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Starting Nine: NL East will make noise, more Winter Meetings storylines and predictions

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MLB would be wise to announce to use stage to announce designated hitter staying in NL, plus more of what to watch in virtual meetings

2020 Grape Fruit League Media Availability
Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos has said “the Winter Meetings aren’t the best environment to work in.” Will that change with a virtual setting absent of the normal buzz?
Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

No mass of executives, agents, players and job seekers cramming the lobby. No mingling. The “meeting” has literally been taken out of MLB Winter Meetings, replaced with a virtual version that will no doubt be devoid of the buzz that defines the three-day affair.

What will go down in these Virtual Winter Meetings, kicking off Monday? Without the atmosphere that can lead to those chance encounters that spark deals — or to speak to Braves trade history, when John Coppolella and Dave Stewart’s lunch was the primer for a massive swap with the Diamondbacks in 2012 — it could spoil the pomp and the circumstances, but storylines remain. Here are the ones to watch for the Braves, National League East and MLB, along with a couple of predictions along the way.

1. Will foundations be laid?

The annual Alex Anthopoulos timeline is already playing out. Like in 2018 — when he had already signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann — and last season — when Cole Hamels, Will Smith, Chris Martin, Travis d’Arnaud, Tyler Flowers and Nick Markakis had inked their contracts — the Braves general manager goes into the Winter Meetings having already been active with deals for Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. Anthopoulos has never been one to make a splash at the Winter Meetings, instead using them as a chance to lay a foundation for what’s to come, a la when he moved Matt Kemp to the Dodgers in the days after, or last year when the Braves grabbed Marcell Ozuna a month after returning from San Diego. We shouldn’t expect anything different this time around. At least one big move is needed in filling the void left by Ozuna’s bat and like those years past under Anthopoulos, it’s unlikely it comes during these virtual meetings. But that doesn’t mean the National League East won’t be a major storyline.

2. NL East won’t be quiet, Pt. I

For all the chatter about how much money MLB lost amid the 2020 pandemic, the owner with the deepest pockets just happens to be the one that didn’t lose a dime. Mets owner Steve Cohen — whose $14.6 billion net worth is nearly $10 billion higher than the next-closest MLB owner, the Nationals’ Ted Lerner — didn’t have that controlling interest in the team a year ago, and he’s been clear that the Mets are going to spend like the major-market club that they are. Stealing the show at Cohen’s first Winter Meetings, even if it won’t be quite the same buzz with the press conferences to follow, is almost a given. Will New York sign Trevor Bauer? George Springer? J.T. Realmuto? All of them? The Mets may be the only team that can afford to bring in multiple players from the top of the free-agent class, a troubling development for the rest of the division after so many years of watching Mets missteps. The Braves, Phillies and Nationals all have pressing needs they can address on the free-agent market, but the aggressiveness of the Mets is the division’s storyline to watch.

3. NL East won’t be quiet, Pt. II

The Cubs tendered Kris Bryant, ending one of the biggest questions ahead of Wednesday’s deadline, but the drama is far from over on the North Side. The former MVP, whose name has been on the trade market for years, is almost guaranteed to be moved with his projected $18.6 million salary for 2021 an issue if owner Tom Ricketts’ financial claims are to be believed. The Cubs can’t afford to let Bryant go without getting something in return, which is where the NL East comes into play. The Nationals have reportedly been exploring a trade for Bryant, and, from the Braves’ perspective, dealing for Bryant and his last year of control would be akin to the one-year contracts that Donaldson and Ozuna have signed these past two offseasons, at cheaper rate given what Bryant is expected to make in ‘21. When the Cubs do move Bryant, and whether that comes during the Winter Meetings, or if talks there lead to his being dealt in the weeks that follow, the NL East is a logical landing spot, be it in Atlanta or D.C.

4. The answer on the DH is coming

One of the bigger missteps MLB made during the shortened 2020 season was in not providing the roadmap for the postseason well ahead of time. It was a fluid process as the league pieced together its playoff bubbles, but teams weren’t made aware before the trade deadline that there wouldn’t be any off days until the World Series, knowledge that would have likely impacted how aggressive teams were in pursuing deals for starting pitching. MLB can’t make the same mistake with the designated hitter after the flood of non-tendered players — a record 59 to be exact — joined the free agent pool, which surprisingly included the Braves non-tendering Adam Duvall. NL teams and the available players need to know as soon as possible as the clubs construct their rosters and the players weigh potential landing spots. It obviously alters the market for the likes of Duvall and Ozuna and opens another set of teams for Nelson Cruz. This remains a bargaining chip for the league in negotiations for how the league and union will piece together 2021, and announcing now would take some form of an agreement ahead of the actual season agreement, but delaying it hurts everyone involved. These Winter Meetings would and should be the perfect time for commissioner Rob Manfred to reveal the DH is returning to the NL.

