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MLB On The Record: NL East GMs explain where they stand as Mets prepare to challenge Braves

Hannah Keyser
·22-min read

Among the many — and perhaps least important — “unprecedenteds” that can be deployed in a facile attempt to explain the previous 12 months is an unprecedented lack of access at sporting events. I like to think we’re getting by — fans and reporters, both — through a healthy dose of innovation, perspective, and an unhealthy dose of time spent staring at various screens.

But for an in-depth look at each team ahead of the 2021 season, I wanted to talk to someone who’s allowed within six feet of the field. So for each team, division by division, you’ll hear from a top executive about expectations and evaluations. Are they biased? Absolutely, but you’re smart enough to see through that when it applies. And besides, we tried to provide an appropriate counterbalance.

All the quotes are based on exclusive interviews conducted by Yahoo Sports over the past six weeks and have been edited for length and clarity. The teams are ordered by the projected standings from the PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus.

PORT ST. LUCIE, FLORIDA - MARCH 19: A general view of the Oakley sunglasses worn by Francisco Lindor #12 of the New York Mets against the St. Louis Cardinals in a spring training game at Clover Park on March 19, 2021 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Francisco Lindor is the emblem of a new era for the Mets. Will he bring new results? (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

NEW YORK METS

With Zack Scott, acting general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Mets?

Scott: “I'll say what I'm saying to people here, which is the expectation is to play deep in October and win a championship. Do I think it's a failure if you get there and don't win it? No, I don't think it's a failure. But to get to play deep in October, to me is a successful season, since we all know how hard it is to win once you get there. But we're trying to win a championship. That is the expectation.”

What do the projections say?

For all the noticeable things the Mets did not do in their first winter under Steve Cohen’s watch — sign any of the big four free agents — they did remedy an Achilles' heel: They added depth. (You’d think the Wilpon-era Mets would have been among the first to realize injuries were inevitable and disruptive, but turns out that never clicked.) Anyway, in addition to the splashy additions of Francisco Lindor and catcher James McCann, they stockpiled competent starting pitchers. PECOTA sees them winning 92 games and the division. The system, it should be noted, is remarkably down on the defending champion Braves, but the Mets have legitimately put themselves in the contender tier.

What are some of the specific things you’re looking to improve on the analytical side that can be done in time for this season?

Scott: “I’m going to give you a general answer, not specific projects. There’s a lot of people here that have a good feel for data, and how to interpret it. Too much of it, in my opinion, is done by eyeballing and having that feel rather than building models that actually weight all these different variables appropriately. And the people doing that, they're doing the best they can with what they have and they're good at it. It's just a really hard thing to do, like the human brain is just limited and what a computer can do is much more robust in these kinds of calculations. …

“There's so many interactions of different factors, like if you take pitching for example: If you just look at the pitch movement data, you can get a decent feel for what's going on and what makes a guy effective, but there will be guys that you won't be able to do that with. You might think you can, but then when you actually build a model that takes that all into account and properly weighs it, it may give you a different answer. And it’ll help you understand why.”

What won’t the team tell you?

The Mets went from a punchline that missed the postseason the past four years to atop the projected standings in one of the toughest divisions in the sport. The World Series expectations among the fan base started with the addition by subtraction that was swapping the Wilpons for faux-approachable Steve Cohen at the ownership level. But the addition by addition of getting Francisco Lindor from Cleveland — and finally extending him for years to come — has a whole lot to do with it as well. Still, Noah Syndergaard, Michael Conforto and Marcus Stroman are all set to hit free agency next winter. And perennial Cy Young contender Jacob deGrom is older than you think (although in a case of freak athletics, that one might not matter). A new era is dawning in Queens, but if the Mets fail to capitalize now, their window could start to close as quickly as it opened.

A lot of the offseason moves — maybe most of all, the sale to Steve Cohen — have created a ‘win now’ mentality, but at the same time we're hearing a lot about sustainability and building something like the Dodgers’ dynasty. How can you be simultaneously working for sustainability behind the scenes while fielding a team that's expected to make a run for the championship this year?

Scott: “I've been in this position before with the Red Sox, and it's definitely a challenge. It's kind of easier to be all or nothing. Like we're gonna either be all in, and worry about the future in the future — which at times I think we did in Boston, and I think they've gone through a little bit of the other side of that after 2018 — and then there's some teams that just say, we're just going to trade off all our major-league talent, just try to get as many prospects as we can, really focus on that and then we'll invest in major-league talent down the road. It's kind of easier to do one or the other. I think it is challenging to do both, but I know we were able to do it in Boston, at times.

