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Bryce Harper’s return could not have gone worse for the Nationals

Bryce Harper’s return could not have gone worse for the Nationals

WASHINGTON -- A way to a bad day might look like this: Bryce Harper returns, homers, helps the Phillies beat on the Nationals. One of the home team’s best players is injured for an extended period. The staff ace is 0-2 after pitching half of the team’s games. The bullpen continued its bumbling ways.

That’s what Tuesday was, a noisy flop and dreary D.C. sports reminder during Harper’s return. The place he left -- still dealing with how it happened, who to blame and moving forward -- booed him with fervor. There was no thanks for the memories, now we’ll try to beat you. No final pat on the back. An oddly timed tribute video ran with the audio accompaniment of dissatisfaction. Harper was booed hard. It only leveled up his night of joy and an evening of eventual dismay for the Nationals.

Pregame, Harper was relaxed, somewhat jovial, happy to answer questions under his black “positive vibes” hat. He hoped to stay here, it didn’t work out, he said. Walking toward the visiting clubhouse was odd for him. Like any employee visiting a former office, wading through something so familiar in a different skin needs time for full adjustment. 

And his start pleased those upset with his presence. Max Scherzer struck him out twice during a laborious five-inning outing. The crowd sniped at him those first four innings, hammering him when he emerged from the dugout or settled under a fly ball. It was a bit odd for the District. Among pregame questions was how the crowd would react in a town often tagged as free from the most emphatic elements of sports fandom. They shouted displeasure. Even directed some at Andrew McCutchen for simply having the audacity to lead off the game.

“The crowd was really into it, more so than I thought it was going to be,” Scherzer said.

Then, things changed. 

A Scherzer curveball in Harper’s third at-bat caught the bottom of the strike zone. That was bad news. It was supposed to be lower.

Harper looped it into right field for a double. He later singled against Matt Grace to drive in another run, then waved at his teammates in the dugout from second base, a bit he and his new group picked up from Fortnite. 

He later delivered the most damning blow: a 458-foot home run off Jeremy Hellickson to right field. Loud, clean, high and without doubt. Harper took a tick to watch it before a hearty flip sent his bat helicoptering toward the Nationals dugout. 

“I try not to watch [the bat flips],” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “It’s the way the game’s evolved. Everybody’s got a couple that do it. I try not to watch. I really do.”

With that, his press conference closed. Martinez sounded dejected. His demeanor was more noticeable because it was shift, akin to when a noisy person falls quiet or a silent one raises their voice. Martinez spent last season relentlessly positive in public and often in private. Not Tuesday night following the rain delay, the injury, his ace pitching well but not winning, his bullpen failing time after time.

“Bottom line is we lost one of our good players and we lost,” Martinez said. “We’ve got to come back [Wednesday] and we’ve got to get better. Just got to play better.”

Can four games feel like a long time? Perhaps, when three were lost in not-this-again fashion to division rivals. When the specific offseason fixes have failed. When a visiting Cy Young finalist is ready 14 hours after a loss was weighed down further by separate bad news. 

That was not Harper’s night. He won. A big sandwich from the the Italian Store in Arlington opened his return to the city Monday. Dinner at Aqua followed, an early arrival at Nationals Park came Tuesday. He was happy to call Scherzer “nasty” at the end of the evening, explain why he gestured with his hat to the right field crowd and finally take a verbal poke like he tends to do.

“Heard the boos,” Harper said. “Kind of just remembered I have 45,000 people in the city of Philadelphia and more that were screaming at their TV, cheering.”

Those were not the sounds in D.C. 

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How Carter Kieboom influences Nationals’ needs in Day 2 at Winter Meetings

How Carter Kieboom influences Nationals’ needs in Day 2 at Winter Meetings

SAN DIEGO -- Stephen Strasburg is back. The rotation is set, at least one through four, and a crab-bucket crawl is ready for the fifth spot. Howie Kendrick signed to play second and first, as well as pinch-hit. Ryan Zimmerman is expected to return. Anthony Rendon remains in limbo.

So, what now?

Day Two at the Winter Meetings for Washington should bring calm. Or at least lesser salvos. The Nationals entered the San Diego soiree with noise around them. Rendon and Strasburg were huge factors in the offseason. Washington is the World Series champion. It, as much as anyone in baseball, was on the marquee when everyone gathered.

Business now is more pragmatic. The Nationals are likely out on Rendon -- despite meager attempts Monday to say they are not -- which means bullpen and second base are at issue. 