5. Burying the pandemic lead

How much validity there is to payroll constraints will be a talking point at these meetings. So, too, will be the unknown as to whether the start of spring will be delayed, the length of the season and whether it will be played again largely without any fans present. These are the heard of elephants in the room that nobody wants to talk about, but how much the pandemic will continue to affect the sport in 2021 can’t be ignored. It’s why those one-year deals the Braves signed Morton and Smyly to — which free the club from responsibility with the unknowns of how 2022 will look — won’t be the last and deals like the one the Dodgers signed Scott Alexander to ($1 million guaranteed) could be par for the course for arbitration-eligible players. It would be surprising for MLB to announce whether camp report dates will be delayed, but the very reason these Winter Meetings will be done virtually is inescapable and outside of the futures of the top of the free-agent class, it’s going to hang over almost everything that happens.

6. Baseball history will have to wait

Back in August, the Hall of Fame announced its Board of Directors has voted to put what was to be this month’s Era Committee elections on hold. Why a Zoom call can be good enough for companies the world over and adopted by MLB in nearly every facet during his pandemic, but is not a conversation on a player’s HOF worth, is beyond comprehension. The delay means the vote for Golden Era (1950-1969) and Early Days (prior to 1950) candidates will be delayed until the fall for the Class of 2022 and while the list of players being considered hasn’t been released, there are ties to both the NL East and potentially the Braves in those who could be on the ballots. Former Phillies Rookie of the Year and later American League MVP Dick Allen was one vote short during the last Golden Era Committee voting in 2015, and there are two ex-Braves that could be considered among the Early Days players. Harry Stovey led MLB in home runs three times, including his only season with the Boston Braves (1891) with 20, and right-hander Bobby Mathews (297 wins) is the pitcher from the era with the most wins who is not already in Cooperstown. This delay also impacts the case of Dale Murphy who now won’t be considered again until 2023 for the Class of 2024 when the Modern Baseball Committee is scheduled to vote.

7. What will Braves do in Rule 5 Draft?

The Braves’ 40-man roster stands as 39 after they moved to protect Kyle Muller, the organization’s sixth-ranked prospect per MLB Pipeline, and claimed infielder Jack Mayfield off waivers from the Astros. Atlanta hasn’t selected anyone since 2017, when it took Anyelo Gómez and then returned him to the Yankees, and last had a Rule 5 pick play MLB inning with 2014 pick Dan Winkler. If the Braves do add anyone, it’s more likely they do so to get a look at an arm for a bullpen role. Astros righty Jose Alberto Rivera certainly fits the criteria of deserving a longer look. He has a fastball that reaches 100 and struck out 95 in 75 2/3 innings in 2019, though control has been an issue (50 walks between 2018 and ‘19). Speaking of control problems, the Braves could lose lefty Thomas Burrows, the organization’s 25th-ranked player, who chased 86 Ks in 2018 with 36 walks and fanned 63 with 24 free passes in 2019.

8. Boras will still hold court

Few spectacles at the Winter Meetings match the annual Scott Boras address. The flood of reporters around the super agent holding court in the lobby has been as big as anything that has happened at the main podium in recent years, and coming off a year in which he dominated the three days with nine-figure deals for Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon, there is no better barometer to counter the financial doom and gloom that MLB has been feeding these past months. Does Boras still do a virtual version of his free-for-all? It’s hard to see his turning down the opportunity to own the spotlight, but it’s definitely going to be subdued. Two years ago in Las Vegas, it turned into a literal scramble for reporters and cameramen when he took his place in front of a Christmas tree at Mandalay Bay. Chalk the Boras Show as another piece of the normal Winter Meetings experience that will lose its bite in 2020.

9. The Braves will do ...

Nothing, or more to the point, virtually nothing. That doesn’t mean they won’t be a player in the Winter Meetings, with Ozuna among the most prized free agents and the Braves no doubt tied into those trade talks for Bryant, but go back to the comments Anthopoulos has previously made about this event. “I just think the Winter Meetings aren’t the best environment to work in. ... In the past, if we were close on something, I’d try to push and get it across the end zone just before the meetings. Otherwise, I don’t think I’ve been very active at the meetings in the past. A lot of times you come out of the meetings and you think you’re getting close, and you try to finalize something a week or two after the fact.” The argument that the changes to this season could make it more like normal day-to-day operations may change the GM’s approach, but the way Anthopoulos has operated at the helm of this team makes staying calculated and cautious the expected operating procedure.