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Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

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USA TODAY

Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

Here's what's happening ... inside ... baseball. 

We're almost a month into the MLB season, and that sweet noise you hear is the sound of sample sizes starting to become reliable! So far, the Red Sox are very good except for the nights they're getting no-hit, Derek Jeter's Marlins and their .227 winning percentage "aren't accepting a losing culture," and Mike Trout is well on his way to another historically-great 3rd place finish in the MVP race. 

AT NATS PARK

As it stands today, the Nationals are sitting in 4th in the NL East. It's early, they haven't been healthy, etc. etc., whatever. It hasn't been great. Their pitching staff features the best rotation in baseball paired alongside one of the worst bullpens in baseball. No bullpen in baseball has a higher homerun/flyball percentage (18%) than the Nationals. Only two teams - the Rockies and the Royals - strand runners on base at a lower clip than the Nationals (64.0 LOB%). If you really want to get into the weeds, their Win Probabilty and Clutch numbers tell a grim story too. 

Don't smash that panic button yet, though (maybe just lightly rest your hand on it?). There are a few reasons to believe that maybe the bullpen isn't actually as bad as they've been the first month.  They're striking out hitters at an elite level so far - only the Brewers and the Yankees have better K/9 and K% numbers than the Nats.  If you take take a look back at which bullpens led the league in strikeout numbers over the last handful of years, you'll see a *lot* of playoff teams. In the three-true-outcome era, having a bullpen that gets swings-and-misses is inarguably valuable. The Nats have that. 

Taking a look at their individual numbers, it's clear there's an excellent backend hidden somewhere in the bullpen right now. Sammy Solis' ERA is almost four runs higher than his FIP (fielding-independent pitching), a clear sign that Solis has pitched well but been a victim of the Nats' shoddy defense. The same goes for Ryan Madson, whose ERA sits at almost seven despite an FIP under three. Assuming that bullpen roles become more established once the data catches up, the Nats' bullpen could look a lot better in a month or two. 

AROUND BASEBALL

What you should know: Manny Machado's half-season showcase is going swimmingly. He's slashing .360/.447/.708 with eight homers through the first month or so of games. He's posted a 208 wRC+, which is a fancy way of saying he's been 108 percent better than league average at the plate so far. He's been the most valuable hitter this season and the second-most valuable player overall. Meanwhile, the Orioles are 6-17 and already 12 games out of first place in the AL East. It hasn't even been a month yet. Is this the year the the MLB trade deadline is exciting?!

What you should watch: Angels @ Astros (4/24-4/25)

Shohei Ohtani is pitching on Tuesday night, so that's reason enough. But, if you need more, there's also Mike Trout, the defending World Series champs, and Justin Verlander pitching on Wednesday. It also happens to be a battle between the best two teams in the AL West, separated by half a game for first place. If there's such a thing as exciting April baseball, it looks like this. 

Player of the week: I know we already talked about him, but no one's been better than Manny Machado over the last seven days. He's hitting .500/.586/1.208 with five homers during that span. After being bit by historically bad luck during the first half of last season, Machado has been putting up monster numbers ever since:

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Tom Verducci gives more specifics on Bryce Harper's 2016 injury

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Tom Verducci gives more specifics on Bryce Harper's 2016 injury

Entering 2016, Bryce Harper was ready to take over the world. After putting forth one of the most impressive offensive seasons in recent memory in 2015, he was rewarded by being named the youngest unanimous MVP in the history of baseball. The following season, he was prepared to take another step forward.

Instead, he slashed .243/.373/.441 with 24 home runs, and questions abounded about why he was struggling.

Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, one of baseball’s most accomplished reporters, wrote a story late in the season about how Harper had suffered a shoulder injury, according to a source. The Nationals vehemently denied these reports at the time, claiming that their doctors were not aware of any medical issues with Harper’s shoulder. Mike Rizzo said he asked Harper directly if he was hurt and was told no.

At this year’s Winter Meetings, Verducci spoke with NBC Sports Washington, and he doubled down on his reporting.

“2016, of course, that’s when he injured his shoulder. It was a slide in Milwaukee, about one-third of the way into the season, was never quite the same.”

Whereas in 2016 Verducci simply referred to “a source,” it appears this information came from Harper directly.

“As he told me,” Verducci says, “He could not lift weights upper-body wise through the rest of that season, he lost weight, didn’t have the same kind of power. He was compromised even throwing on defense, he had to compromise by playing much more shallow.”

“The numbers in ‘16 really are a function of the injury.”

One concern Nats fans have about signing Harper to a major deal is how his numbers in the post-MVP years have failed to match 2015. According to Baseball-Reference, his combined Wins Above Replacement total from 2016-18 is 7.5. His bWAR in 2015 alone was 10.0. Still, Harper never had an OPS+ below 114 in that stretch. Even his “down” seasons would still be considered quality years for most big league hitters.

Harper is also just now entering his prime, however, so presumably many of his best seasons are still to come. For one MLB insider, at least, there’s no real cause for concern about a long term deal as long as Harper can stay healthy.

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The case for the Phillies as the frontrunner for Bryce Harper, according to Tim Kurkjian

The case for the Phillies as the frontrunner for Bryce Harper, according to Tim Kurkjian

Well, this is not what Nationals fans want to hear. 

There is no bigger buzz at MLB's Winter Meetings in Las Vegas than where free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign. Tim Kurkjian, one of the most respected baseball analysts, believes that Harper will stay in the NL East, but sign with the Philadelphia Phillies, not with the Nationals. 

"I think the most logical landing spot for Bryce Harper is the Phillies," Kurkjian said. "The Phillies have a lot of money and they are willing to spend it. They've made that abundently clear."

The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million extension on the last day of the 2018 regular season. As expected, he declined.

Aside from that ability to offer the 26-year-old a very large contract, Kurkjian thinks that Philadelphia makes perfect sense in Harper for purely baseball reasons. Phillies manager Gabe Kapler is also fascinated by what Harper would bring to the table.

"They also have a tremendous need [in the outfield]. They played really well for three or four months last year, but the last two months were not good," Kurkjian said. "That club needs a middle of the order hitter, and they need a star hitter to build around, and Bryce Harper fits that category."

The Phillies have also been rumored to have interest in Machado, but after a recent trade, they may shift their focus more towards Harper.

"[The Phillies] already traded for Jean Segura, a pretty good hitting shortstop," Kurkjian said. "Which means they should, at least to me, be less engaged on Manny Machado and more engaged on Bryce Harper."

Segura hit .304 for the Seattle Mariners in 2018 and was selected to the AL All-Star team.

Of course, Kurkjian is only speculating at this point, as no one will know where Harper ends up until he inks pen to the paper. Each day, there is a new story.

"This story doesn't change by the day, it changes by the hour," Kurkjian said. "But at this hour, I will say, the Phillies look to me to be the best fit for Bryce Harper."

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