DALLAS - Is the balance of power in the National League East shifting?
The Nationals came to the Winter Meetings with money to spend and holes to fill, guaranteeing that general manager Mike Rizzo will be among the more popular executives at the Hilton Anatole.
Last night, the newly christened Miami Marlins landed their second huge free agent of the offseason, agreeing to a six-year, $106 million deal for shortstop Jose Reyes, who joins ex-Padres closer Heath Bell (three years, $27 million) at the new ballpark in Little Havana. The Marlins are determined to make a splash, and hiring Ozzie Guillen to manager was just the beginning.
Rizzo wants a front-line starting pitcher, a center fielder who can hit leadoff and some punch off the bench, and is already talking like the Nationals can contend in the NL East with some prudent additions. The seven-year, $126 million deal the Nats gave right fielder Jayson Werth a year ago tomorrow, coupled with the Lerner family's continued willingness to open their wallets, signals that the Nationals are, indeed, intent on becoming a player in a division in which they've mostly languished at the bottom of the standings, collecting draft picks that turned into players like Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and Bryce Harper.
But it takes more than money to shift the landscape, and that's where the Nationals may be encountering a bit of serendipity. Their upswing coincides with some interesting developments in what has traditionally been the top portion of the division.
The Phillies, though still formidible, see their window closing - they're aging, Ryan Howard will miss at least the first couple of months of 2012, and their pitching prowess will carry them only so far. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. will have to be more creative than usual to keep them atop the division. The Mets are a shambles - imagine replacing Reyes' production with Ruben Tejeda,who has no power and no speed - and even moving the fences in at Citi Field isn't going to help as the once-proud franchise rebuilds. The Braves are in the middle of the division, capable of creating problems but just as prone to an ill-timed collapse, as they showed in the second half of 2011.
All of that means the teams that once controlled the East no longer have such a firm grip. Squads like the Nationals and Marlins - hey, the new art deco uniforms aren't that bad - are potential beneficiaries as the division resets itself. Insert your favorite cliche about baseball being cyclical here, but remember that fans in D.C. haven't seen their team challenging for a division crown like the good folks in Montreal, circa 2002.
Rizzo's perfectly aware of what's happening around him, and equally adept at using the landscape to his advantage. One of the biggest bonuses an executive can tout to a free agent he's trying to lure is the potential to win. The Nationals already had that, along with a core group of players on the verge of exciting things. But a big move here or there and they could very well find themselves on the right side of a bizarro world, where a team that lost 298 games from 2007-09 suddenly finds itself on the precipice of contention.