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Nationals' biggest offseason questions begin with Bryce Harper's free agency

Nationals' biggest offseason questions begin with Bryce Harper's free agency

Following a disappointing 2018, this winter figures to be one of the more fascinating offseasons in Nationals history.

They have loads of money coming off the books, many holes on their roster and a huge decision to make with Bryce Harper's free agency. 

The Nationals have a lot of questions they need to answer.

Nationals Biggest Offseason Questions

1. What happens with Harper?

For years baseball fans all over have debated Harper's future, whether he will get the most lucrative free agent contract in league history and whether that will be in D.C., or elsewhere like New York or Chicago. In a matter of months, we will finally get that answer.

Throughout this year, there has been very little news about the negotiations between Harper and the team, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Talks between his agent Scott Boras and the Nats before deals were struck with Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer were kept completely out of the press. Even Jayson Werth's contract, also negotiated by Boras, came out of nowhere.

Still, it's anyone's guess and Harper himself insists he doesn't know what his future beholds. He may not figure it out until he does a full wine-and-dine free agency tour and actually goes to visit organizations like the Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers.

The Nats, however, do have plenty working in their favor. Harper seems to want a lot of money and the Lerners are among the richest owners in baseball. He wants to win and the Nats have proven they can put him in the playoffs more often than not. Juan Soto and Victor Robles are yet two more reminders that general manager Mike Rizzo is always restocking the cupboard with young talent.

Harper is also quite clearly a sentimental guy and truly appreciates the city of Washington and Nationals fans. That was evident at the 2018 Home Run Derby and certainly down the stretch of the season as he gave introspective and heartfelt interviews.

The Nats also have plenty of reasons to want Harper back. For all the gripes about his game, he has proven to be one of the best left-handed hitters in baseball and is only 25.

Harper is also nearly second-to-none from a marketing perspective. If he leaves, they could see a hit in ticket sales, merchandise sales and overall interest from fans. The Nats' rise in popularity has coincided with his career arc and D.C.-area kids love the guy.

Remove Harper and all of a sudden the Nats have a lot less star power. And it can be very difficult for fans to see their team let star players go in their prime, just ask the Wizards (Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, etc.) and the Redskins (Champ Bailey, Kirk Cousins, etc.).

Ultimately, it's all up to Harper and he will probably take his time. At least we know the long saga has an end in sight.

2. Do they retain Martinez as manager?

By now it should be clear to all that the Nationals made a mistake by letting Dusty Baker go and handing a team with championship expectations to a rookie skipper, but that doesn't mean the way to correct that error is to fire Davey Martinez after one season. The Nats took the longview with Martinez, hoping to find a lasting solution in the dugout. Just because he stumbled in his first year, doesn't mean he can't get better over time.

The Nats have indicated Martinez and his staff will be back, but they likely won't truly know until the dust settles and they have some time to think. What they could do is bring him back, but give him a short leash early in the 2019 season. If things go south quickly, let him go and promote Chip Hale from bench coach to manager. Hale has two years of experience as skipper of the Diamondbacks in 2015 and 2016.

3. Can they rebuild their rotation?

Though there were many reasons the Nationals fell short in 2018, the most baffling one had to be the ineptitude of their starting rotation. Outside of Scherzer, who was brilliant, they did not get the production they were used to from Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez before he was traded. Tanner Roark had another rough year, making his two seasons as a sub-3.00 ERA starter look more and more like outliers.

The Nats' recent era of success has been mostly attributed to strong starting pitching and they just didn't have it this season. Also uncharacteristic was that the Nats didn't have a stable of young pitchers ready to fill in the gaps. 

We've come to expect Rizzo to always have a backup plan and this time he didn't. Their lack of starting depth was exposed and as a result they finished 13th in MLB in starters ERA (4.04). That's very pedestrian and the number is skewed heavily by Scherzer. 

The Nationals clearly need some upgrades in their rotation and probably won't find them in their farm system. The good news is that it's a deep free agent class with guys like Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel likely available. Both are lefties, which the Nats need. There is also Clayton Kershaw, who could opt out of his contract. Word has it he's a pretty decent southpaw.

4. Can they fix the bullpen?

Rizzo has earned his reputation as one of the best GMs in the game, but he has two consistent blindspots. One is hiring managers, as evidenced by the variety of mistakes the team has made over the years. The other is building a bullpen.

