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How Nats fans should view letting Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon walk in back-to-back years

How Nats fans should view letting Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon walk in back-to-back years

When you are as successful as the Washington Nationals, and as good at replenishing your roster with talent as they are, apparently this is the cost of doing business.

For the second straight winter, the Nats have let an elite player walk in free agency. First, it was Bryce Harper, who left to join the Phillies. This time it is Anthony Rendon, who has signed a seven-year contract worth $245 million to play for the Los Angeles Angels.

Both entered free agency as the best position players on the market, perennial MVP candidates who could someday make the Hall of Fame. But the Nationals don't pay position players, they pay starting pitchers and that blueprint helped them win the World Series just six weeks ago.

The fact Rendon got an identical contract from the Angels that Stephen Strasburg did from Washington solidifies the fact they had to choose between them on equal footing. One was not cheaper than the other, this was about big-picture philosophy. This was ownership giving general manager Mike Rizzo a budget and him choosing to allocate money in his rotation and not in his lineup.

Rizzo, of course, has now been a part of two World Series teams that employed that strategy, if you include his days as the scouting director in Arizona. They won the 2001 title and did so with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling leading the way.

The Nationals' decisions to let Harper and Rendon walk should be viewed through that lens. And they should also be stowed away for future reference.

Surely, the idea of letting one player walk to sign another can't be cited ever again. Just because they didn't pay Harper didn't mean they would pay Rendon, and we should know better when looking ahead to Juan Soto, Trea Turner and others.

Those are the main takeaways from Rendon's departure from a baseball perspective, which is the way Rizzo and his front office are paid to view things. But certainly hammering home those details will only do so much to make Nationals fans feel better as they watch another homegrown, likeable star venture off to another team.

What Nationals fans have experienced in these two cases, both within 10 months of each other, is not normal. To lose two players of this caliber in consecutive offseasons is a uniquely tough pill to swallow. That's a lot of jerseys that won't be worn anymore.

Few fanbases have been fortunate enough in recent years to even have two players as good as Harper and Rendon on the same team at the same time. That extends to having them leave. Usually, players as good as they are don't go elsewhere and, if they do, it is because they play for small market teams with low payrolls, and often their exits feel inevitable.

The Nationals aren't a small market team and, as much as some fans might argue, they aren't cheap. But they have acquired so much talent over the past 10 years that they simply can't keep them all.

So, in a way, it can be seen as a good thing. Harper and Rendon left in part because the Nats have a surplus of talent. And, in true Rizzo form, they have replacements waiting in the wings.

When Harper dipped for Philly, there were questions of whether Soto and Victor Robles could replace his production. They not only stepped up to mitigate the loss, but Soto is now by most accounts even better than Harper.

With Rendon now gone, the Nats can turn to Carter Kieboom. He may not play third base, but he's an infielder and a right-handed batter who hits for average and power. He's a top-20 MLB prospect and last season hit .303 with a .902 OPS in Triple-A.

Harper and Rendon aren't the first stars to leave their team in free agency, and Rendon isn't the first to jump ship right after winning a World Series. In L.A., he will join arguably the most famous case of that, Albert Pujols who after winning a title with the Cardinals in 2011 left to sign with the Angels.

Nationals fans should just take solace in the fact the team's front office is always thinking ahead. Plenty of talent remains on the roster and reinforcements are on the way.

Just like how fans became further attached to Rendon when Harper left, it's time to do the same with Soto or someone else. As the churn continues, enjoy them while they last.

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Victor Robles is the X-factor of the Nationals’ lineup

Victor Robles is the X-factor of the Nationals’ lineup

Ever since Anthony Rendon signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels at the Winter Meetings, the biggest storyline surrounding the Nationals has been who will be replacing him at third base.

That question was seemingly answered Tuesday, when Josh Donaldson inked a four-year deal with the Minnesota Twins and became the last of the all-star-caliber third basemen in free agency to decide which jersey he’ll be wearing in 2020.

While some combination of Asdrúbal Cabrera, Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick and Carter Kieboom will do well to ensure third base doesn’t become a hole in the lineup, Rendon’s offense won’t be replicated by one single player.

That means the big question isn’t how the Nationals are going to replace Rendon at third base, but how they’ll replace him in the lineup. Juan Soto could continue his ascent from a young star into an MVP-type player, but then who protects him from the cleanup spot?

No, Washington is going to need several hitters to take a step forward if they’re going to replace that lost production. Trea Turner is a logical choice given that he’ll be playing with all 10 fingers instead of nine. Castro altered his swing and saw a significant uptick in his power numbers over the second half of last season. Perhaps Adam Eaton will have a career year as he reaches the end of his prime.

Yet no single improvement would have the potential of impacting the Nationals’ lineup than that of Victor Robles.

