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As Bryce Harper prepares for possible final home game with Nats, take a moment to appreciate the journey to get here

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USA Today

As Bryce Harper prepares for possible final home game with Nats, take a moment to appreciate the journey to get here

As Bryce Harper plays out his final homestand of the 2018 season, and as everyone ponders the potential end of his career in Washington, one aspect of his journey to this point as a member of the Nationals stands out above all when considering what Harper and those who have watched him over the years have experienced.

Though all the hair flips, towering homers and viral quotes come to mind, Harper's tenure in D.C. may most be defined and appreciated by his faults.

That's not to harp on the negative when there have been so many positives. It's to take a moment to appreciate all the steps it took for Harper to reach this point as a player and as a man, and how those in Washington watched him day after day throughout that process.

See, if Harper does leave Washington and joins another team, maybe even a really good team, that club will receive a player who is just about a finished product. He has reached his prime and is fully-formed, having cut his teeth for seven MLB seasons. That franchise and those fans would see a completely different chapter in Harper's career and, arguably, only get to know him so well, no matter how long he plays for them.

That's because Washington Nationals fans have seen Harper grow up and learn many lessons the hard way, ever since he showed up to Nationals Park in 2010, flanked by Mike Rizzo and Scott Boras and was handed a No. 34 jersey by Ryan Zimmerman. Harper was just 17 and that day wore a black suit with a black shirt and a pink tie, the combination perhaps his first regrettable move as a pro.

With the Nats, Harper had to learn not to run into walls, to not play through certain injuries, to keep his cool with umpires. He learned through public admonishment to hit the cutoff man and to hustle to first base. He realized the power of his words and his responsibility as a face of baseball.

There were mistakes and Nats fans, for the most part, loved him for them. He was the chosen one, the guy who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 years old, the No. 1 pick and the second-coming of Mickey Mantle. But he is human with flaws like the rest of us and a lot of it didn't come easy to him like most expected.

The comparisons between Harper and Mike Trout, his closest superstar contemporary, often highlighted the perceived shortcomings in Harper's game and personality. Trout never creates controversy with his words, while Harper can with remarkable ease. Trout did not draw the ire of older players and baseball lifers like Harper did in his early days.

Right or wrong, and most of the time it was uncalled for, Harper was constantly derided by people around baseball in his first few MLB seasons. But Washington fans were always there to defend him, knowing that if you watched him every night then you too would know those small transgressions - if they can even be called transgressions - do not represent the player or the man Harper actually is.

Washington fans were the first in Major League Baseball to realize Harper had the character and humility to match his transcendent on-field talents. He loves the game of baseball and, almost all of the time, plays it as hard as anyone. Harper has been criticized for playing the game too hard about as often as he has for taking off plays.

Take a step back and Harper's tenure in Washington so far has been a clear success, even matched with the expectations bestowed upon him as a teenager. He has won the National League MVP award, won an all-time classic Home Run Derby, made six All-Star teams and the Nats have won four division titles. He has helped usher in a new generation of D.C. baseball fans. The only way to top all of that would be a deep playoff run or a championship, but no one should have expected one player to make that sort of difference, given the dynamics of baseball.

Harper isn't perfect, but he is a lot closer to it than he was when he first debuted with the Nationals in 2012. The process of him getting to this point, even if it does ultimately mark the end of his tenure, should be appreciated by Nationals fans and Harper himself. No matter how much money he makes and where he plays next season, that chapter of his career is over and Washington fans should feel grateful they were there for the entire ride.

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Explaining my National League ROY ballot

Explaining my National League ROY ballot

This was tight. Really tight. A category for the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. A category for the Nationals’ Juan Soto.

Sorting through 16 categories showed Acuna and Soto should have split the National League Rookie of the Year award. It also showed me a narrow advantage for Soto, which is why I voted him first, Acuna second and Dodgers starter Walker Buehler third. Once the votes from other members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were added, Acuna won, Soto was second and Buehler was third. It wasn’t close. It should have been.

First, a thought about the general process here: Writers take this seriously. Once assignments for the awards are distributed, we start to talk about them in the Nationals Park press box. Even non-voters hop in on the conversation. Sympathies are relayed to those who have an extremely tight choice, as I did this season and last when I voted for MVP (I’m big in Cincinnati thanks to my Joey Votto selection).