Under Rizzo, the Nats have had some excellent bullpens at times. The 2012 season, though ultimately undone by their bullpen, featured a versatile and balanced mix of relievers. The Nats' bullpen was solid in both 2014 and 2016, but required midseason trades to get there.

Rizzo has had trouble building sound bullpens in the offseason. He has been able to patch them up midseason, but it would be nice to see the Nats count on their relief staff as a strength from start to finish. If free agency is the optimal route, there are some strong options between Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino and others.

5. Who plays catcher and second base?

The Nationals have two significant holes in their starting lineup next season at second base and catcher. Based on Rizzo and the Nationals' history, expect them to be very aggressive in shoring up those spots. 

There are some decent options in free agency for catchers in Wilson Ramos, Yasmani Grandal and Jonathan Lucroy, though all are on the wrong side of 30 at a demanding position. They can also try to trade for J.T. Realmuto.

As for second base, the free agent class is a bit more intriguing with Rockies star D.J. LeMahieu on the market. There are also some capable, but older options like Jed Lowrie and Asdrubal Cabrera.

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Scherzer finishes second in Cy Young voting

Scherzer finishes second in Cy Young voting

History stalled Wednesday when New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom won the National League Cy Young Award. Washington’s Max Scherzer finished second. Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola was third.

There’s no controversy or debate attached to this award. deGrom was phenomenal for the woebegone Mets. His 1.70 ERA led the league and was enough for the award. His easy victory also showed we continue to make progress toward discounting pitcher wins in totality.

For Scherzer, finishing second means he remains on the outside of one of baseball’s most elite groups. Only four pitchers in MLB history have four or more Cy Young Awards. Scherzer remains with his three. Two of which came in back-to-back seasons. He quickly congratulated deGrom. There was no champagne celebration while on a boat like two years ago.

Scherzer does hold an appreciation for how his fellow National League East pitchers operate. The three are distinct from delivery, to pitch movement, to pitch reliance. For instance, only Nola uses a curveball as his wipeout pitch. Scherzer throws a curveball 7.7 percent of the time in 2018, deGrom 7.9 percent. Nola? He used it 30.9 percent of the time.

So, we present two scouting reports on the three finalists. First, Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman, speaking at the All-Star Game:

“[Nola’s] a lot of two-seam, front-hip guy,” Freeman said. “deGrom is all downhill with everything and Scherzer just knows how to pitch. I feel like they’re all different. Nola’s curveball is something special. You feel like you’re going to hit it, then you don’t, every single time. Then he can front hip you with two strikes. You give up on it. Scherzer’s got that cutter. deGrom is just power, power, power.”

And, Scherzer:

“deGrom, what he does so well, is his fastball has so much life he can pitch up in the zone so well,” Scherzer told me at the All-Star Break. “Everything plays off of his fastball. And the way he can get down the mound and use that length to create that ride, that makes him literally one of the best pitchers in the game.

“Nola, he does a great job of using his two-seamer and [sinking] the ball. It’s kind of the opposite. The way he can pitch with his curveball. He can change speeds throughout the at-bat between sinking the ball, his curveball and his changeup, that’s what allows him to be such a talented pitcher.

“I think my stuff lines up closer to deGrom than Nola simply from the fact that deGrom is more of a four-seam, ride the ball, that’s what I do. Nola’s breaking ball is a curveball, whereas my main breaking ball is a slider. That’s where we’re actually very different. I can probably gain more from watching deGrom starts on how he attacks hitters.”

Scherzer has three seasons remaining on his seven-year, $210 million with the Nationals. He was astonished when he entered free agency that teams did not want to give him seven years. He had never been injured for an extended period. He worked diligently to maintain his health. Once he found a suitor in the Nationals, a decision ultimately green-lighted by ownership, he came to the National League and delivered.

Nola is one of the league’s best deals at $573,000 last season to finish third in Cy Young voting. He’s into arbitration for a raise, but will remain one of the reasons the Phillies can compete and spend this offseason.

The Mets and deGrom have a relationship so strange it seems it could only exist in Flushing. deGrom’s former agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, distributed a mid-summer statement that said the Mets should trade deGrom if they were not going to provide him an extension. Van Wagenen is now the Mets general manager. DeGrom is going to arbitration each of the next two years before becoming a free agent.

At a minimum, the three will be back in the division next season and poised to challenge for this award again.

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Nationals can afford to lose Bryce Harper, the Orioles will just lose with or without Manny Machado

Nationals can afford to lose Bryce Harper, the Orioles will just lose with or without Manny Machado

The non-Bryce Harper worst-case scenario for the Washington Nationals’ outfield could look like this: Juan Soto in left, Michael A. Taylor in center, Adam Eaton in right. That’s the bottom.

