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Starting Nine: Mets laid down the checkbook ... and the gauntlet

With over $800 million spending in December alone, New York has upped the ante in bid to end Braves’ dominance in NL East

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves
The Braves are riding a streak of five straight NL East titles, but Pete Alonso and the Mets are coming with $806.1 worth of reinforcements in 2023.
Larry Robinson-USA TODAY Sports

We all scoff at those Christmas car commercials, calling them unrealistic, down-right laughable, as people are gifted luxury vehicles with big red bows atop them.

But Steve Cohen? He sees them and decrees them paltry, meager even, as the New York Mets owner showed us all what it means to deliver a “December To Remember.”

With Wednesday’s bombshell signing of Carlos Correa to a 12-year, $315-million deal — after the San Francisco Giants pulled their $350-million offer for a reported issue with his medicals — the Mets have spent over $800 million this month alone.

They now have a projected luxury tax payroll of $384 million, which will draw $111.5 million in tax payments (more than 10 team’s payrolls), pushing New York’s total bill to $495.5 million ... and the Mets may not be done, with rumors that they’re eyeing Chicago White Sox reliever Liam Hendricks and his $14 million salary.

This isn’t making anyone feel better after seeing the Atlanta Braves’ free-agent spending limited to $1.4 million on outfielder Jordan Luplow, with another $875,000 to reliever Nick Anderson on a split deal, and watching Dansby Swanson leave for the Chicago Cubs, and we’ll get into all those feelings in a moment. But whether you think Cohen’s bottomless coffers — which at this point has to be dwarf Scrooge McDuck’s Money Bin — is good or bad for a league where one team is committing more money than the Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, and Kansas City Royals combined, Cohen’s checkbook and the gauntlet have been laid down.

The National League East has been represented in three of the last four World Series — by three different teams — and if it doesn’t happen again in 2023 by a fourth different team, it’s going to be seen as a major disappointment.

That just solidified this as the most fascinating division in baseball, and the race for the top of the East gets us going in this week’s Starting Nine.

1. It’s the new division story, same as the old division story

Back in November, FanGraphs’ ZiPS projected 2023 standings had the Braves projected to again sit atop the division at 96-66, followed by the Mets (84-78), Phillies (84-78), Miami Marlins (79-83), and Washington Nationals (67-95).

That was released before the Mets went and added 19.0 worth of projected fWAR with free agent deals for Correa, Justin Verlander, Brandon Nimmo, Omar Narváez, Jose Quintana, Adam Ottavino, David Robertson and Koadi Senga (who doesn’t have a forecast yet but pitched to a 1.89 ERA last year.

Per DraftKings, that moved the Mets’ odds of winning the NL to +350 to the Braves’ +475 with the Phillies at +700 among those East contenders, and it’s likely every other projection service is going to follow suit in pumping up New York’s chances.

But isn’t this where the Braves have been living the past three years, operating in the Mets’ shadow?

Last season, a number of sportsbooks had New York as the division favorite after adding Max Scherzer to its rotation. We know how that turned out. In 2021, with Francisco Lindor in the lineup, PECOTA made the Mets the East pick. The Braves won the division. Same in 2020 and 2019, when PECOTA pegged New York to sit atop the East, while Atlanta added another banner. In fact, every year of this run of titles, the Braves haven’t been seen as the clear leaders.

From that end, it’s the same old story ... and if you’re in Braves Country, you’re calling the Mets paper champs, with the reminder that nobody wins a division on paper. But at the same time, no one’s ever spent this kind of paper, with more than three-quarters of a billion invested to dominate the East.

If you’re a Braves fans and you’ve got that finger hovering over the panic button, let’s chat ...

2. Braves fans, don’t jump

Expectations were set when, after Atlanta’s Division Series exit at the hands of the Phillies, team chairman Terry McGuirk discussed having a top-five payroll, and Liberty Media’s third-quarter revenue call, that showed $252 million in revenue, up from $234 million during the same period last year. After the Mets’ freewheeling with Cohen’s money and the Phillies dropping $300 million on Turner, it’s no doubt left fans puzzled.