"I believe we'll do that here. … It's just making sure your processes are really good in everything you do. Whether that's acquisitions — so the draft, the international signings, trades, anything, like that — that you really have a good process for doing that to put yourself in position to make the best decisions you can. Player development: You're doing the best you can to optimize the talent you have. So those things are things that you're always working on anyway but I think there's a lot of opportunity here in those areas — not that they haven't done a good job in some of those areas, because they have. And then it's being mindful who you're using in trades and the type of players you're acquiring. Like we did a prospect deal with Boston and Kansas City, brought in Khalil Lee, who's someone that I think now on some of the public rankings is one of our top 10 prospects. So there's a small example of something that, while we're still making decisions to improve our major-league club, you can work on different tracks and try to add young talent. There were more of those things that we tried to do, you don't always match up that we happen to match up on that one.”

WEST PALM BEACH, FL - MARCH 14: Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto (22) bats during an MLB spring training game between the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros at The Ballpark of The Palm Beaches on March 14, 2021 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Juan Soto is looking to cement a growing reputation as the best hitter in the game. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

With Mike Rizzo, general manager

Note: Rizzo’s answers come from a Zoom news conference.

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Nationals?

Rizzo: “Our goal is to win the World Series each and every year, we try to put a team on the field that gives us the opportunity to do that. Our goal here in the winter, which is the offseason, which is where we're at, right now before the opening day is to put a 90ish-win team on the field — some years that 90-win team is a 95-win team, sometimes it's an 85-win team, but it gives us a chance and an opportunity to play meaningful games in September and October. Our goal is to always do that. Our next goal is to win the National League East and our ultimate goal every year at the start of spring training is to win the World Series. And that hasn't changed this year.”

What do the projections say?

This is a stars and scrubs fantasy team brought to life. Juan Soto, Trea Turner — MVP contenders. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg — stalwart aces. The system also likes Kyle Schwarber to bounce back. And beyond that? It. Is. Bleak. All of it together adds up to 83 wins, based on the current iteration of what we will loosely call the supporting cast.

What went into the decision to start Carter Kieboom in the minors, rather than as your everyday third baseman?

Rizzo: “I think the everydayness part of it was the key. We like to bring our prospects up and play them just about every day, because that's the way I think they grow and develop. We felt that the swing wasn't where he wanted it to be. The entirety of his game is kind of dependent on his offensive performance and production. So, in order to not have him start off the season in the big leagues, playing every day against this gauntlet that we're going to have for these first 34 games and not feeling great about his swing, we wanted him to go down where it’s a less pressurized situation where he could work with our hitting coordinators and our hitting coaches with less pressure on him to figure out his swing, get it back to where it was when he was such a big minor-league prospect for us, putting up big numbers in the minor leagues — get him back and get his confidence brewing. ... We want it to be the last time he ever goes down again, and he can take off from there.”

What won’t the team tell you?

That they’re stretching the limits of plausibility every time they say Carter Kieboom just needs a little more work in a low-pressure setting to transform into a future cornerstone of the franchise. Something went wrong along the way — or else it was never really there — and now the Nats are barreling into another season without a reliable option at third base. Last season proved that even great performances from stars like Juan Soto and Trea Turner and a rotation on a mission to make mid-30s the new 20s in baseball can amount to a fourth-place finish. Maybe they were just hungover from the heady 2019 World Series win, or maybe the magic of that year has given way to a harsh reality check about how much depth matters.

Do you feel like this is the team you want or do you feel like you go outside the organization to plug some holes now that the roster maybe looks different than you thought it might a month ago?

Rizzo: “No, we like the team that we have currently. The 26 guys are the best 26 that we can bring north to help us win right out of the gate. The one question mark we had was is Carter going to be on third base, but that's been answered. [Starlin] Castro is now at third, [Josh] Harrison at second, and we're going to move forward from that. Our defense is solidified, we've got some good veteran bats in Josh Harrison, and then we've got ourselves a very good veteran-orientated bench that can produce. Put that along with our bullpen and our starting rotation, we feel that we can compete with anybody in the league, and we will.”

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 23:  Bryce Harper #3 of the Philadelphia Phillies celebrates hitting a solo home run in the first inning with J.T. Realmuto #10 during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on September 23, 2020 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
The Phillies brought back J.T. Realmuto, but did they do enough to supplement a team that didn't have enough firepower to make an expanded postseason? (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

With Sam Fuld, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Phillies?

Fuld: “We have a pretty significant playoff drought. So our goal, we feel like we've got a club that makes getting to the World Series and winning a World Series very, very feasible. Obviously, these questions are really difficult to answer. You don't want to ever limit your goals as a group. So, the goal is to win the World Series, I think we have enough talent to do it.

