Addition By Subtraction? Four NL East Rivals Eye One Another’s Stars

World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Seven
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The weather may be getting colder, but the battle for supremacy in the National League East is getting hotter.

With the exception of the rebuilding Miami Marlins, all of the clubs in the division believe they can win in 2020 and plan to do that by stealing one another’s players. Legally, anyway.

After finishing first in the NL East two years in a row, the Atlanta Braves face the tall task of keeping cleanup man Josh Donaldson from finding greener pastures through free agency.

The second-place Washington Nationals, who became world champions by winning the NL wild-card slot, not only hope to keep their own third baseman, Anthony Rendon, but also World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg, whose 18 wins led the team during the 2019 season.

Even the third-place New York Mets have free-agent worries, with starting pitcher Zack Wheeler already fielding offers from other clubs and third baseman Todd Frazier likely to follow.

And the Philadelphia Phillies, after out-bidding the Nationals for slugger Bryce Harper last year, seem just as willing to spend “stupid money” again in the free agent marketplace. All four teams need an upgrade at third base and would love to have Rendon, who led the league in runs batted in, or Donaldson, who won Comeback Player of the Year honors with 37 home runs and strong defense at the hot corner.

At 34, Donaldson is the oldest of the top available third basemen so he won’t cost as much as Rendon in years or dollars. But he’s hardly the only player coveted by these four furious rivals.

Erstwhile World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner is a 30-year-old lefthander from North Carolina who would fit perfectly into the Atlanta rotation spot vacated by fellow southpaw Dallas Keuchel, a former Cy Young Award winner who is a year older.

Atlanta tried to get MadBum from the Giants before the July trading deadline but settled for signing Keuchel instead. Now they’ll have competition from the Nationals, especially if Strasburg leaves; the Mets, if Wheeler leaves; and the Phillies, who are likely to lose lefty Jason Vargas to the wilds of free agency.

Both the Phillies, owned by John Middleton, and the Nationals, run by the Lerner family, have more money to spend than the Braves, owned by Denver-based Liberty Media, or the Mets, where the Wilpons rarely raid the free agent pantry for the priciest objects.

But that doesn’t mean the cheapest teams can’t create payroll space by cutting costs elsewhere.

The Braves have already done that by giving pitcher Julio Teheran a $1 million buyout rather than picking up his $12 million contract for another year. They’ve also saved $4 million a year by re-signing catcher Tyler Flowers and outfielder Nick Markakis to smaller contracts for 2020.

They’re not planning to pursue Keuchel, the soft-tossing southpaw they signed for a pro-rated $13 million last June, but want to replace him with at least one veteran lefthander – preferably Bumgarner, who turns 31 next August, with Cole Hamels, 36 next month but far off his peak form, as second choice.

Hamels, once staff ace in Philadelphia, said Thursday he’d be willing to accept a one-year deal from any club with a chance to win.

Always anxious to add local talent to their roster, the Braves will also be a serious bidder for Wheeler, a native of suburban Atlanta who averaged just under a strikeout per inning with the Mets. The 6'4" righthander from Smyrna turns 30 in May.

While signing a stud young pitcher is a goal of all four NL East contenders, there’s added incentive in addition by subtraction – taking a star away from a rival within the division.

That’s what makes Rendon and Donaldson especially appealing to all four powerhouses but especially to the two who didn’t have them last season (New York and Philadelphia).

Nobody is going to approach Mike Trout’s 2020 salary of $37,666,666 but Gerrit Cole, a 20-game winner who also led the majors in strikeouts, could top the annual average of Washington ace Max Scherzer, who will earn 35,920,616, according to figures supplied by Spotrac.

Cole, who continued his good work in October, won’t turn 30 until September. Strasburg, who led the National League with 18 wins, will also do well when he finds a suitor willing to ante up. He led the NL with 209 innings pitched, fanning 251 opposing hitters, and provided potent pitching during the playoffs, bringing the Nationals their first world title. He’ll turn 32 less than a week after the All-Star Game, where he’s likely to appear in a new uniform.

Although the Nationals want to keep both Rendon and Strasburg, such a plan could be too rich even for the Lerners. Washington ranks just under the league average with a payroll of $103,487,282 but that figure is virtually certain to spike if the Nats keep even one of its top two free agents.

In addition, the Nationals want to shed age as well as payroll; they were the oldest team in the major leagues in 2019.

Enter the Phillies, who rank seventh at $155,538,462 but promise to be an active player in free agency again after falling to fourth place. They’re paying more for their manager, newly-signed Joe Girardi, and are willing to pay more for their players too.

The Phils need everything: pitching, offense, and defense – and would love to take away a player or two from the Mets (Wheeler), Braves (Donaldson), and Nationals (Strasburg). An unbelievable 21 players who played for the Phils in 2019 are current free agents, though all could leave without so much as a whimper from the front office.

With the right signings by the Mets, Carlos Beltran has a chance to become the first man to be Rookie of the Year as both a player and a manager. While it’s true there’s no such honor for first-time managers, the point is obvious.

General manager Brodie Van Wagenen, a rookie himself last year, has already established a reputation for making bold moves, even if they sometimes backfire (see Edwin Diaz). Even if Wheeler walks, the GM has already replaced him with Marcus Stroman, acquired from Toronto at the July trading deadline.

So the erstwhile player agent will be scouring the lists of free agents, slicing payroll to make financial room, and seeing how he can weaken rivals by signing any of their defectors.

With no signing deadline, and with California-based player agent Scott Boras virtually certain to delay finalizing deals for his clients, this could another off-season rife with rumors rather than news. It could also be one long, nervous winter for the four contenders who hope to be Beast of the East in the National League.

