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NL East offseason preview ----- Will Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto be on the move?

ESPN.com | Updated: 2018-11-07 21:15:26

With free agency underway, the offseason is going to pick up steam. What are the big questions facing all 30 teams? Here's a look at the NL East, where a changing of the guard seems to be taking shape.

Atlanta Braves: Do they finally reel in J.T. Realmuto?

2017 record: 90-72
2018 World Series odds: 12-1

The Braves weren't bad behind the dish last season. In fact, their combined 3.0 WAR from the catcher position ranked sixth in the majors, according to FanGraphs. But the bulk of that value came from the bat of Kurt Suzuki, a 35-year-old free agent whom Atlanta isn't likely to re-sign. Tyler Flowers, the glove-first reserve whom the club inked to a one-year extension in August, is back, but the Braves need to replace Suzuki's production at the plate.

They'd love to nab Realmuto from the Marlins (who wouldn't?), but the 2018 All-Star won't come cheap. Realmuto's 4.8 WAR led all catchers and ranked 11th among National Leaguers. What's more, the 27-year-old is in the prime of his career and, as a player who has two more years of arbitration eligibility before hitting free agency, works for relative peanuts. All of which is to say, if Atlanta plans to land Realmuto -- a guy plenty of teams, including the Braves, have flirted with -- in a trade this winter, it'll have to fork over a considerable prospect loot.

In related news, Atlanta has a whopping nine players among MLB.com's top 100 prospects. If the Braves are willing to part with a couple, it could transform the team from the upstart that got steamrollered in the 2018 playoffs into an NL powerhouse. -- Eddie Matz

Washington Nationals: Can they keep Bryce Harper in D.C.?

2018 record: 82-80
2018 World Series odds: 16-1

After years of hypotheticals, it's finally time for the Bryce Harper negotiations to begin. Even though Harper's seven-year term in the nation's capital has been a roller-coaster ride -- he won an MVP award and led the team to four division titles but battled injuries and inconsistency -- it's hard to envision a scenario in which Washington doesn't make a serious run at re-signing him.

The Nationals won't be alone, though. The Cubs and Phillies figure to be in the mix. Ditto for the Yankees and Dodgers. Considering the résumé of the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft and the fact that he's only 26 (an insanely young age for a free agent), it's no surprise that Harper is expected to flirt with Giancarlo Stanton's record for the largest contract in North American sports history ($325 million).

If the Nats sign Harper, it will limit their ability to improve in other obvious areas of need (rotation, bullpen, catcher, right side of the infield) while hurting their chances of keeping stud third baseman Anthony Rendon beyond his existing contract. But given Harper's status as the face of the franchise, not to mention his popularity in and around D.C., they have no choice but to try. -- Matz

Philadelphia Phillies: Do they go for broke?

2018 record: 80-82
2018 World Series odds: 18-1

Over the next five years, the Phillies have a grand total of $152 million committed to players who are already on the team. Compared to some of the other clubs that are expected to be involved in Manny-mania and Harper-rama this winter, that's not a whole lot. In fact, it's about half as much as the Yankees ($295M) or Dodgers ($284M) and almost $200 million less than the Cubs ($368M). In other words, president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak seem to be in possession of a blank check with owner John Middleton's John Hancock on it.

The 2018 Phillies were a pleasant surprise, but their crash-and-burn act down the stretch showed that they aren't quite ready to contend with the NL's big dogs. Adding Manny Machado, who's familiar with MacPhail and Klentak from their time together in the Orioles organization and who would fit nicely at shortstop (where the Phillies ranked 26th in OPS), would go a long way toward helping Philly make the leap. Adding Harper, the former MVP and reigning Home Run Derby champ, to an outfield that finished 23rd in combined WAR (4.4) would be a huge boost. By breaking the bank and adding both, the Phillies could cause a seismic shift in the NL East and beyond. -- Matz

New York Mets: Will they spend?

2018 record: 77-85
2018 World Series odds: 30-1

The Mets' 2018 season started with such promise. They went 11-1, the best 12-game start in franchise history, and were the first team to start 11-1 or better through 12 games since the 2013 Braves. But the Mets finished with a 76-85 record, a .472 win percentage. That's the second-lowest win percentage by any team to start 11-1 or better through 12 games, ahead of only the .457 posted by the 2002 Indians. Every other team to start 11-1 or better through 12 games finished at least .500. It's safe to say that all did not go as planned in Flushing.

The biggest question the Mets face in the offseason is one that has become familiar in recent years. Will they spend? They committed $88.5 million in free agency last year in six contracts, their fewest dollars committed to free-agent contracts since the 2014-15 offseason.

New GM Brodie Van Wagenen said in his introductory news conference that he expects "to be in on every free agent." Only time will tell, but the largest free-agent contract by total value that the Mets have ever handed out was $119 million (over seven years) to Carlos Beltran entering 2005. The largest average annual value they've given a free agent was $27.5 million in Yoenis Cespedes' deal entering 2017 (4 years, $110 million).

As for the biggest names on the market, the Mets could use help from pretty much any of them. Their right fielders batted .232 this season, 25th in the majors. Their third basemen hit .209, by far the worst in the majors, and their shortstops had the 24th-ranked slugging percentage (.378, though adding a shortstop would displace former top prospect Amed Rosario). That doesn't even address the multiple bullpen arms on the market -- the Mets' 4.96 bullpen ERA ranked 28th in the majors, ahead of only that of the Royals and Marlins. -- Sarah Langs

Miami Marlins: Do they trade J.T. Realmuto?

2017 record: 67-95
2018 World Series odds: 200-1

Maybe the question is not if the Marlins will trade their All-Star catcher, but to what team? Realmuto's agent, Jeff Berry, has said that his client will not sign an extension -- he's under team control for two more seasons -- and he believes Realmuto will definitely be traded.

Sure, Berry is trying to force the Marlins' decision here, but they almost have to trade Realmuto, even if he's the only foundation player left in Miami after Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna were dealt last offseason. The Marlins aren't going to be contenders the next two seasons, so Realmuto isn't going to be in the long-term picture if he isn't signed to an extension. Coming off a .277/.340/.484 season with 21 home runs, worth 4.3 WAR, Realmuto's value is sky high in a league lacking high-end catching talent. Across the sport, catchers hit just .233/.304/.374 in 2018.

Plus, just look at the playoff contenders who could use catching help: the Astros (Martin Maldonado is a free agent, and they declined Brian McCann's option), Dodgers (Yasmani Grandal is a free agent), Nationals, Braves, Rockies and Rays all qualify. And those teams all happen to have farm systems that could deliver a nice package of talent Derek Jeter's way. -- David Schoenfield

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