I outline specific categories, talk to opposing players and managers and watch as much as possible in order to come to a conclusion. The only thing easy about voting for ROY this season was the chance to see the leading candidates often since one played here and the other is in the division.

I used 16 categories to largely determine my vote. They were as follows: OPS, OPS+, Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Prospectus WARP, OBP, WRC+, SB, HR, late-and-close OPS, 2 outs RISP OPS, BB:K ratio, WPA, “Clutch”, WOBA, and an overall defensive mark.

There’s no perfect formula here. But, when looking through those, Soto took nine, Acuna six and one, Fangraphs WAR, was even. That, coupled with Soto doing this in his age-19 season as the league’s youngest player (Acuna was just 20, so, like everything else the leader’s advantage here is slight), and talking to others in the league, prompted me to vote for Soto.

Again, the gaps were minute. Baseball Reference’s WAR formula favored Acuna. Fangraphs had them even. Baseball Prospectus put Soto clearly ahead. Soto was significantly better in late-and-close situations. Acuna was better with two outs and runners in scoring position.

If Soto had a distinct lead anywhere, it was via command of the strike zone, which is currently his premier talent. His walk and strikeout rates were both superior to Acuna. When asked about Soto, opponents and teammates alike brought it up.

However, Acuna is the better defender and baserunner. Points back to his favor.

Soto was intentionally walked 10 times signifying what opponents thought of dealing with him. Acuna was intentionally walked just twice (though his spot in the order has some influence there).

This ping-ponging of qualifications could go on.

What the National League East has is two of the best players in baseball. Not just young players at this stunningly low age, but two of the best. Soto was fourth in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS in the National League when adjusted to be among the qualified leaders (an explanation from Baseball Reference: In order to rank the player, the necessary number of hitless at bats were added to the player's season total.). Acuna was eighth in slugging under the same adjustment.

The 2019 All-Star Game is in Cleveland. Expect both to be there and this to be just the beginning of them being measured against each other.

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Nationals' phenom Juan Soto finishes as NL Rookie of the Year runner-up to Braves' Ronald Acuña Jr.

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals' phenom Juan Soto finishes as NL Rookie of the Year runner-up to Braves' Ronald Acuña Jr.

Despite a surprising, impressive and historic start to Juan Soto's career in Major League Baseball, the Washington Nationals' young star finished as the runner-up in the National League Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Ronald Acuña Jr. and ahead of finalist Walker Buehler, the league announced Monday.

For the Nationals' rising star who didn't shed his teenager status until after Washington's season ended, finishing second behind another similarly impressive player doesn't diminish his record-breaking accomplishments throughout the 2018 season -- so many of them related to being a 19-year-old rookie.

After the Nats called Soto up in the spring, he made his debut in the majors on May 20, quickly becoming famous for both his power and consistency and drawing countless comparisons to teammate Bryce Harper. He broke or tied too many records to list here -- but you can find them on NBC Sports Washington -- so we're highlighting the biggest.

He finished his rookie year with a .292 batting average, slugging at .517 and racking up 22 home runs, 70 RBI and 79 walks -- the most by a teenager in MLB history which also made him the only teenager with more than 60 walks in a single season.

Both the highest for a teenager in MLB history, Soto finished with a .406 OBP -- he's also the only teenager to break .400 -- and a .923 OPS, which put him second and third, respectively, among all NL hitters. He became the first teenager to finish with a slash line of at least .290/.400/.500 and the first rookie since Albert Pujols in 2001 to do it, according to MLB.com.

His three multi-home run games are the most by a teenager in MLB history, as are his multi-walk games (16). Soto also racked up 22 home runs this season, which tied Harper for second by a teenager, behind Tony Conigliaro with 24.

Soto started the 2018 season with the Class A Hagerstown Suns before getting bumped up to the Potomac Nationals (Class A-Advanced) and the Harrisburg Senators (Double-A) on his way to the majors.

With the Braves playing in the postseason before losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, 20-year-old Acuña finished his rookie year with a slash line of .293/.366/.552, having a slight advantage over Soto in both batting average and slugging percentage. He also had the edge over the Nats rookie in home runs (26) and hits (127 vs. 121).

Winning the NLCS with the Dodgers before falling the World Series to the Boston Red Sox, Buehler was the lone pitcher in the NL Rookie of the Year race. The 24-year-old right-hander finished his first season with a 2.62 ERA on an 8-5 record. He struck out 151 batters and gave up 12 home runs.

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