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Final haul and previous asks for Realmuto show why Nationals were hesitant

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Final haul and previous asks for Realmuto show why Nationals were hesitant

Rumblings about J.T. Realmuto and the Washington Nationals first popped in the 2016 offseason. He was even more enticing then, on a cheap contract with extensive control and All-Star production.

The Nationals had a distinct need for Realmuto, too. Wilson Ramos tore his ACL and contorted Washington’s postseason hopes late that season. Ramos’ injury also developed a hole at catcher. The minors did not offer relief. Backup Jose Lobaton did not offer a full-time replacement. Something needed to be done.

So Washington’s hunt for a Realmuto deal began. Derek Jeter and Co. eventually took ownership of the team the next year, stripped its talented outfield, but kept a tight grip on Realmuto, who made a measly $562,500 in 2017. His price tag was palatable to even a non-competitive team in the middle of a selloff. Which prompted the Marlins to ask for the moon. And the sun.

They locked in on Juan Soto. And Victor Robles. Together. It was an astonishing ask, and one that would never move the deal forward. Soto and Robles weren’t going to be moved individually, let alone as a pair, which provides insight into why the deal never worked with the Nationals.

The Marlins didn’t only make a massive ask of the Nationals. According to a report from New York, the Marlins also targeted Gary Sanchez and AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Miguel Andujar in exchange for Realmuto.

Finally, on Thursday, Miami found a deal it could work with. Philadelphia sent catcher Jorge Alfaro, right-hander Sixto Sanchez, left-hander Will Stewart and $250,000 in international bonus slot money to the Marlins for Realmuto.

Sanchez was considered the Phillies’ top prospect and rated the 27th-best prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline. Alfaro has several raw tools and a dash of major-league experience. Stewart was effective (2.06 ERA) at Single-A Lakewood last season.

None of those players rival Robles or Soto in stature. The Marlins’ over-the-top insistence -- even last summer -- for both young outfielders drove the Nationals to an offseason solution of Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki.

Individually, neither of the new catchers rival Realmuto, who is 28, expected to post better offensive numbers by playing in Philadelphia and will be there for two years before he can become a free agent. He’s arguably the best catcher in baseball. Though as a combination, they produce a more-than-viable option to fill a positional abyss from last season and a reasonable answer for the team that did not land Realmuto.

Realmuto has improved each year. His 4.3 WAR last season well outpaced his previous high of 3.6 the year before.

Suzuki delivered 2.1 WAR as Atlanta’s full-time catcher; Gomes 2.6 as Cleveland’s full-time catcher. Expect Gomes to play every day in Washington, as much as that applies to starting catchers now. Probably 120 games or so. He left Cleveland’s Progressive Field for a slightly more hitter friendly stadium in Nationals Park. Gomes’ offense should stay about the same. A ding in average would make sense, his power remaining about 12-14 homers would also make sense.

Suzuki, by sheer playing time, will take a step back in WAR. So, let’s estimate the Nationals have a 2.5 WAR player via their catcher platoon. Last season, Matt Wieters provided 0.6 WAR. Pedro Severino -1.1. Spencer Kieboom 0.4. The position was a mess.

But not enough of one for Rizzo to move Robles or Soto, and certainly not both, for Realmuto. The Nationals don’t enter 2019 with a comparable player. However, they don’t start the season with a hole there, either. And expect Juan Soto and Victor Robles to be the Opening Day starters in the outfield. Is that a better haul than Realmuto by himself following a gargantuan ask? The Nationals thought so.

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Mike Trout raised the red flag about free agency, and Nationals players took notice

Mike Trout raised the red flag about free agency, and Nationals players took notice

WASHINGTON -- Mike Trout was everywhere, especially for the supposedly tough-to-market star of the game. 

Anaheim made Trout’s 12-year, $426.5 million extension official Sunday. Trout was the center of a large press conference in California, hopped on MLB Network, made the rounds expected of someone who signed the largest deal in American sports history.

Trout made a telling remark at each stop: He noted watching Manny Machado and Bryce Harper slog through last winter as free agents. He then talked to both. The conversations and visual prompted him to label their situations a “red flag” when he thought about free agency.  