The Braves had their ceiling on Swanson and weren’t willing to go to the lengths the Cubs were at $177 million over seven years. They’ve not backfilled the position, and thoughts of adding a viable outfield bat haven’t materialized outside of the Luplow signing.

As it stands, Atlanta had six players in the NL’s top 30 in fWAR in Steamer’s projections, more than the Mets (five), and the Braves have four starting pitchers in the top 30 New York’s two.

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos did his work last year, trading for and extending Matt Olson; extending Austin Riley and Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider; and then getting stronger at catcher with Sean Murphy.

The Mets owned the winter, but you can argue it was throwing cash at a problem to play catchup.

3. The game has a clear villain

One clear thing Cohen has done in his bringing Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags to life, is give baseball something it’s been lacking: a villain.

The game’s been lacking one since George Steinbrenner was willing to win at (quite literally) all costs. The Houston Astros’ Jim Crane has been doing a decent attempt at it, but he seems more like a horrible boss than trying to play the bad guy.

Cohen’s money has made it seem like he’s playing an entirely different sport than the small-market clubs. Case in point: with Correa, Lindor, Scherzer and Verlander, the Mets have four player who make more than the entire payroll of the A’s at $22.5 million.

The owner has put a Galactus-sized target on his team’s back, the point where anything less than a championship has to be considered a failure for the most expensive team money can buy.

The Mets are clearly the team everyone loves to hate, with a puppet master whose thirst to win seems unquenchable. If he’s your team’s owner, you can’t get enough of an owner who wants to win that badly; if he’s not, it has you calling for a salary cap...

4. Atlanta’s clearly banking on rebounds

The Braves signing Luplow to a one-year deal when the thought was they’d be looking to make a bigger upgrade in left field — where they were 29th in 2022 at minus-0.7 fWAR — underscores a prevailing theme for this team and its 2023 prospects.

They’re banking on rebounds.

Last season was a lost one for Eddie Rosario, who was limited to 80 games with an eye injury and never found his groove in hitting 48 percent below league average. It was the first time in his career he had a negative fWAR (-1.1).

But if Rosario can get back to hitting right-handers — who he averaged 121 wRC+ against from 2017-2021 — Luplow and his 125 wRC+ vs. lefties could make for a viable platoon.

It’s the same story for the Braves with Ronald Acuña Jr. — who they’re hoping bounces back after an offseason when he isn’t recovering from a knee injury — and Ozzie Albies after the starts and stops of his injury-riddled 2022, though their rebounds feel more certain. Steamer agrees, with Acuña projected at 5.4 fWAR and Albies at 3.1.

The Braves didn’t make waves like the Mets, but you can argue they didn’t have to if two of their biggest young stars return to their starring ways. But there does remain one big question mark ...

5. The shortstop conundrum, and what’s left

As noted last week, Anthopoulos said infield guru Ron Washington has raved about his work with Vaughn Grissom, and with Swanson packing his things for Chicago, Grissom — or Orlando Arcia — manning the shortstop position on Opening Day seems even more likely.

The particulars in how the Braves got to this point figure to come out later, as questions remain. Did they think they would keep Swanson, and the market for the other shortstops pushed them out of what they were willing to pay? Did they pursue anyone else and Swanson agreeing to deals after the other big-name players at the position (Correa and that Giants deal, anyway) leave Atlanta without a dance partner?

At the very least, what’s left on the market isn’t exactly savory.

Elvis Andrus could fill a void and is coming off a strong season with the Chicago White Sox (3.5 fWAR), but that was his first above 2.0 fWAR since 2017. He’s not a solution; he’s a stopgap. After that ... the last remaining free agent is José Iglesias (1.4 projected fWAR), with no other player on the market expected to deliver more than 0.7 fWAR.

Barring a trade — and the Braves ability to swing a sizable one took a hit with the Murphy trade that cost them three of their top minor-league arms Kyle Muller, Freddy Tarnok and Royber Salinas — Grissom or Arcia may be the only answer.