The center fielder had a mildly disappointing season at the plate as a rookie, posting just a .745 OPS with 140 strikeouts in 155 games. His defense earned him a spot as a Gold Glove finalist and he stole 28 bases, so his campaign wasn’t a wash by any means. But Robles’ spot in the lineup wasn’t one to be feared by opposing pitchers, and that alone makes his improvement critical to the Nationals’ offense in 2020.

“He’s got power, he got the ability to drive the ball in the gaps, he’s got speed on the basepaths,” Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said at the team’s annual WinterFest event last weekend. “He can fine-tune some things. I think his strike zone discipline can get better and I think he can learn from what pitchers did to him last year and make those adjustments accordingly.”

Robles met with the media at WinterFest as well, speaking through team interpreter Octavio Martinez. He said being patient at the plate was the most important facet of his game that he hopes to improve this season. The numbers agree, as FanGraphs reports that he swung at 31.9 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last season, about 2 percent above league average.

Changeups in particular were hard for Robles to pick up. Brooks Baseball found that not only was he swinging at changeups more often than any other pitch, he was also whiffing at them 18.8 percent of the time (also his highest rate vs. a single pitch) while only managing to make weak contact even when he did get his bat on the ball.

Robles mentioned that one of his biggest takeaways from last season was recognizing how relaxed his veteran teammates were during their playoff run. It helped him feel more relaxed as well and that’s something he says he expects to continue into this season. That would be important, because a relaxed player would probably be less likely to bite on changeups and wait the extra half-second to recognize the ball is breaking.

By OPS, center field was the Nationals’ second-worst area of production last season ahead of only catcher. And with steady veterans Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes returning behind the dish, the pressure will be on Robles to take a step forward.

He doesn’t turn 23 until May, so there’s still plenty of room for Robles to grow. If he can take his 88 OPS+ (a metric that finds he was 12 percent below league average at the plate last season) and turn himself into a solid offensive contributor, it will go a long way in helping the Nationals move forward without Rendon.

“Victor is gonna get better and better,” Long said. “I think he learned a lot last year and I think his future is very bright. He held his own. If you asked him, he’s gonna tell you he can do better and I believe he can and I think we’ll see that.”

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Former Nats pitcher Chad Cordero looks back on the team's early days at RFK

Former Nats pitcher Chad Cordero looks back on the team's early days at RFK

Former Nationals closer Chad Cordero was one of the team's first stars when the franchise moved from Montreal to the nation's capital. Cordero recorded an MLB-best 47 saves and finished fifth in the National League Cy Young voting during the Nationals inaugural season in 2005.

But the closer also remembers the early struggles of the organization. The Nationals spent the first three years in Washington playing in RFK Stadium, the former home of the city's Redskins and the stadium that actually was home to the Senators the last time professional baseball was in D.C.

The first time Cordero played in RFK Stadium is one he'll always remember, and not because of anything that happened on the field.

"Going through those first couple years at RFK, it was hard," Cordero said in an interview with the Nationals Talk podcast. "I remember our first exhibition game against the Mets, I think it was late March and upper 20 [degrees]. We were all excited to warm up, take a nice, hot shower. You go into RFK, the showers are nothing but cold water."

Click below to listen to the full interview on the Nationals Talk podcast.

Yikes.

RFK Stadium was built in 1961, so it was already one of the older stadiums in the league. But that's certainly not getting your season started off on the right foot. 

The organization has made tremendous strides in the decade and a half it's been in Washington, which makes Cordero something he's really proud of.

Since their move to D.C., the Nationals have gone from an annual100-loss team to a perennial World Series contender. After years of heartbreak after heartbreak, the Nationals finally broke through in 2019, earning their first World Series title in team history.

"We had a lot to deal with back in those days, but we were all very happy to be a part of it," Cordero said. "To see it grow, to see the fan base grow, everybody be as welcoming as they have been. To see the Lerner's make that step and go out and get who they need to get to make this ballclub a good team. It makes you very proud. It makes you excited to come back and experience all of that."

Cordero was honored by the Nationals before Game 3 of the World Series, where he threw out to first pitch at the first-ever World Series game at Nationals Park. 

The organization hasn't just changed dramatically since Cordero's playing days in D.C., the area around Nationals Park has gone through a complete makeover as well.

When the stadium opened in 2008, the Navy Yard neighborhood which the ballpark is located in was largely underdeveloped and unknown to many D.C. residents. Now, it's one of the most hopping, hip areas in all of Washington, largely due to the community that has been built around the stadium. While Navy Yard has blossomed, RFK Stadium has been relatively unused and will be torn down in 2021.

"Being one of the original Nationals, we always felt like we helped build it," Cordero said. "It's a huge honor to be able to come back and everything, see how everything's grown. I couldn't have imagined a ballpark this beautiful as this one right here, especially with how much this area has turned around. The restaurants, the condos, everything. It's pretty amazing to see how far this place has come."

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