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Mark Lerner on Bryce Harper's departure: 'He chose to move on'

Mark Lerner on Bryce Harper's departure: 'He chose to move on'

The entire Donald Dell interview with Mark Lerner can be seen Tuesday, December 17, at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

For seven seasons, the Nationals and Bryce Harper enjoyed a happy marriage that included four NL East division titles, an MVP award and the respect from the rest of the league as legitimate playoff contenders year in and year out.

But principal managing owner Mark Lerner knew their relationship might not last forever. In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Washington’s Donald Dell, Lerner talked about how the team balanced making a business decision with the personal side of hoping to extend Harper when he hit free agency last offseason.

“We all like Bryce but at the end of the day, there’s the economic factor, there’s other factors that come into it: clubhouse, interaction with teammates, everything you could imagine in a decision about a free agent,” Lerner said.

Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, which at the time was the record for the most expensive contract in MLB history. The Nationals reportedly made him an offer for 10 years and $300 million that included $100 million in deferrals at the end of the 2018 season.

“He [was] a free agent for a reason, he earned that right,” Lerner said. “It’s his decision and his family’s decision where they play. And he chose to move on. He obviously got an incredible offer.

“Everybody seems to forget it’s not just a bidding war to get the players, the player has to want to play here and sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t.”

By the time Harper signed with Philadelphia in early March, the Nationals had already reported to Spring Training with starter Patrick Corbin signed to a six-year, $140 million deal as well as a slew of new faces on the roster that had joined the club through free agency. Lerner said Washington never heard back from Harper and didn’t want to wait for him to make a decision.

“We were moving down a different path at that point anyhow,” Lerner said. “Because, as you may recall, Bryce had not given us a response through his agent Scott Boras and we had decisions we had to make so we didn’t get caught waiting too long for him to find out we can’t get other players to replace him.

“And our choice at that point in time was either wait for him or we had the opportunity to sign Patrick Corbin. And we chose to sign Patrick Corbin and get another great starter, which has worked out great, and it was really more us at that point to say, ‘We have to move on.’”

The Nationals went on to win the World Series in 2019 while Harper posted an .882 OPS with 35 home runs in 157 games for the 81-81 Phillies. But as division rivals, Harper and the Nationals will see each other plenty over the next 12 years he’s locked into Philadelphia.

Only time will tell which side ends up wondering what could’ve been.

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Davey Martinez says top prospect Carter Kieboom will have chance to start at third base

Davey Martinez says top prospect Carter Kieboom will have chance to start at third base

WASHINGTON -- Carter Kieboom will be provided every chance to be Washington’s starting third baseman next season. At least according to his manager.

Davey Martinez met with a small group of reporters Friday after a “Town Hall” event at SiriusXM’s downtown studios (which airs Jan. 23 at 5 p.m. on Sirius XM’s MLB Network Radio Channel). Third base was the prime topic afterward.

“He deserves a shot to make the team,” Martinez said. “We need to fill a void at third base, and we think he's appropriate. He can do the job. I wasn't at Winterfest, but the guys there said he put on about 15-20 pounds of muscle, so I'm looking forward to watching him play there.

"What I want to do, and I'm going to talk to him in the next few days, is just let him play third base and not move him all over the place and let him get used to playing third base and get him over there and see what we got.”

Washington was cornered into this gamble when Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson signed elsewhere. Asdrúbal Cabrera is the secondary option at third, Martinez said. Starlin Castro will remain at second base. Howie Kendrick could also play third base from time-to-time.

The Nationals will go from an MVP finalist and a top-3 defender at third base to a 22-year-old rookie, if Kieboom ends up the starter. He made nine starts at the position for Triple-A Fresno in 2019. Overall, he made 10 appearances at third and committed four errors. It’s a drastic shift in baseline for the defending World Series champions.

"He's young, and I talked to [infield coach Tim Bogar] about getting him out there every day early and teaching him,” Martinez said. “The biggest thing about that is positioning, and I think once he learns how to play that position, and where to position himself, I think he's going to be OK. ... I want him to focus on defense. I think he's going to hit, but I think he really needs to focus on defense in spring training and then we'll go from there.”