Prospect Carter Kieboom is an option at second base. The Nationals began to work him there last offseason and continued to do so throughout 2019 with Triple-A Fresno. Kieboom made limited appearances at third base (10 games, nine starts, four errors) and is not ready to play that position at the major-league level. His work at shortstop in the major leagues showed he’s not ready to play there, either. There’s also no need with Trea Turner under contract.

Which means Kieboom’s future influences possible spending, which influences Rendon -- slightly -- and has a bearing on the bullpen expenditures. 

“He's close,” Davey Martinez said of Kieboom. “After we had him, he went back down to triple A, kept his head up, and played really well, hit well, did some adjustments. He's going to come to Spring Training and get a shot to play different positions. We'll see. We'll see what transpires, but he's a kid that we value very much. We know what he can do with the bat. We've got to figure out a position for him, whether it's second base or third base, but I think that he adds some value and he could help us in the future.”

This is expected and necessary posturing from Martinez. They don’t know where Kieboom should play. They think his bat will play. Can he become a productive hitter and average defender at second base? If so, that’s high value. Could he eventually take over third base? Washington has to consider the notion when tangling with whether to pay Rendon, or, more likely, Josh Donaldson via a shorter contract.

“I really feel that he learned a lot just coming up that short period of time,” Martinez said of Kieboom. “We know what kind of player we think he can be, and like I said, he's learned how to become that player. He went back down, and I've seen a lot of guys that came up and had a rough time that go back down and don't quite put it together. He went back down there and had a really good year in triple A.

“So it's just a learning process for him. ...And the biggest thing I'll tell Carter is that he's a guy that needs to use the whole field when he hits and not to take his at-bats out to the field. It's two different things. You've got to play defense, and then you've got to hit. I think that's something, as a young player, that you need to learn to be consistent up here.”

The organization’s belief in whether Kieboom can do that will factor into its decisions in San Diego. Monday’s Strasburg splash kicked things off. Tuesday is likely to be more about filling gaps than record contracts.

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Anthony Rendon’s future appears set following Stephen Strasburg deal

Anthony Rendon’s future appears set following Stephen Strasburg deal

SAN DIEGO -- On the stage Monday at the Winter Meetings, two key components of Anthony Rendon’s future chatted before the television’s red camera light popped on.

Mike Rizzo and agent Scott Boras passed a final 30 seconds before showtime with small talk, then addressed the first bombastic signing of the Winter Meetings: Stephen Strasburg is returning to the Washington Nationals on a seven-year, $245 million deal. This, for all intents and purposes, ends Rendon’s time with the organization. 

The math creates a crunch. Rizzo tried to maneuver around the reality when on the dais next to Boras, but the reality is Washington does not want to surpass the competitive balance tax, it does not want to blow out payroll, and it has little wiggle room. Rendon moving on is the now an anchor in the offseason.

Washington operates with a big payroll and pocket-lining approach. A seeming dichotomy. It spends just to the edge. Then, it stops. Not too far to go over the tax. Not too far to appear reckless. But always far enough to say, correctly, the organization is a willing spender, a point Rizzo leaned on when asked about Rendon’s future Monday.

“You look at the history of the Nationals and the way we've positioned ourselves and the details of the contract and the way that it's structured, this ownership group has never shied away from putting the resources together to field a championship-caliber club,” Rizzo said. “I don't see them in any way hindering us from going after the elite players in the game.

“I think that Anthony Rendon is, again, one of the players that is most near and dear to my heart, a guy we've drafted, signed, developed, watched turn into a superstar, playoff success, and a huge part of the world championship run that we went on. So he's a guy that we love.

“The ownership has always given us the resources to field a great team, and we're always trying to win, and we're going to continue to do so.”

That is a 141-word non-answer. 

Washington’s managing principal owner Mark Lerner did not help Rizzo’s position before the Winter Meetings by stating the team could bring back only Rendon or Strasburg -- not both. 

“He did?” Rizzo joked. 

He did. Which, naturally, makes reporters curious about the correlation between a statement from ownership and Rizzo’s operating capacity.

“Well, when you look at those comments, and then you look at the structure of this particular deal and the structure of deals we've had getting up to where we are right now, I think Mark realizes that there's ways to fit players in, there's ways that you can field a championship-caliber roster -- and, again, the resources have always been there, so I don't expect that to change,” Rizzo said.

Here, he hopped into the idea Strasburg’s deferred money -- reportedly $80 million to be paid out within three years of the contract’s expiration -- suggesting the manipulation of those numbers keeps Rendon in play for the organization. It’s not enough. Not based on how the Nationals allocate and spend.

Which means they chose. Strasburg or Rendon. They could only have one, and they signed the homegrown pitcher and thanked Rendon for his time.

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