The ball is rolling now. News broke Monday that the Atlanta Braves had signed Josh Donaldson, the power-hitting infielder who figured to be among this year's grand prizes right alongside Bryce Harper and Manny Machado until serious injuries to his right shoulder and left calf significantly cut into his playing time the last two seasons.
For $23 million, the Braves bought themselves one season to see if the soon-to-be 33-year-old Donaldson can recapture the form that made him one of the game's most feared right-handed hitters with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015 and 2016. The Braves also paid $2 million to reunite with Brian McCann, who will be 35 next season and nothing more than a backup catcher.
Those two moves probably gave us a good glimpse of how the Braves plan on doing business this offseason. They are the defending National League East champs and, like the Phillies, they had a young roster last season with two of their most valuable players – Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies – checking in at or below the legal drinking age.
Examine the young talent of the two teams and the Braves have the advantage at the big-league level as well as a more highly regarded farm system. They can afford to take a one-year risk on Donaldson because they have two young third basemen – soon-to-be 25-year-old Johan Camargo and 21-year-old Austin Riley — who they feel have bright big-league futures. Camargo proved as much last season by hitting .272 with 19 home runs, 76 RBIs and an .806 OPS as a rookie. The Braves can be conservative because they believe they have a ton of young talent and no need to play the long-term contract game that has turned into financial suicide for some big-league teams.
This would be a good time to point out that Albert Pujols will be 39 next season, played like Tommy Joseph last season and is still owed $87 million through 2021 by the Los Angeles Angels.
The Phillies, as we witnessed during a late-season collapse that made the team's most geriatric fans think about 1964 again, need a lot more than the Braves do if they are going to win the NL East in 2019. The presumption is that their lead owner, John S. Middleton, is going to demand that they spend what it takes to get it and that money owed to Pujols is not going to scare him in any way. I think Middleton wants Bryce Harper more than anybody else in baseball does.
Harper has never been as good a hitter as Pujols was in his prime, but he is only 26, which means two things: He is just entering his prime and he is six years younger than Pujols was when he signed with the Angels.
And perhaps the best way to convince Harper that you're serious about immediately joining the National League elite is by first signing the best free-agent starter on the market. That's what the Phillies were trying to do Tuesday when they invited Arizona lefty Patrick Corbin to Philadelphia for a tour of the city and Citizens Bank Park. Put Corbin alongside Aaron Nola at the top of the starting rotation and that's one area where the Phillies would clearly be better than the Braves. Those two would also be in the discussion with Washington's Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and the New York Mets' Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard for the best 1-2 tandem in the NL East.
Beyond the top two, veteran Jake Arrieta would be a nice, comfortable fit as a No. 3 starter who is capable of pitching even better than that. And while the Phillies' overall farm system might not be a match for the Braves', they have their fair share of young arms that you can dream upon.
If the Phillies did nothing more than add Corbin to their rotation, they would likely enter the conversation as a legitimate postseason contender. He would give them the rotation balance that departed with lefty Cole Hamels in 2015. It's unlikely, however, that Middleton is sitting in his CBP office and saying, "Wouldn't it be great if we could get in as the second wild card next season?" If that is the goal – trust me, it's not — then he really would be spending some stupid money this offseason.
If it was not already clear that the Phillies owner wants more than that, then it should be after Tuesday's visit from Patrick Corbin. John Middleton wants the best free-agent pitcher and the best free-agent player both on the Phillies' roster in 2019.