That term, from that player, is eye-popping, despite the heft of his current extension and others being struck around the league. It holds force even after Harper set a record with a new contract that was summarily crushed three weeks later by Trout. It also turned heads when read to players in the clubhouse before the Nationals played the New York Yankees on Monday in the final exhibition game of spring training.

“To me, that’s the red flag,” Sean Doolittle told NBC Sports Washington. “We’re not talking about a veteran guy that’s, you know...we’re talking about the face of our game. If he doesn’t want to go through the free agency process the way it’s been going for guys these past few years, like if he doesn’t think the process could benefit him and he could recognize his full value on the open market, that’s really tell you everything you need to know, right?”

Free agency, once referred to by Max Scherzer as the players’ “golden egg,” has pivoted. Players previously groused about the veteran player who was left jobless. Teams moved away from paying players 30-plus for past performance, both learning a more efficient way to run their team and more financially viable one. Younger players -- unproven players in the eyes of many major leaguers -- were receiving jobs based more on market forces and perceived value than actual value. The process rankled those already in a clubhouse.

“It’s not about players,” Ryan Zimmerman told NBC Sports Washington. “It’s about the valuation or the way that they use it to say it’s going to change their organization. I’ve always said you have to have young guys come up and play. I get it. But my whole thing is to not sign legit big-league players, who you know what they’re going to do at the big-league level, because you have the best farm system in the league, two of those kids might be something. The other eight you’re never going to hear about them again once they leave Baseball America. I just think the percentage of people who become real big leaguers is not very high, and they hold it at a very high value.”

That portion of the debate is receding. What free agency has become is at the forefront. The recent cluster of extensions suggested players realized their best path under this collective bargaining agreement was to stay. The plight of Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel -- who remain unemployed just days before the season begins -- shows that premise is correct.

“[I do] recognize the free agent process has changed,” Scherzer said. “Teams used to covet players, marquee players, and be aggressive trying to bid on them -- don’t feel like that’s the case. That’s what I’ll say.”

Doolittle continued to churn through how the idea related to Trout. If he entered free agency, what could be the possible knock on him? 

It’s not on-field skill. It’s not how he interacts with fans. It’s not how he conducts himself off the field. 

“It would have been really fun to see him go through the free agency process,” Doolittle said.

Instead of finding out, Trout decided to take a lifetime deal to stay in Anaheim. The cash haul was enormous. The terms record-setting. The process? Not so good.

“We need to make some adjustments to the system,” Doolittle said. “Because, yeah, it’s good Manny and Bryce got those deals. It’s unfortunate it took so long. I think it’s very concerning and very notable the face of the game, one of the best players in the history of the game, didn’t want to have to go through that because of the way it’s been going.”

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Bryce Harper's old locker will go to Howie Kendrick (when he gets back)

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Bryce Harper's old locker will go to Howie Kendrick (when he gets back)

With Bryce Harper no longer in town, his locker was open for a new tenant this season. Fans speculated on which veteran would take over his spot, and now we know.

It’s Howie Kendrick.

As every Nationals fan knows by now, after a long, arduous offseason, Harper took his talents to Philadelphia. The Phillies gave him a record-breaking contract, and Harper will be spending the next 13 years of his career in the City of Brotherly Love.

Down in Florida, it wasn’t clear who might take over his locker once the team returned to the nation’s capital. Now that the team is back for an exhibition game and Opening Day this week, media members can see the new locker layout.

Kendrick, of course, is still in Florida rehabbing his hamstring. He’ll begin the season on the Injured List and will play in extended spring training while working to get back to 100 percent. The team expects him to be ready to go sooner rather than later, and even though he’s injured, he’ll still come up to be with the team for Opening Day.

Kendrick makes sense as the choice to fill Harper’s vacated locker. As a veteran entering his 14th season in the Major Leagues, Kendrick is a well-respected voice in the Nationals locker room. He’s only been with the team since midway through 2017, but at 35, he has plenty of experience in the sport.

Entering 2019, Kendrick is set to be a valuable piece for the roster as a quality bench bat who can play multiple positions. Much of his value will also come in the form of his leadership and presence in the locker room, which will now resonate from the same place it had from Harper the previous several seasons.

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