Aggressive moves show four NL East teams trying to win now

The National League East hasn’t been decided by fewer than seven games since 2012, and the division race hasn’t come down to the season’s final weekend since 2008. We have no way of knowing yet how it’ll play out in 2019, but this much is safe to say: Right now, four of the division’s five clubs are acting like they expect to be in the mix.

No division has been more aggressive so far this winter than the NL East, with the Nationals, Phillies, Mets and reigning champion Braves all making significant moves designed to boost their short-term chances of winning a title. Only the Marlins, still tearing down the remaining parts of what had been a talented roster only two years ago, are sitting back and watching from afar.

Most of this isn’t a surprise. We knew all along the Nationals were going to make a concerted effort to address their specific areas of need after a disappointing second-place finish this season. We knew the Braves weren’t just going to rest on their laurels after a surprising NL East title. And we knew the Phillies had been earmarking this offseason for a long time as they attempt to become legitimate contenders for the first time in eight years.

But the Mets’ approach so far this winter has to be considered at least somewhat unexpected. Given their woes the last two seasons after reaching the World Series in 2015 and then the wild card game in 2016, a rebuild might have appeared to be in order.

New general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, though, is taking a very different approach, one that stays true to his philosophy during his prior career as an agent: spend money (or trade prospects) to get the best players on your roster in an attempt to win now rather than later.

Van Wagenen already has traded for perennial All-Star second baseman Robinson Canó and elite closer Edwin Díaz and brought fellow late-inning reliever Jeurys Familia back to Citi Field. Now he reportedly has signed old pal Wilson Ramos to a two-year, $19 million deal, meaning the popular former Nats catcher will remain in the division after finishing this season in Philly.

The Ramos signing comes after a failed attempt by Van Wagenen to trade for J.T. Realmuto, with a three-way deal that would’ve sent Noah Syndergaard to the Yankees reportedly being discussed at one point. New York’s two clubs haven’t made a significant trade with each other in more than a decade. You think Van Wagenen is trying to change the vibe in Flushing?

The Mets still have plenty of flaws, and they still have injury risks all over the place, but the rest of the division is going to have to take them seriously until they prove they don’t deserve it. Besides, even if things don’t work out for them, the Braves and the Phillies each figure to be a handful for the Nationals in their own right.

The Phillies signed Andrew McCutchen for three years and $50 million during the Winter Meetings and acquired shortstop Jean Segura from Seattle. They’re reportedly meeting with Manny Machado at Citizens Bank Park this week, and we already know they’re involved in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes.

Even if they can’t land one of the two prized free agents, the Phillies are determined to spend big this winter, with their owner admitting they might “be a little stupid” in their willingness to dole out tons of money to attract top players to town. Again, we’ll see if the strategy actually works, but there’s no questioning this team’s sincerity in trying to win in 2019.

The Braves, by virtue of their eight-game cushion to win the NL East this season and their plethora of exciting young talent, don’t have the same pressure on them to improve this winter. Yet GM Alex Anthopoulos went out and signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann late last month.

Are those veterans injury risks and possibly past their primes? Yes. But they’re big-name additions nonetheless and evidence Atlanta isn’t going to just stick with the roster that won 90 games this year.

Corbin-Dugout-Sidebar.jpgThe Nationals, as you already know, have added an elite starter (Patrick Corbin), two quality catchers (Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki), two late-inning relievers (Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough) and a big left-handed bat (Matt Adams). They still need at least one more starting pitcher, a second baseman and a lefty reliever. Oh, and there’s still that little matter of the free agent right fielder, for whom the door (everyone but the owner insists) remains wide open.

The NL East, despite boasting some quality division champs in recent years, hasn’t boasted anything resembling quality depth. The wild card has come out of the East only once since 2012 (the Mets in 2016), and the division’s second-place finisher hasn’t won more than 87 games since 2012.

It’s impossible to know what the standings will look like come October 2019. But based strictly on the approach four of the five clubs have taken so far this winter, it’s reasonable to wonder if the NL East is poised for its best combined season in a long time.

Perhaps we’ll even get our first real down-to-the-wire pennant race in more than a decade.

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