Free-agent movement provides good news, bad news for Phillies

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The Phillies' heavy lifting for the offseason appears to be over. The team has spent over $156 million on free agents J.T. Realmuto, Didi Gregorius, Archie Bradley, Matt Moore and Chase Anderson. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has acknowledged that the team is close to being set for spring training, though he is still pursuing a versatile bat off the bench and will likely land one.

While the Phillies put a wrap on their winter, two NL East division rivals remain quite busy.

There was big news in the division Friday — basically good news for the Phillies — when Trevor Bauer chose the Los Angeles Dodgers over the New York Mets. Had Bauer signed with the Mets, the Phillies could have faced him five or six times in 2021. Instead, they might only see him twice in 2021, depending on how the schedule shakes out as the sport tries to navigate another season in the COVID world.

There was another piece of news in the NL East on Friday and it wasn't necessarily a good one for the Phillies. Marcell Ozuna re-signed with the Atlanta Braves. The Phillies will see a lot of him in 2021 and beyond as he signed a four-year deal.

The Braves, who have won the last two NL East titles, feature a talented, young starting pitching staff that now also boasts a strong veteran stabilizer in Charlie Morton. The Braves' pitching staff will enjoy run support. Led by NL MVP Freddie Freeman, the Braves scored 5.8 runs per game in 2020, second-best in the majors, and led the majors in OPS at .832. Freeman had the second-best OPS in the majors at 1.102. Ozuna was third at 1.067 and he led the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56). By the way, another NL East stud, Juan Soto of Washington, led the majors in OPS at 1.185 in 2020.

If there's a designated hitter in the NL in 2021, the Braves have their man in Ozuna. If not, he can land back in left field for a season as the DH is expected to be adopted in the next collective bargaining agreement. The current one expires after the 2021 season.

Bauer is quite a story. Despite having an ERA under 4.00 just twice in his career, he landed a three-year, $102 million deal with the Dodgers and has the right to opt out after years 1 and 2 of the deal and become a free agent again. Don't get us wrong, Bauer is a terrific pitcher, he's still just 30 and he's getting better. Since 2018, he ranks 11th in the majors with a 3.18 ERA. But sometimes in life, and oftentimes in baseball, timing is everything. He was beyond brilliant in 2020, his walk year, leading the NL in ERA (1.73) and WHIP (0.795) while making 11 starts and taking the ball on short rest to help the Cincinnati Reds get to the playoffs.

That 11-start pocket — a third of the workload that top starters usually carry — earned Bauer a deal that will pay him $40 million in 2021 and $45 million in 2022, if he doesn't opt out after one year, and why would he? By the way, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a projected payroll, before benefits, of about $43 million in 2021. Even with teams talking about losing revenues because of the pandemic, there are the haves and the have-nots and the haves still have a lot. In adding Bauer, the World Series champion Dodgers gilded the lily that their starting pitching staff already was, and they pushed the game's highest payroll to almost $240 million, according to RosterResource.com.

Two years in a row, the Dodgers have made huge scores just before spring training. Last year, they traded for Mookie Betts and during the summer kept him off the free-agent market with a $365 million contract extension.

Back when this offseason started, it was supposed to be the Mets who were going to spend all the free-agent money. They had interest in all four of the big free agents — Bauer, Realmuto, DJ LeMahieu and George Springer — and came away with none of them. The Mets were most keen on Springer and Bauer. They were outbid by Toronto for Springer and spurned by Bauer for his hometown Dodgers. The Mets, according to reports, offered $105 million over three years with all the same buyout opportunities.

Going 0 for 4 at the top of the free-agent market doesn't mean the Mets had a bad offseason. It means it just wasn't as good as it was expected to be. Remember, they still landed shortstop Francisco Lindor, one of the game's elite talents, and quality starter Carlos Carrasco in a trade with Cleveland, and catcher James McCann and reliever Trevor May are both solid additions. With the $105 million that was earmarked for Bauer still in their pocket, the Mets could make a play for a starter like James Paxton or an outfielder like Jackie Bradley Jr. They'll also have room to pursue deals during the season and be able to stay under the luxury tax.

Adding Bauer to a rotation that already includes Jacob deGrom, maybe the best pitcher in the game, would have made the Mets a bear in the NL East. (They're still going to be tough.) But sometimes, the best deals are the ones you don't make and it remains to be seen if the Mets will one day feel that way about losing out on Bauer. He's a controversial figure and his on-field track record is not nearly as good as his paycheck now says. Watching how he performs and fits in with the Dodgers will end up being one of the top storylines in the game in 2021.

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