As much as those aforementioned bounce-backs are key for the Braves, they’re likely going to need them to help cover up a spot where they’re almost guaranteed to take a step back after Swanson’s 6.4 fWAR in 2022.

6. Swanson says goodbye

The Cubs introduced Swanson on Wednesday, hours after he posted a heart-felt goodbye message and video on social media.

Watching Swanson depart is going to conjure up a lot of those feelings Braves fans were hoping to repress after the Freddie Freeman saga, but let’s take a second to appreciate the Swanson era.

While Freeman had his connections to the Chipper Jones era in leading the rebound to the 2021 World Series championship, no player was that rebuild and the fruits of those labors more than Swanson.

Acquired during the 2015 Winter Meetings — just six months after he was taken No. 1 by the Arizona Diamondbacks — the Braves thrust Swanson into the spotlight that next season when he made his Aug. 17 debut. “Welcome Home Dansby” digital billboards were seen across the city, and the Marietta, Ga., native requested 17 tickets for that game, as he went 2-for-4 in a loss to the Minnesota Twins.

“External (pressures) aren’t the ones that matter,” he said that night. “It’s the internal ones and the ones you set for yourself and basically having comfort and confidence in that help me get through that personally.”

The rise wasn’t smooth. Swanson had a minus-0.2 fWAR his first full season, but he’d progress every year of the Braves’ run of division titles, setting a franchise record for home runs by a shortstop in 2021, then erupting in 2022 with 6.4 fWAR, 25 homers and 116 wRC+, while slashing .277/.329/.447. He was a first-time All-Star and won his first Gold Glove.

The local boy brought in as a key piece in a farm system that would bring the Braves back to prominence didn’t disappoint. It took time, but he delivered, and it’s hard to call his time in the organization anything but a success.

7. Swanson says hello with emotional story

The bottom line of around $77 million more than what the Braves were offering was a draw for Swanson to wind up in Chicago, as was being in same city as his new wife, professional soccer player Mallory Pugh of the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars. But as he detailed during his introductory press conference with the Cubs, there was a tear-jerker of a reason as well.

“I really hope I’m going to make it through [this story] without crying,” Swanson said.

Swanson’s grandfather, Herb, died just as week ago, and growing up, Swanson and his grandad used to watch Cubs games together in the afternoons on WGN.

“Every time I walked in, he would have the Cubs game on,” Swanson said. “He just loved baseball so much. ... Being a Cub means more to me than people will realize. It’s no secret I left my hometown team to be here.”

Swanson was married Dec. 10, and the next day learned his grandfather was in hospice care.

“We pretty much left our wedding venue the next morning, drove home, and basically had to rush over to the senior living facility where he was at and we were,” Swanson said. “He ended up passing away the day after we got married.”

Question joining a team that won 74 games last season, but just like that in his first public appearance as a Cub, nobody’s going to question who the emotional center of that team is.

No, the Braves weren’t willing to go where the Cubs were to keep him, but this underscores what Atlanta is likely to miss within the clubhouse this next season.

8. HBD, Lonnie Smith

Happy birthday, Lonnie Smith, who turns 67 today.

Since the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, Smith’s 8.1 fWAR in 1989 is surpassed by only Darrell Evans (9.7 in 1973) and J.D. Drew and Brian McCann in 2008 (8.6 in 2004 and 2008, respectively). It was a magical season for the left fielder, and inexplicably so. He’d produced one season of 3.9 fWAR before that, and in his next five seasons, he’d combined for just 0.4 worth of fWAR ahead of what he did in that single year, when he slashed .315/.415/.533 with 21 homers, 25 steals and 166 wRC+.

As an aside, the Compton, Calif., native is a product of Centennial High, which also produced Grammy Award winners Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar.

9. Merry Christmas, everyone

I want to take a moment to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season. You reading, watching (Battery Power TV), listening (From the Diamond), and interacting on social media mean more than you’ll ever know.

Here’s hoping you find some time to relax, enjoy family ... and be happy you’re not a Giants fan. That fanbase has been put through the wringer, losing out on Correa and Arson Aaron Judge.

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