The Marlins used to be more interested in teenagers who could turn into major-league players than they were major-league players. Then when the teenagers turned into big leaguers, they could trade those big leaguers for more teenagers, who could one day become big leaguers. And every decade or so, the cycles would align, and the Marlins would win a World Series.
It used to be that the Montreal Expos would attend the Winter Meetings, but only to shuffle around and ask if you were going to eat that. Oh, and trade all sorts of young players away for younger players, or lose their best players to free agency. That was their modus operandi, except for the one time they got cocky and traded Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, and Brandon Phillips away for a rental player. That went well.
And while this was all going on, the Braves were the Braves, and the Mets were the Mets. That is, the Braves were developing players and making smart decisions, and the Mets were doing both on a lesser scale, but augmenting the strategy with a huge payroll. The Phillies have been, in order, the Orioles, Blue Jays, and Yankees of the NL East since winning the pennant in 1993. That is, hapless before decent before dominant. But they were never poor.
That was the paradigm. Or, to dumb it down a little:
Mets - rich
Braves - smart, not poor
Phillies - progressively smarter, progressively richer
Expos - dealing with strange "foreign" money that creeped people out
Marlins - living at their mom's, thinking about ways to invent stuff and get rich
That's what it used to be. Now the Marlins have money. They have a new ballpark that was given to them by the taxpayers, and they've been socking revenue sharing money under a mattress instead of spending it on free agents. Now they're aggressively courting baseball's biggest star just a few days after stealing one of the Mets' most popular players.
The Expos are now the Nationals, and of all the major-league teams, they're the ones most likely to jump on a table, unload a six-shooter into the air, and scream "Yeeeeeh-hawwwww." Well, they're likely do to that at the negotiating table, anyway. If the Jayson Werth signing was a shock, we got used to it pretty quickly. Reports that the Nats had offered six years to C.J. Wilson were met with, "Oh, there go those Nats again." They have a park and an ownership group that isn't afraid of commitment.
This is the new NL East. The Mets are poor. The Marlins are rich. It's a place where you put mustard in your coffee, and cream and sugar on your sandwich. But don't get used to the Mets being poor. They'll have gobs and gobs of money soon enough, regardless of who owns them. There are too many eyeballs in New York for the Mets to not make money.
And the Phillies leveraged their run of success into something more, becoming a brand, a thing, in a huge metropolitan area. Even though they've committed millions and millions of dollars to players in their 30s through 2015, they're not going to start a fire sale soon. The Braves have never been wild spenders, but they've combined a peerless player-development operation with enough money to do most of what they want.
The NL East has become the super-division of baseball. Every division has a spendthrift in their midsts other than the East. It's the first division where when Free Agent X hits the market, you can make an argument that every team in one division could be after him. The three-way scrum between the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays has been wildly entertaining over the past few years, but there's a chance that, one day, all five teams in the NL East will be involved in a crazy arms race, with mutually assured destruction always on the table for at least three teams.
But, uh, maybe the Mets should get good before we get crazy. And the Nationals sort of finished under .500 last year, while the Marlins lost 90 games. As Winston Wolf once said, "Let's not start something something something just yet." But the potential's there. Five teams. None of them in a small market. None of them cheap. Should be interesting for the next couple of decades.