One Free Agent Target for Each NL East Team
The National League East features two of the best teams in baseball the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves make savvy trades and have big talent in the system while the Phillies have opened the checkbook to bring in solid talent. Then you have the New York Mets who should be great on paper considering the amount of money they spend on talent, yet regularly collapse under the pressure. Rounding things out are the Marlins who were on the rise but their status is undetermined with a new leader in the front office, while the Washington Nationals are in a weird organizational limbo of quality. Still, there are moves to be made and free agents to consider for each team as they head into 2024.
Atlanta Braves: Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
The Atlanta Braves are pretty well-set head-to-toe as a team. They have an established and locked-in core, a quality starting rotation, and a bullpen that is pretty well crafted. Already the team has exercised Charlie Morton’s option and extended both Pierce Johnson and Joe Jimenez. The only main opening is in left field after Eddie Rosario is now a free agent.
The team may experiment with Vaughn Grissom in left field to get his bat into the lineup, but Lourdes Gurriel Jr. would be a quality veteran option. Gurriel Jr. had a phenomenal year with the Arizona Diamondbacks, belting a career-high 24 home runs in 145 games and being named an All-Star for the first time. While the Diamondbacks would be wise to retain Gurriel Jr., he did enough to earn the right to explore his options for a new opportunity and a larger contract. The Braves could always use another bat, but Gurriel Jr. provides another helpful trait in his quality defensive skills. The Braves are always looking for the next big upgrade and his bat would fill a void. The only concern is the simple fact that he is yet another right-handed bat, which isn’t something the Braves exactly need right now. Joc Pederson would be the natural pivot, but Gurriel Jr. is the better overall player between the two.
Philadelphia Phillies: Josh Hader
The Phillies are continually on the question for more pitching. They are assuredly going to pursue top targets in the free-agent starting pitcher market but the bullpen remains an area that could use an upgrade. Craig Kimbrel is now a free agent and even though the bullpen was fairly good throughout the season there is a clear-cut closer on the market the Phillies could benefit from.
Josh Hader has been one of the most effective closers of his generation. The five-time All-Star converted 33 saves for the San Diego Padres in 2023 and posted a 1.28 ERA in 56 1/3 innings of work. The lefty dominates the strike zone with a career 42.4% strikeout rate and regularly is one of the most feared arms to come out of the bullpen. He is bound to convert a hefty price, but a fearsome anchor in the bullpen instills confidence in both the offense and starting rotation. With a slim free-agent market in the reliever category, Hader is the best option for teams to jump on to set themselves up for years the come. The Phillies are floating the idea of trades concerning players like Nick Castellanos that could net some other areas of need, but they aren’t going to find a closer of Hader’s caliber anywhere else.
New York Mets: Michael Wacha
The Mets have been doing unprecedented things with their payroll ever since Steve Cohen became the owner of the team. Unfortunately, things have not all worked out for the team, evidenced by the fact the team traded both Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer at the 2023 trade deadline. With a new president of baseball operations in David Stearns, the Mets are looking to change their fortunes and shake off the notion of whatever curse may be on them. It’s fun and flashy to have the top tier free agent players, the Mets may have learned that they need to be a bit more savvy and smart with their moves.
The Mets rotation is now in transition. Kodai Senga and José Quintana hold down two spots in the line with a handful of other options for the rest of the rotation. While the team could go after Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, or Sonny Gray, Stearns seemed to indicate recently that it would be best for the team to spread the wealth a bit as they assess things. Michael Wacha is the type of player who could be a nice bridge for the Mets for a couple of years. At 32 years of age, Wacha had his options declined by the Padres for the next two years. He then had a player option for 2024 that would have paid him $6.5 million but he opted out. After suffering injuries from 2018-2021, Wacha has now produced back-to-back solid seasons. In 2023 he posted a 3.22 ERA in 134 1/3 innings for the Padres with 124 strikeouts. Wacha is poised to benefit from the market that is somewhat slim on top tier free agents. Unlike a Nola or Snell, Wacha could garner at least an $8 million commitment, but no more than $12 million AAV.
Miami Marlins: Mitch Garver
Under Kim Ng, the Marlins cracked the postseason for the first time in a full season since 2003. She crafted a roster that focused on contact and high-quality pitching. Unfortunately, the roster didn’t have much firepower, leading her to acquire Jake Burger and Josh Bell at the 2023 trade deadline. Now, Ng is gone, and the Marlins hired former Tampa Bay Rays general manager Peter Bendix as their president of baseball operations. It’s likely that the Marlins begin to operate like the Rays a bit more, meaning regularly trading players before they cost too much, but it would be best to continue the path Ng laid before them.
Jorge Soler declined his option to return to the Marlins after belting 36 home runs in 2023 and while a reunion is always possible, the Marlins have to find a way to replicate his production somehow. One solution for the Marlins could be Mitch Garver. Well known for his time as a staple of the Minnesota Twins, Garver spent the last two seasons with the Texas Rangers splitting time behind the dish and as the designated hitter. Last season, Garver slashed .270/.370/.500 with 19 home runs and 50 RBI in one of the better seasons of his career. While the Marlins have good defensive catchers, their offense is sorely lacking. Garver isn’t terrible behind the dish but his offensive contributions work well as a bat that can shuffle through the lineup. He’s able to play first base as well but serving as the primary DH could prove worthwhile for the Marlins to get more pop in the lineup. Especially if he goes for a deal that has a $10 million AAV.
Washington Nationals: Frankie Montas
The Nationals have finished dead last in the NL East three years running now as they continue to rebuild. The team is trying to manage young pitching loads and navigate the season with young players and some free agent contracts mixed in. It’s more likely they will look to sign veterans on one-year deals, specifically ones looking for a low-risk bounceback location, with the hopes of getting flipped to a team in contention. It’s a natural life cycle that the Nationals are in the thick of at the moment.
Still, the rotation could use some work, or at least some help, heading into 2024. The rotation as a whole is uninspiring, led by Patrick Corbin and his $35 million salary for next season. The rest of the squad is younger and developing but still needs help going forward. Perhaps a turn to a player looking to reestablish value would be in the Nationals’ best interest and Frankie Montas presents that opportunity. After getting traded to the New York Yankees at the trade deadline in 2022, Montas pitched a total of 41 innings in a Yankees uniform due to injuries. At 30 years old he could still garner a decent contract based on his track record, but it’s possible he could be enticed for a one-year deal to establish value again.