Checking in on the NL East before the Winter Meetings

Baseball's Winter Meetings start Monday in Orlando, and while a slow-moving market has defined the offseason so far, that doesn't mean that deals - and endless speculation about deals that aren't going to happen - won't start making headlines in the Magic Kingdom.

The Nationals are the defending National League East champions with 97 victories and it would be difficult to see why they wouldn't be the favorites to win the division in 2018, thanks to a rotation that has 2017 NL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark.

New manager Dave Martinez, a former coach with the Chicago Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays under manager Joe Maddon, is on a three-year contract, but expectations are for the Nationals to get past the first round of the playoffs and make the World Series.

Since moving to D.C. in 2005, the Nationals have been beaten by the Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers and the Cubs in October's first round.

Who has the best chance to challenge the Nationals in 2018?

The Braves would be that team, given their pitching depth and young roster, but they might still be a year away.

The Mets are cutting payroll, rebuilding and hoping their once-dominate pitching staff can be healthy.

The Phillies have prospects all over the field, but their pitching depth is suspect.

The Marlins, who have no pitching, are trying to rebuild their system and slash payroll with a new ownership group led by Derek Jeter.

Thursday, they started the fire sale, trading second baseman Dee Gordon and the three years and $37 million left on his contract to Seattle. Gordon will play center field for the Mariners.

As the Winter Meetings converge, here's where teams in the NL East stand:

Atlanta: The rebuilding Braves retained their manager, Brian Snitker. And with new general manager Alex Anthopoulos, the former GM of the Blue Jays from 2009 to 2015, the Braves are looking for help in the rotation, bullpen and outfield. ... Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz are a solid 1-2 in the rotation, but after that, the Braves are developing three young lefties - Sean Newcomb, Luiz Gohara and Max Fried. Each made good impressions last season. The Braves need another starter to take the heat off the kids. ... The Braves are strong up the middle with center fielder Ender Inciarte, shortstop Dansby Swanson, second baseman Ozzie Albies and the catching duo of Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki. ... Who plays third? Right now, it's John Carmago or Adonis García, but the Braves could sign a Todd Frazier or Mike Moustakas and make Carmago the utility infielder. ... The Braves, though, are hoping that prospect Austin Riley will be ready to play third some time in 2018, so a stop-gap third baseman might be the answer. ... The outfield has Inciarte, right fielder Nick Markakis and left fielder Matt Kemp. ... The Braves think that prospect Ronald Acuna could be ready to play in the majors in 2018, so they could be looking to trade Kemp or Markakis, a left-handed batter that maybe the Orioles could use.

Miami: The Marlins are consumed with trading right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, who has a no-trade clause and is owed $295 million for the next 10 years. The NL MVP, who hit 59 home runs in 2017, has an opt-out clause in 2020 and controls where he wants to play. The Giants and Cardinals had deals worked out with the Marlins, but Stanton refused both teams and has put out a new list of teams that he will agree to be traded to: the Astros, Cubs, Dodgers and Yankees. The Astros don't have the money and don't need him. The Yankees have a full outfield with AL MVP Aaron Judge in right. The Cubs already have an $184 million bust in Jason Heyward in right field and need to focus on pitching. The Dodgers have said they want to get below the $197 million luxury tax. ... ... Marlins ownership says it wants to build a young team that's sustainable for the future, and their farm system needs to restock, especially with pitching. ... Shedding Stanton's salary would help the Marlins financially, but they have other high-performance, team-friendly contracts that could bring better pitching prospects: outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich; first baseman Justin Bour and catcher J.T. Realmuto. ... The Marlins aren't sure if former Orioles pitcher Wei-Yin Chen will be healthy enough to pitch in 2018. Chen is owed $52 million over the next three years. It's a good thing the Orioles didn't hold on to him.

New York: The Mets traded a bunch of big-name players last season, and general manager Sandy Alderson says the team will likely cut payroll from last year's $154 million. ... The Mets' priority is to add to the bullpen, find a second baseman and outfielder. In short, there are a lot of moving parts. ... There's a list of relievers on the market, so the Mets are confident they can pick up another reliever to help Jerry Blevins, Jeurys Familia and A.J. Ramos in the bullpen. ... The Mets need a strong bullpen to help protect a rotation that's trying to come back from injuries. The Mets might sign a mid-level starter, but they are expecting Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Jacob de Grom to lead a rotation that will also have Seth Lugo, Stephen Matz, Robert Gsellman and Zack Wheeler. ... The new manager, former Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Calloway, and his pitching coach Dave Eiland have a major job getting the pitching staff back to strength. ... The Mets would like prospect Dominic Smith to take over at first base, but he has prove next spring that he's serious about staying in shape. ... Jay Bruce, 30, a left-handed batter, has shown interest in returning, so he could help in the outfield as well as first base. ... On the other infield corner, the Mets can't count on the health of David Wright, so Asdrúbal Cabrera will be the third baseman. ... Amed Rosario, the Mets shortstop of the future, has the potential to be a strong defensive player with an improving bat. ... The Mets aren't sure if outfielder Michael Conforto, their best hitter last season, will be ready at the season's start. He's recovering from shoulder surgery.

Philadelphia: The Phillies, under new manager Gabe Kapler who is part of the new of avant-guard managers hired despite no previous experience, are in a rebuilding process, trying to avoid a sixth consecutive losing season. ... The Phillies need pitching. Aaron Nola is the only reliable starter from a year ago, so the Phillies might go after a Lance Lynn or Jason Vargas to help in the rotation. They have a list of prospects, but don't want to be in a position where the prospects get worn down from a long season.. ... Otherwise, the young nucleus looks good with, from first to third, Rhys Hoskins, César Hernández, Freddy Galvis and Maikel Franco. ... The outfield, from left to right, has Aaron Alterr, Odúbel Herrera and Nick Williams while the catcher is Jorge Alfaro.

Washington: Even though he's not a free agent until after 2018, Bryce Harper's contract status will be front and center whenever the Nationals come up in a conversation in Orlando. The Nationals are confident they can sign Harper. Does Harper want to stick around and be a one-team superstar while making history in D.C. or does he want to move on? ... The Nationals don't have any major holes to fill on their roster, but they do need a fifth starter, bullpen help and bench players. ... Joe Ross would have been the No. 5 starter, but he had elbow surgery in July and will miss the 2018 season. The top in-house candidates are Erick Fedde and A.J. Cole, and the free agents that fit the bill include Andrew Cashner, Edwin Jackson, CC Sabathia and Jhoulys Chacin. Chances seem slim that the Nationals will spend to get Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb, but you never know. ... Lefty Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson will be at the back of the bullpen, but the Nationals are counting on comebacks from injuries by Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley. The bullpen depth might be their biggest hole. ... After a disappointing season in 2017, Matt Wieters returns as the No. 1 catcher, but the Nationals will have to decide how many games he catches and whether or not to sign experience to help. If not, prospect Pedro Severino will probably be the second catcher. ... Infielder Wilmer Difo and outfielder Brian Goodwin will be bench players, but how do the Nationals replace Adam Lind's pinch-hitting ability and the versatility of infielder-outfielder Howie Kendrick? ... One possible addition would be lefty-swinging Matt Adams, who hit 20 home runs last season for St. Louis and Atlanta. Adams is weak against left-handed pitching, but he hit .295 with a .342 on-base percentage against right-handed batters. ... The Nationals will have to decide if super prospect Victor Robles will be a backup outfielder or better served playing in the minors until a full-time job opens in D.C. ... Given their outfield depth, should the Nationals trade Michael A. Taylor for another pitcher?

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