Key losses: Rafael Furcal, Kyle Farnsworth, Julio Franco, Brian Jordan
Needs: SS, closer, relief help
Atlanta's top priority is getting a shortstop. Word is that free agent Furcal has it narrowed down to Los Angeles, Chicago, and a return to Atlanta. The Dodgers and Cubs can probably offer more money than Atlanta, but Furcal apparently has a great deal of respect for Bobby Cox. Although since Chipper Jones renegotiated his contract (a pretty generous move that he undertook voluntarily to free up cash), the Braves have a little money to spend. The good news is that other than the shortstop position and the bullpen, the Braves are very well set for the future. Even if they do fail to re-sign Furcal, young Wilson Betemit could step in as a short-term solution. I've also heard it suggested that the Braves trade to get the underrated Julio Lugo from Tampa Bay; this would give them a solid short-term solution until their young shortstop prospects mature.
Closer is the other big issue for Atlanta. Their 2005 man, Kyle Farnsworth, just signed with the Yankees for mucho bucks as their setup man. The Braves can't compete with the money being tossed around in the closer's market, especially if they commit to Furcal. I've heard Todd Jones floated as a possible free agent solution, but that would be a really bad idea. Jones had an excellent 2005, but it was a monster career year for him. He posted a 2.10 ERA in 2005, whereas his previous career high was a 2.72 ERA in 1994, 11 years ago. He turns 38 in April, and he's the very essence of a bad investment. The Braves would be lucky if Jones were merely average; odds are he would be much less so. Since 2000, when he posted a 3.52 ERA in Detroit, Jones' ERAs look like this:
You couldn't find a better example listed under "career year" in the dictionary. A year after landing the notorious Danny Kolb, the Braves will be making a huge mistake if they trust Todd Jones as their closer. And the really bad news is that there's nobody in the bullpen to cover for him, or to possibly take over as closer in lieu of a free agent. That, combined with the growing pains ahead for the rookies, makes the Braves a tough choice to repeat as NL East Champs in 2006.
Key losses: Billy Wagner, Jim Thome, Ugueth Urbina, Kenny Lofton, Michael Tucker
Needs: 1 or 2 starters, relief help
The Phillies had a lot of good pieces in place last year, where they fell one game short of the Wild Card. They're returning most of the same faces in 2006, with Jim Thome replaced at first full-time by Rookie of the Year Ryan Howard, and Aaron Rowand taking over in center field. Although it's not the most reliable of bunches (Mike Lieberthal and David Bell, especially), the Phillies could have the strongest lineup in the division, with offensive monsters like Bobby Abreu (if they don't trade him), Pat Burrell, Chase Utley and Howard.
The trouble is with pitching. The acquisition of Tom Gordon solves their closer problems (taking into account he hasn't been a closer in 3 years), although the rest of the bullpen is a bit shaky. But the real issues lie in the starting rotation. Brett Myers broke through as a reliable ace in 2005, although it must be taken with a grain of salt, since he's never had a season remotely as good. After that, it's pretty ugly. Randy Wolf is good, but can't be relied upon for more than 50 innings due to his injury troubles. Jon Lieber is league-average, but not too reliable. And Cory Lidle is just a serviceable arm. There is help in the persona of rookies like Gavin Floyd, but how much help? And will the Phillies end up with just 1 starter even above-average? As the rotation goes, so go the Phillies.
Key losses: Carlos Delgado, Josh Beckett, Luis Castillo, A.J. Burnett, Todd Jones, Juan Encarnacion, Alex Gonzalez, Antonio Alfonseca, Jeff Conine, Jim Mecir, Brian Moehler, Paul Quantrill, Ismael Valdez
Needs: A gun
The Marlins were looking at a contending year in 2005, right up there with the Mets, Braves, and possibly the Phillies. Then they detonated their team; they killed it in order to kill baseball in south Florida and make it easier to move the team or extort a new stadium. All the excuses given about the fire sale are just that: excuses. The Marlins have won 2 World Series in the past 10 years; they're the only team other than the Yankees who can say that. They have been a good team and a relatively cheap team. But upper management wasn't content to just trade off the most expensive parts (i.e. Delgado), which could be understandable. No, they're going to blow up the whole damn thing, except for franchise players Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. The good news is that people just aren't buying into their scheme, and they may not get away with it. If Jeffrey Loria has any shame, it's swirling down the toilet next to his sense of decency.
That said, the Marlins have traded away their best hitter, first baseman Carlos Delgado, and their second-best pitcher, Josh Beckett. They've traded away their handy second baseman (to the Twins) and appear to be looking to deal center fielder Juan Pierre as well. In their stead, they have some good young prospects (Hermida), but no sign that they will field a contender anytime soon. The NL East was looking like a strong and competitive division. But with the Nationals stuck in limbo and the Marlins eviscerating themselves in the quest for the almighty dollar, it looks like it was just a pipe dream.
New York Mets
Key losses: Mike Piazza, Braden Looper, Roberto Hernandez, Shingo Takatsu, Doug Mientkiewicz
Needs: C, RF, 1 or 2 starters
The Mets have made a huge splash in the off-season market. They traded for Carlos Delgado, one of the best-hitting 1B in the league, and they signed closer Billy Wagner to a big free agent deal. The Mets seem to have gotten the better of these deals, but it's unclear whether they may have overpaid, both in prospects and dollars. Although Minaya is at least acquiring generally good players, there is some reason to fear that the Mets may just be going back to the big-money free agent blunders of the past.
All that aside, the team that will be taking the field in 2006 is arguably the favorite to win the NL East. They're solid at the infield corners, with Delgado at first and rookie phenom David Wright at third. But the Mets may look for another solution at second base, with Kaz Matsui an utter disappointment in 2005. And for that matter, Jose Reyes actually wasn't very good in 2005. The Mets need him to be something besides Mr. At-Bats if they want to contend.
The Mets need a catcher (and will probably get one off the free agent market, someone like Bengie Molina). They could use a right fielder, although they may just see what they can get from Victor Diaz and Xavier Nady. But the trouble is with pitching. Just as the Phillies have a strong lineup and a suspect pitching staff, the Mets will need some prayer on their side if they want to actually get people out in '06. The only sure thing in the rotation is Pedro Martinez, a true ace. Their #2 is probably Kris Benson, who is actually popping up in trade rumors. I can't think why the Mets would trade Benson. He's a bit overpaid, yes, but he's also a league-average pitcher with some potential to improve. And the Mets aren't going to get anybody else to replace him at any less money. They will likely need him, with old-timers Tom Glavine and Steve Trachsel not any kind of a sure thing. Both will probably do fine, but at their age (Glavine turns 40 in March, Trachsel is 35) a sudden decline is all too possible, especially with injuries holding Trachsel to 37 IP in 2005.
The Mets are paying far too much for it, but they are looking like contenders again. And unless the Phillies have another move up their sleeve, the Amazin's are the best bet to end the Braves' reign at the top of the NL East.
Key losses: Preston Wilson, Esteban Loaiza, Tony Armas, Hector Carrasco, , John Halama
Needs: Nothing pressing, but a new SS and solid starting pitcher would be nice
The Nationals are a mediocre team and not likely to get much better. That's the bad news. The good news is that they're competitive and, hey, MLB should name a new owner sometime before they have to start worrying about the Y3K bug.
Until they have an owner, the Nats are just treading water. They won 81 games last year, and the 75-85 win range is where they will, barring a miracle or catastrophe, end up.