Mike Rizzo will tell you he doesn’t make a single offseason decision based on what other clubs are doing to their roster. The Nationals general manager’s sole focus is on improving his team, no matter what anyone else around the league is doing.
It’s an admirable philosophy, of course, and it has served Rizzo well in his decade-plus in charge of the Nats. It also may be increasingly difficult to adhere to this winter, because there’s reason to believe every other club in the National League East is going to be motivated to make significant improvements.
The NL East was supposed to be among baseball’s most competitive divisions entering 2020, with four teams believing they could contend from the outset. As it turned out, only one of those four teams made the postseason (the division champion Braves) while the team nobody was talking about finished second and made it to October (the Marlins).
The Mets and Phillies, like the Nationals, had disappointing seasons. And like the Nats, both of those clubs are quite motivated to get better in 2021 and return to contention.
It all starts with the Braves, though, who had a fantastic regular season, then won their first postseason series since 2001, then were one win away from the World Series before blowing a 3-1 lead to the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series.
Atlanta, which has now won three straight division titles, isn’t going anywhere. The lineup remains stacked. The rotation should be healthier next year. And the bullpen continues to be a strength. And after coming so close to the promised land, you better believe the Braves are going to be feeling pressure to make whatever transactions are necessary to lift them over the hump in search of their first championship since 1995.
The Marlins aren’t going to outspend anybody; we know that. But with an impressive core group of young players headlined by some elite starting pitching, they aren’t going to enter 2021 looking to the future. They’re going to be looking to win now and prove this season wasn’t a mirage.
The Mets, meanwhile, might be the most dangerous team in the majors this winter. Not because they’ve got a championship roster. But because they’ve got a brand-new owner who wants to make a serious opening statement that his franchise is serious about winning.
New York is a big-market club that didn’t always act like it when the Wilpon family was in charge. Now that Steve Cohen is writing the checks and Sandy Alderson is back in charge of baseball operations, look for the Mets to be aggressive and among the highest bidders for just about every free agent of consequence.
And then there are the Phillies. They’ve already spent a ridiculous sum of money to sign Bryce Harper and tried to surround him with a championship roster. It didn’t happen in his first two years there, so they fired their GM. And now there’s an enormous amount of pressure on the changing front office to give Harper the kind of help he needs and end a nine-year streak without producing a winning record.
So where does all of this leave the Nationals? Right in the thick of what figures to be another challenging division race with everyone staking some kind of claim to a postseason berth in 2021.
Rizzo doesn’t need to pay too much attention to his NL East counterparts. He knows what roster holes he needs to fill, and he’s going to try to do that no matter what anybody else does.
But Rizzo and Nationals ownership had better at least acknowledge they reside in a highly competitive division, one that includes a bunch of rivals with pressure and motivation to do something this winter that helps put them in a better position to win next spring.
By the time everyone reports to Florida in mid-February, the Nats can’t afford to be left wishing they had done more to keep up with the pack.