How do they get there? They don’t re-sign Harper and flip Victor Robles for a major void fill, say Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto or Seattle left-hander James Paxton.

The above is not prediction, assumption or otherwise. It’s merely a path to what would be considered the least-potent outfield the Nationals could put together if Harper went elsewhere, Robles was moved and they did not pay a replacement.

If Manny Machado does not return to the Baltimore Orioles (all but guaranteed)? They will be bad. With him? They would be bad. There’s a lot of bad in Baltimore, at the moment. Attendance, bad. Front office situation, bad. On-field performance, bad. What can make it worse? Machado playing in New York, battering them for the next decade to top things off.

Back to the Nationals. The outfield is clogged. Soto, Robles, Eaton, Harper and Taylor are all in play there. Let’s look at possible alignments with and without Harper.

With him, he drops back to right field, ideally. The center field work last season was not productive. Though, his right field work, and emphatic aversion to walls, did not yield quality results either. Baseball’s advanced defensive metrics aren’t great. However, they can help confirm the eye test, which this list from Sports Info Solutions does:

Fewest defensive runs saved, 2018 season:

Bryce Harper -27
Charlie Blackmon -26
Adam Jones -26
Rhys Hoskins -25
Miguel Andujar -25

Being on a defensive list with rookie third baseman Andujar, who committed 15 errors, or the plodding Hoskins, whom the Phillies tried to hide out there all season, is damning. When it comes to defensive range, the Nationals would be better without Harper in the field considering the four other options.

Taylor’s situation is interesting. He would be a quality fourth outfielder because of superior defensive skill and the plug-and-play ability should someone be injured. The question is who would manager Davey Martinez pull off the field late to put Taylor on it? In a Soto-Robles-Harper outfield, Soto is the weakest defender. Taylor could go to center. Robles to left. That, of course, costs the Nationals Soto’s bat. The Nationals also lost a window to sell high on Taylor last offseason before Martinez buried him on the bench this regular season. Taylor received an early chance when Eaton was shut down. He failed, then excelled, then was benched. He had a strange year.

Which is why it’s fair to wonder if he ends up part of a trade package this offseason. His speed and defense could help any team, especially a contending one (which is the same argument for him to stay in Washington). Recall that Taylor was the Nationals’ best hitter in the 2017 NLDS against the Chicago Cubs. He can also be weaponized in a part-time postseason role.

This all hinges on Harper, as does everything else. If the Nationals finalize the sport’s most expensive contract, they can decide which other outfield parts are expendable, and how to distribute them. This also speaks to timing. Harper’s situation needs to be resolved in order to have clarity for other parts, from the outfield on. Being held hostage by dragged-out negotiations could be a two-fold negative effect for the Nationals: They could lose Harper, and lose a window to have moved an extra outfielder to help cure an ill elsewhere. Regardless, they have options and a quality baseline to work from.

Baltimore is another matter. Cornered by the rest of the league knowing they were stuck, the Orioles sent Machado to the Dodgers for a large numbers of names. It’s the quality received back among the five minor leaguers that’s in question.

Cuban outfielder Yusniel Diaz, the Dodgers’ No. 4 prospect at the time, is the star attraction.

Right-handed pitchers Dean Kremer and Zach Pop, third baseman Rylan Bannon and infielder Breyvic Valera also came along. Diaz, 22, is now the Orioles’ top prospect, according to MLB pipeline. He finished the year hitting .239 for Double-A Bowie and .285 overall in 2018. None of the other four are ranked in the organization’s top 10 prospects.

Which leaves the 115-loss Orioles with only bleakness in their future, rocks in their shoes, and Murphy’s Law as the prevailing operating procedure at the moment. They remain chained to Chris Davis’ contract for four more seasons as well as the deferred money Davis is due until 2037. Their theoretical No. 1 starter, Dylan Bundy, had a 5.45 ERA last season. They are searching for Buck Showalter’s replacement in the dugout. They are reportedly close to hiring Houston Astros assistant general manager Mike Elias to become general manager, according to USA Today.

The Orioles flipped their last malaise when 2012 produced 93 wins after 93 losses in 2011. They are not positioned to do that now. They are looking at a Machado-less slog for years to come. The Nationals won’t be victimized by such a plight if their star starts swinging elsewhere.

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