Rest of NL East now trying to unseat champion Nationals

The National League East is a competitive division, if not always in the actual standings then at least in the mindset four of the five franchises take when trying to outdo each other.

And that hasn’t changed one bit since the Nationals won the World Series. If anything, the major participants in this division appear to be growing even more competitive with each other.

The task facing the Braves, Phillies and Mets this winter is crystal clear: Overtake the Nationals. In the case of the Phillies and Mets, that means overtaking them in the division standings. In the case of the Braves, that means overtaking them come October.

Parade-Trophy-sidebar.jpgIn each case, the motivation is obvious. Not that these teams weren’t already motivated to try to win big in 2020, but the Nats’ magical October run has only added more pressure to their respective causes.

We saw the Braves and Phillies make what they hope will be key advances in the pursuit of success on Tuesday. Atlanta signed Cole Hamels to a one-year, $18 million contract, fortifying an already talented (but young) rotation with a veteran left-hander and former World Series MVP. Philadelphia then made the biggest splash of the offseason to date, shelling out $118 million over the next five years to sign right-hander Zack Wheeler away from the Mets.

The Wheeler signing was met with a combination of praise and skepticism. Yes, it’s a good sign for the market as a whole that a second-tier free agent is getting a nine-figure deal, and that this happened in early December instead of late January or even after camps open in February. But $118 million for a pitcher with a decidedly average track record?

Wheeler, 29, is 44-38 with a 3.77 ERA in 126 career starts, all for the Mets. He has never been an All-Star. He has ranked in the top 10 in the NL in innings, strikeouts and WHIP once apiece, never finishing that high in ERA. His career ERA+ is 100, which literally means he’s a league-average pitcher.

Which is all perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong with being league-average. Unless your club is paying you like an elite starter, which is what the Phillies are now doing with Wheeler. He will slot into Philadelphia’s rotation in between talented-but-inconsistent ace Aaron Nola and fast-fading former ace Jake Arrieta.

Will that be enough to catapult this team over the Nationals and Braves? It sure doesn’t feel like it’s going to make that much difference, especially when you consider Wheeler’s career struggles against the Nats (5-10, 5.01 ERA in 18 starts, including a 6.83 ERA in five starts this season). The Braves likewise owned him this year, scoring 17 runs on 34 hits and 11 walks in only 23 innings.

Is it possible the Phillies, who haven’t won 82 games since their last division title in 2011, are feeling a bit desperate to get back over the hump after a disappointing first season with Bryce Harper in their uniform?

The Braves aren’t desperate. They’re simply trying to add even more key pieces to a roster that won 97 games and the NL East crown this year yet once again fell flat come October. Did you know Atlanta has now lost its last nine postseason series (plus the 2012 wild card game), a streak of playoff futility that stretches all the way back to 2001?

How do you think the Braves’ brass felt after laying an all-time egg in Game 5 of this year’s NL Division Series against the Cardinals, then watching the wild card Nationals topple the Dodgers, Cards and Astros to win their first World Series?

No team has been more aggressive so far this winter. In addition to Hamels, they’ve signed catcher Travis d’Arnaud and closer Will Smith while also re-signing reliever Chris Martin. They still need to keep Josh Donaldson (or perhaps lure Anthony Rendon down south), but they’ve made it clear that simply reaching the postseason again in 2020 won’t suffice.

The Mets haven’t made any big splashes yet, but second-year general manager Brodie Van Wagenen is going to try to go for it again, even if that roster continues to count on veterans who haven’t been able to stay healthy enough through a full season.

And the Nationals? Well, we know there’s a lot on Mike Rizzo’s agenda this winter as he attempts to walk the tightrope between keeping a championship roster together for another title run and falling too much in love with players who are unlikely to duplicate their performances next season.

Make no mistake, though: The target is squarely on the Nats’ back. The Braves, Phillies and Mets all seek to dethrone the World Series champs. And based on what we’ve already seen through the early stages of the offseason, they’re going to be serious (if not always smart) about trying to achieve that goal.

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