With a third straight division title and finishing one win away from the World Series, the Braves owned the National League East on the field in 2020, but the momentum and this winter have now clearly the Mets’ domain.
The only question is what are the Braves going to do about it?
Thursday, New York pulled off a blockbuster of trade, acquiring four-time All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor and right-handed pitcher Carlos Carrasco from the Indians for the penance of shortstops Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez and two minor leaguers, righty Josh Wolf and outfielder Isaiah Greene.
So far what we know of the New York-Cleveland blockbuster:— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 7, 2021
Mets get: SS Francisco Lindor and RHP Carlos Carrasco (as @Feinsand reported)
Cleveland gets: SS Andres Gimenez, RHP Josh Wolf, OF Isaiah Greene
Deep-pocketed new owner Steve Cohen, who had purchased the club back in November, had promised to increase spending and build a contender. He’s done it in a hurry, with the deal that includes arguably the best shortstop in the game and another asset for a deep pitching staff the punctuation for a run that has also brought free-agent catcher James McCann and reliever Trevor May.
It all adds up to an offense that was top five from last year — the Mets’ 10.1 fWAR was just below the Braves’ 11.2 and New York tied the Dodgers for the league lead with 122 wRC+ — despite Pete Alonso’s down season (0.4 fWAR) bringing in a 27-year-old bat with Lindor who has averaged 34 home runs an .856 OPS over the last three full seasons. It makes the New York rotation that much more daunting with Carrasco — owner of a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts last season and has, at his height, posted back-to-back 5.0 fWAR years — joining two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman and Noah Syndergaard, who could return in June after missing last season with Tommy John surgery.
Meanwhile, the Braves are dealing with a very clear and very real hole in their lineup with Marcell Ozuna entering free agency, and the pressure is on to try and answer the Mets after they continue to make waves.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos has said multiple times that he’s not one to make moves in retaliation, not one to press just because a rival team is making waves. To be fair, he and no other GM in baseball have ever had to try and keep up with someone like Cohen. With a worth of $14.5 billion, the new Mets owner – who bought the team for $2.4 billion – Cohen is only topped in American sports by Steve Ballmer, the Los Angeles Clippers owner, whose back accounts run to nearly $70 billion.
Think about this: with Lindor making $19.5 million this year – his final before he can leave for free agency – and Carrasco at a club-friendly $12 million in 2021, the Mets’ actual payroll sits at $167 million for the upcoming season and their luxury tax payroll is $185 million. That leaves them $24 million away from the first level of payroll penalties, meaning its entirely possibly they could still sign the top free-agent bat on the market in George Springer, or create an absolute monster of a rotation by grabbing reigning NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer.
Interesting— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) January 7, 2021
Cohen’s checkbook was going to be a game-changer, and it was poised to loom larger this season more than any other. While commissioner Rob Manfred was disclosing that MLB teams suffered losses of $2.8 and $3 billion amid the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, there was one owner who didn’t lose a dime: the new guy on the block, Cohen.
Adding $44 million in payroll and potentially more, only underscores that.
The Braves haven’t gotten worse this offseason, with the one-year deals they signed Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly to aid a rotation that could be very good with Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Mike Soroka when he returns from his season-ending Achilles injury. But they certainly have a need for more offensive firepower with Ozuna and his NL-leading 18 home runs and 56 RBI on the open market.
The pressure, like it or not, and against Anthopoulos’ operating procedure or not, is now on.
The easiest route and surest answer would be bringing back Ozuna. Blame the uncertainty of the designated hitter’s immediate future in the NL for Atlanta not having already resigned him, but with an average annual market value of $20.1 million per Spotrac, and the current payroll obligations at $142 million (15th overall), there’s room to keep him behind Freddie Freeman in the lineup and give the newly minted NL MVP the extension that will keep him in in Atlanta, too.
But the free-agent class goes beyond him with Springer (who may be way out of the Braves’ price range), Michael Brantley, Justin Turner, or – hear me out – a returning Adam Duvall after Atlanta opted to non-tender the outfielder when he was due around $5 million in arbitration.
If payroll constraints, a fear after those claimed losses after the COVID-19-shortened season, are a factor, Atlanta has been linked to the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, the Reds’ Eugenio Suarez has been rumored to be available, the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado — who can opt out of his deal after 2021 — has been the center of trade talks and the A’s Matt Chapman has come up in rumors as well.
Something, clearly needs to happen, and the Mets’ earnest to contender in a hurry under new leadership only underscores that.
As it stands, the Braves have an elite offense. Freeman remains, as do Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies, with Travis d’Arnaud putting together a monster first year in Atlanta and Dansby Swanson is coming off a breakout year. But is it enough?
Can Austin Riley add consistency to his bouts of progress chased with struggle? What will Cristian Pache provide offensively? Who will add that lineup protection for Freeman?
Right now, there are more questions than answers and the Mets have provided plenty more answers than the Braves.
New York has won the offseason and, for now, shifted the balance of power in the NL East their way. The Braves have only one play: respond.