"Now obviously, there are other ways to consider the season a success that involve not winning the World Series. I think a playoff berth, especially in a non-COVID playoff situation, I think would be successful. Once we get to the playoffs, if and when we get to the playoffs, we would like to go as far as possible but I think, given the significant drought that we have right now, that's a pretty reasonable goal and at the end of the day we would at least have something to hang our hat on at the end of the year.”

What do the projections say?

It’s a tough division. Bryce Harper and the re-signed J.T. Realmuto get their due as reliable stars, but the rest of the team will have to be very different than last year … despite not being very different than last year … if the Phillies are going to make a run. PECOTA has them neck and neck with the Nationals at 83 wins.

What won’t the team tell you?

By implicitly threatening to not re-sign J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies managed to make it seem like they were getting a difference-maker when the new regime brought him back in free agency. Realmuto is that good and losing him really would have been a big blow, but having him behind the plate just gives Philly roughly the same team that has disappointed in recent years. The problem isn’t the stars, it’s the front office’s ability to supplement them in meaningful ways. High-profile busts, blown saves, and a painfully ineffective rebuild have given way to the NL’s longest playoff drought. The team is trying to address those issues at the root with an executive overhaul. After a listless first half of the offseason, the Phillies surprised everyone by installing proven architect Dave Dombrowski at the helm. Although if we want to be entirely accurate about that nautical analogy, Dombrowski’s reputation is as more of an engine than a rudder — better for propulsion than direction. Perhaps pairing him with Sam Fuld will give them the right mix of power and precision.

The Phillies haven’t had a winning season since 2012. In that time, they were the architects of maybe the first unsuccessful rebuild in recent years. From where the team was at the end of last year, how do you go up without going down? How do you build a winner without tearing down what’s already there?

Fuld: “Yeah, no, that's a challenge. I think that we certainly haven't rebuilt our organization, to the extent or at the speed of some other clubs — you know the Cubs, the Astros. They're two poster children for how to execute a rebuild quickly. We had a lot of underlying talent through our system, players and staff, the cupboard is not bare. We have a lot of young major league talent — between Alec Bohm and Rhys [Hoskins] and Spencer Howard, we’re still optimistic that Scott Kingery is going to be a really valuable player for us. Some arms that are still a little more under the radar, JoJo Romero, and Connor Brogdon, we think are going to really help us. So we feel like we've got the requisite time, like I said, to be a really good team right now, and be competitive and not give away valuable assets on the player development level.”

Ideologically speaking, is it possible to succeed without a rebuild? Is tanking inevitable in baseball?

Fuld: “No, I don't think so. I think there's plenty of examples, both small-market and big-market examples, to show that it's not inevitable. Cleveland and Tampa on the small-market side. The Dodgers have certainly done this, the Yankees, the Red Sox, those bigger-market teams. Obviously, the blueprint’s out there — again, for big-market teams and small-market teams. It’s just that the fewer resources you have, the more creative and skilled you have to be.”

Which of those is the model for the Phillies? What market size are we putting Philly in?

Fuld: “Well, I'd certainly say we lean more toward the bigger markets. Like nobody's at the Yankees’ level in terms of pure market size, but they've done a great job of creating that blueprint for how to win on a successful basis consistently. So, it's never going to be apples to apples, but I think it wouldn’t be an accurate analogy to say that we’re more like Tampa than Boston or New York or Chicago.”

PORT CHARLOTTE, FLORIDA - MARCH 21: Max Fried #54 of the Atlanta Braves delivers a pitch against the Atlanta Braves during the third inning of a Grapefruit League spring training game at Charlotte Sports Park on March 21, 2021 in Port Charlotte, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
The Braves' fate in 2021 could hinge on Max Fried and his fellow young starting pitchers matching their early career excellence. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

ATLANTA BRAVES

With Alex Anthopoulos, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Braves?

Anthopoulos: “Everyone’s gonna say win the World Series, of course. Obviously, only one of the 30 is going to win the World Series, so my view is: Get to the postseason. The best chance to win a championship is to get to the postseason first. Ideally win the division because it guarantees you a series. If not, and it's wild card, you're still in it, you still have a chance. So you just want to get in.

“The goal of what we're doing, right, the reason we have a league and we play, is to get to the end, to be the last team standing. That's what we're supposed to be here for.”

After the 2020 season ended in an NLCS Game 7, at that point was there anything you thought needed to be improved upon with the team? Was there a specific weakness or is it just bad luck at that point?

Anthopoulos: “I think, the big thing was [we] need to fix the rotation to get back to the postseason — because we survived it in a 60-game season, but I felt like over six months we were going to need more depth. Once we got to the postseason, I think we had a World Series-caliber team.”

What do the projections say?