Mike Rizzo recently called the position a “strength” despite there being no viable evidence for that claim. Kieboom is the organization’s top prospect, so he graces everyone with the intrigue attached to his potential -- his short-lived flop in the majors last season notwithstanding. Cabrera is a 34-year-old utility player who finished 2019 with a solid year after splurging at the plate when he joined the Nationals. The former could fail because of youth, the latter because of age. In the Nationals view, a prospect could blossom and a solid veteran is available for insurance.

“Asdrúbal’s going to play, and I talked to him,” Martinez said. “He's going to play third, some second, he'll play some first. He'll pinch-hit off the bench, which is kind of nice having a switch-hitter like him. What I like is we got options.”

The main one at third, in the middle of January, is Kieboom.

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Nationals will enter Spring Training in familiar territory with fifth-starter competition

Nationals will enter Spring Training in familiar territory with fifth-starter competition

For a team that rose to contention behind the strength of its pitching staff, the Nationals have never been afraid to leave the back end of their rotation up to chance.

It started with John Lannan vs. Ross Detwiler in 2012. Then Tanner Roark edged out Taylor Jordan for the fifth spot in 2014. AJ Cole and Erick Fedde battled it out for the fifth spot in 2018 before Jeremy Hellickson leapfrogged them both two weeks into the season.

This year, three familiar faces will be in the mix for that coveted No. 5 spot: Fedde, Austin Voth and Joe Ross. All three pitched in hybrid spot-starter/long-relief roles while jumping back and forth between the minors and major leagues. Each had their struggles but also showed flashes of what their potential could be.

“It was a year where I got to do a lot in the sense of starting and relieving,” Fedde said at the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event last weekend. “Kind of just been the same old role of whatever I can do to help this team. It’s a benefit to be on a winning team where they just try to fit you in wherever you can help. Just trying to taking things one step at a time this year.”

Fedde started his career higher on prospect rankings than his fellow competitors did, but he’s mostly failed to deliver on that promise in three years since breaking into the majors. In 2019, his up-and-down performances continued, with four quality starts mixed in with three outings in which he allowed 5+ runs.

But the biggest hurdle to Fedde making the Opening Day squad might be his rare fourth option. Both Ross and Voth are out of options heading into 2020, meaning the Nationals must place them on waivers if they don’t make the active roster out of Spring Training. Fedde, despite being optioned in three separate seasons, accumulated a fourth option due to his lack of service time at the major-league level.

So that puts the spotlight on Voth and Fedde. With the addition of the 26th man to the active roster this year, the Nationals have already said they’ll be expanding their bullpen to eight pitchers. That means the loser of the fifth-starter competition likely gets relegated to a relief role.

“I’ve done both before,” Voth said at WinterFest. “Obviously, I’m used to starting more often but if I was a reliever as well, long-relief guy, I’d be fine with that. Just want to have a role on this team and be a part of this team.”

Based on last season’s results alone, Voth would appear to be the frontrunner heading into the spring. The former fifth-round pick posted a respectable 3.30 ERA and 9.1 K/9 over nine appearances (eight starts) in what qualified as his rookie season. A shoulder issue prevented him from making the World Series roster, but he insists he’s healthy heading into this year.

Voth’s injury paved the way for Ross to make the World Series roster and thus fill in for Max Scherzer in Game 5 after the ace was scratched with a neck spasms. He pitched admirably for being given the ball on both short notice and short rest. Overall, Ross’ 2019 numbers weren’t stellar, but he was also in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

Both pitchers will enter Spring Training looking to showcase improvements they’ve made over the offseason. For Voth, he wants to improve the effectiveness of his sliders against righties, working to increase its depth and add more velocity to better differentiate it from his curveball. For Ross, he will look to show that he’s fully healthy and capable of returning to his 2016 form when he made 19 starts and accrued a 3.43 ERA.

Fedde shouldn’t be counted out, but he’ll have to have a lights-out start to Spring Training in order to garner serious consideration. The Nationals probably have more roster questions entering this season than they’ve had in a long time, but the fifth-starter competition is a game they’ve certainly played before.

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