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The weather may be getting colder, but the battle for supremacy in the National League East is getting hotter.

With the exception of the rebuilding Miami Marlins, all of the clubs in the division believe they can win in 2020 and plan to do that by stealing one another’s players. Legally, anyway.

After finishing first in the NL East two years in a row, the Atlanta Braves face the tall task of keeping cleanup man Josh Donaldson from finding greener pastures through free agency.

The second-place Washington Nationals, who became world champions by winning the NL wild-card slot, not only hope to keep their own third baseman, Anthony Rendon, but also World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg, whose 18 wins led the team during the 2019 season.

Even the third-place New York Mets have free-agent worries, with starting pitcher Zack Wheeler already fielding offers from other clubs and third baseman Todd Frazier likely to follow.

And the Philadelphia Phillies, after out-bidding the Nationals for slugger Bryce Harper last year, seem just as willing to spend “stupid money” again in the free agent marketplace. All four teams need an upgrade at third base and would love to have Rendon, who led the league in runs batted in, or Donaldson, who won Comeback Player of the Year honors with 37 home runs and strong defense at the hot corner.

At 34, Donaldson is the oldest of the top available third basemen so he won’t cost as much as Rendon in years or dollars. But he’s hardly the only player coveted by these four furious rivals.

Erstwhile World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner is a 30-year-old lefthander from North Carolina who would fit perfectly into the Atlanta rotation spot vacated by fellow southpaw Dallas Keuchel, a former Cy Young Award winner who is a year older.

Atlanta tried to get MadBum from the Giants before the July trading deadline but settled for signing Keuchel instead. Now they’ll have competition from the Nationals, especially if Strasburg leaves; the Mets, if Wheeler leaves; and the Phillies, who are likely to lose lefty Jason Vargas to the wilds of free agency.

Both the Phillies, owned by John Middleton, and the Nationals, run by the Lerner family, have more money to spend than the Braves, owned by Denver-based Liberty Media, or the Mets, where the Wilpons rarely raid the free agent pantry for the priciest objects.

But that doesn’t mean the cheapest teams can’t create payroll space by cutting costs elsewhere.

The Braves have already done that by giving pitcher Julio Teheran a $1 million buyout rather than picking up his $12 million contract for another year. They’ve also saved $4 million a year by re-signing catcher Tyler Flowers and outfielder Nick Markakis to smaller contracts for 2020.

They’re not planning to pursue Keuchel, the soft-tossing southpaw they signed for a pro-rated $13 million last June, but want to replace him with at least one veteran lefthander – preferably Bumgarner, who turns 31 next August, with Cole Hamels, 36 next month but far off his peak form, as second choice.

Hamels, once staff ace in Philadelphia, said Thursday he’d be willing to accept a one-year deal from any club with a chance to win.

Always anxious to add local talent to their roster, the Braves will also be a serious bidder for Wheeler, a native of suburban Atlanta who averaged just under a strikeout per inning with the Mets. The 6'4" righthander from Smyrna turns 30 in May.

While signing a stud young pitcher is a goal of all four NL East contenders, there’s added incentive in addition by subtraction – taking a star away from a rival within the division.

That’s what makes Rendon and Donaldson especially appealing to all four powerhouses but especially to the two who didn’t have them last season (New York and Philadelphia).

Nobody is going to approach Mike Trout’s 2020 salary of $37,666,666 but Gerrit Cole, a 20-game winner who also led the majors in strikeouts, could top the annual average of Washington ace Max Scherzer, who will earn 35,920,616, according to figures supplied by Spotrac.

Cole, who continued his good work in October, won’t turn 30 until September. Strasburg, who led the National League with 18 wins, will also do well when he finds a suitor willing to ante up. He led the NL with 209 innings pitched, fanning 251 opposing hitters, and provided potent pitching during the playoffs, bringing the Nationals their first world title. He’ll turn 32 less than a week after the All-Star Game, where he’s likely to appear in a new uniform.

Although the Nationals want to keep both Rendon and Strasburg, such a plan could be too rich even for the Lerners. Washington ranks just under the league average with a payroll of $103,487,282 but that figure is virtually certain to spike if the Nats keep even one of its top two free agents.

In addition, the Nationals want to shed age as well as payroll; they were the oldest team in the major leagues in 2019.

Enter the Phillies, who rank seventh at $155,538,462 but promise to be an active player in free agency again after falling to fourth place. They’re paying more for their manager, newly-signed Joe Girardi, and are willing to pay more for their players too.

The Phils need everything: pitching, offense, and defense – and would love to take away a player or two from the Mets (Wheeler), Braves (Donaldson), and Nationals (Strasburg). An unbelievable 21 players who played for the Phils in 2019 are current free agents, though all could leave without so much as a whimper from the front office.

With the right signings by the Mets, Carlos Beltran has a chance to become the first man to be Rookie of the Year as both a player and a manager. While it’s true there’s no such honor for first-time managers, the point is obvious.

General manager Brodie Van Wagenen, a rookie himself last year, has already established a reputation for making bold moves, even if they sometimes backfire (see Edwin Diaz). Even if Wheeler walks, the GM has already replaced him with Marcus Stroman, acquired from Toronto at the July trading deadline.

So the erstwhile player agent will be scouring the lists of free agents, slicing payroll to make financial room, and seeing how he can weaken rivals by signing any of their defectors.

With no signing deadline, and with California-based player agent Scott Boras virtually certain to delay finalizing deals for his clients, this could another off-season rife with rumors rather than news. It could also be one long, nervous winter for the four contenders who hope to be Beast of the East in the National League.

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I'm a former Associated Press sportswriter whose journalism career began in 1969 after graduating from Syracuse University with B.A. degrees in newspaper journalism and ...