The PECOTA projections say bet the under on the Braves, quite frankly. This largely stems from a lack of trust in the young starting pitchers. If no one in the Max Fried, Mike Soroka, Ian Anderson triumvirate manages an ERA much below 4.00, Atlanta will almost certainly disappoint in the way PECOTA projects — 83 wins. But, given their pedigree and early career success, there’s a good chance at least one lives up to the high consensus expectations. FanGraphs’ projections, for what it’s worth, still have the Braves finishing second to the Mets, but with a more wild-card-worthy 89 wins.

What won’t the team tell you?

They might not have solved the rotation woes that Anthopoulos knew would haunt the team over a full season. Personally, I ride for the upside in their young arms (although maybe PECOTA knows something I don’t about how promising athletes rebound from a torn Achilles' tendon), but ultimately it’s a rotation built on pitchers who have one good season (if that) under their belts plus 37-year-old Charlie Morton. It's a difficult division and maybe they should have made flashier moves to keep pace this offseason. But honestly! I think this team is good! I picked them to win the World Series!

The past couple offseasons, you've jumped into the free agent market pretty early, and then you did again with Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton. What's behind that strategy? Is that an intentional thing?

Anthopoulos: “It's intentional in the sense of, it's someone that we really want. Now we might have a list of 10 players that we really want, realizing that maybe only two or three are willing to sign early, so if two or three are willing to sign early, we'll take the bird in the hand.

“So, Smyly and Morton were two guys that were high on our list and they were willing to get a deal done. There were some others, but for whatever reason, it was too early for them to sign and that was fine. We would have signed Ozuna early if that was going to line up, but that just needed more time to develop. We do have a plan and we do have a target list of players we want to sign. Those that are willing to do an early deal will likely get it done, and those that want to wait, hopefully we can still find a way to get the deal done down the road.”

Was part of the appeal of Charlie Morton as a clubhouse presence, a mentor figure? How do you sort of see him as a pretty old veteran fitting in with the abundance of young guys that you have?

Anthopoulos: “No doubt. Obviously what he does on the field is why we wanted him, but then you layer in the fact that he's a great guy, great teammate, and he's a good example for all these young arms. [Ian] Anderson and [Kyle] Wright and [Mike] Soroka and [Max] Fried and [Huascar] Ynoa and Touki Toussaint and [Tucker] Davidson. We have a ton of young arms. Having a guy like that, who has been through everything and is considered one of the best teammates, best human beings in the game, who is successful, it's only a good thing. I only view that as a positive, so that definitely factors into the equation. But secondarily, though, to what we think he can do on the field, because that's always going to drive all the decisions. But that other piece is pretty important to us as well.”

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 08: Sixto Sanchez #73 of the Miami Marlins pitches during Game 3 of the NLDS between the Atlanta Braves and the Miami Marlins at Minute Maid Park on Thursday, October 8, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Michael Starghill/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Sixto Sanchez is the most exciting arm in a promising young Marlins rotation. (Photo by Michael Starghill/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

MIAMI MARLINS

With Kim Ng, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Marlins?

Ng: “I think every year you have to hope that you're going to get into the playoffs. This is a pretty interesting team. I think it's fairly clear that we're built around our young starting pitching. As I mentioned, in my eyes, having gotten to spring training and watched them now for a few weeks they have definitely come as advertised. I think they’ve got another — obviously not a full year — but another year of experience under their belts so that’s definitely a plus. We’ve got some good veterans on the team as well.

"In terms of where we'll end up, we’re not really sure at this point. I would say if all these guys make great strides in their careers, particularly the young players, I think that helps us in the future for where we want to go, which is winning year after year.”

What do the projections say?

Sixto Sanchez’s first full season is expected to be an impressive one, but the Marlins as a whole are on track to sink back to the bottom of the division with 70 wins.

What won’t the team tell you?

That the lovable, ragtag team of surprisingly successful 2020 Fish were probably … wait for it … flukes.

What is your biggest concern coming off of the shortened pandemic season?

Ng: “I think you have to go to the pitching, you know, just making sure that you're monitoring them very closely. You have to give them time off — you know, they’re all young, that’s the other thing. And so it will affect a team like ours more than others. But for us, we’ve definitely talked about this numerous times, about some of the things we can do to protect them.”

And what will that look like?

Ng: “Every once in a while we're gonna have to skip a start, there will be times that, even if they’re pitching great, you might not let them get deep into some games and you’ll have to call on your bullpen a little more just to conserve the innings and try and get them through September. Because that’s ultimately the goal, for us to be in contention in September. So, I think those are some of the things we have to look at.”

Do you have a strategy about whether it makes sense to lock guys down early, especially when you're such a young team and when you have this young really promising rotation?

Ng: “I would say, you know, first on my agenda is to get the season started and get some of the season under my belt before I make those evaluations. But I'm not opposed to long-term contracts for younger guys. And if they're the type of player that we want to build around, then we should definitely consider it.”

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