and bullpen main stay Jordan Walden to the Cardinals in return for starting pitcher Shelby Miller and a young single A pitcher. While that deal has spurred claims of a tear down in Atlanta, I don’t buy it just yet. It looks to me like they are trying to restock the system with younger players in hopes of really competing again when they move into their new stadium while maintaining competitive in the Wild Card hunt in the short term. Heyward is a star, but he has struggled to put up consistent numbers offensively. He also has only one year left on his contract and is going to demand a huge pay day (probably even more now that can point to Stanton’s deal as a comp) after the 2015 season. That was a pay day the Braves weren’t looking to hand out, so they cashed in on him while they could, not unlike the Nationals with Jordan Zimmermann right now. Shelby Miller is an interesting player. You can make the case that he is a break out candidate give his spurts of MLB success, but the peripherals don’t paint that pretty of a picture barring a major change. In the end, the Braves got a bit of lottery ticket in Miller that should open up the NL East for the Nationals to coast. 

In a smaller deal that also benefits the Nationals was the Braves decision to deal former starting second baseman Tommy La Stella to the Cubs in exchange for an international bonus slot. The mechanics of this are a little complicated and worth their own post, but MLB essentially has a soft cap on team’s ability to sign international prospects and the Braves just acquired a little extra money to boost their cap, presumably in the hopes of signing a younger player they can spend a year or two developing in their system. While La Stella isn’t a star by any means, the Braves don’t have a clear replacement for him, opening up a hole in their lineup that should benefit the Nats in 2015.

Implications for the Nationals

After shooting down the rumor about Zimmermann being traded to the Cubs (it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Cubs as they have the money to acquire one of the top tier free agent pitchers on the market this winter, which wouldn’t require them to give up any of their big name prospects), the Nationals have remained quiet. There is a long way to go until the spring, obviously, but things are shaping up well for the Nationals. The Braves have cut loose some productive pieces, the Phillies are in tear down mode, and the Mets still have a lot of holes to fill. While the Marlins are lurking as dark horse contenders, they still have moves to make before that becomes a reality. The stage is set for the Nationals to make their big move and trade Zimmermann, if that’s the route they want to go, given the competitive imbalance in the NL East. My guess is they are going to wait for Lester and Scherzer to sign, hoping to take advantage of desperate teams that missed out on the big ticket free agents to get as much value back for Zimmermann as possible. The thing is, we just saw what a trade for a one year rental looks like, and it’s not much of a haul. The Braves trade of their all-star outfielder and solid bull pen arm netted them a young starting pitcher with a lot of question marks. Is that type of return worth trading Zimmermann? That’s a question Mike Rizzo will have to answer and, despite the freezing temperatures outside, it’s only November and there is a long way to go. Should be a fun offseason.

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