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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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Blues Streak: Nationals continue postseason success in blue jerseys

Blues Streak: Nationals continue postseason success in blue jerseys

Superstitions run rampant in baseball -- the same can be said for the Nationals, whether they care to admit it or not. 

Washington is now 7-0 in the postseason when wearing their navy blue jerseys. The Nationals have worn the blue threads in every game since Game 4 of the NLDS, and they've won all six of those games, including their four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals to win the National League title and secure their spot in the World Series.

Back toward the beginning of the season, Nationals skipper Davey Martinez joked, "I'm not superstitious, I'm just a little stitious," a line from the popular TV show The Office. 

The only postseason victory the Nationals haven't worn their navy blues for this year is the Wild Card win over the Brewers -- that night, their clean all-whites did the trick. (Even after Martinez "screwed up" and accidentally trimmed his 'playoff beard' a little too much).

Baseball, arguably more than other team sports, is known for its superstitions. Because the season is so long, and because so much of the sport (especially for pitchers) revolves around maintaining a routine, it makes sense that those superstitions develop.

Traditionally, superstitions have been associated with baseball since the start of the 20th Century; a 1938 article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin cited a major-league manager as having repeatedly claimed "luck is one-third of baseball." Whether the Nationals' success is due to the blue jerseys or whether it comes from the team's attitude and capabilities on the field, the fact remains that there's a correlation between which jersey they wear and whether or not they win. 

Now the Nationals have a six-day break before the World Series starts on Tuesday, which gives them plenty of time to wash (or not) the navy blues. 

It is unlikely the Nationals risk breaking their streak by wearing a different jersey for the World Series, if they can help it. If not, maybe the power of Baby Shark will make up for the lack of blue jerseys. 

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Ready for the World Series? 10 legends that should throw out the first pitch

Ready for the World Series? 10 legends that should throw out the first pitch

The Nationals will host at least two World Series games next week. That is a wild feat for a franchise that suffered through a string of 100-loss seasons after baseball came back to D.C. in 2005.

The job isn’t done for Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. The job is just starting. The World Series presents a pomp and circumstance in baseball unseen in D.C. since before World War II. And no offense to baseball crowds in the 1930s, but the safe guess is the pomp and circumstance has grown significantly over the last 80 years. 

Much of the scene next week will be mandated by Major League Baseball. The big national corporate sponsors will show up and things that have happened all year will get pushed aside in the great name of a cash grab. God bless America. 

But, this is still D.C. and the Nationals still get some control over who throws out the first pitch. Should anyone need ideas, here’s a list of tremendous options. No politicians. Please. Seriously. 

1) John Thompson - Big John was born here in 1941 and built a basketball empire at Georgetown in the 1980s. Nobody embodies D.C. more than Thompson, the old and the new, and he probably watched Senators games at old Griffith Stadium. Thompson was around when RFK was new. Big John has an edge, and so does this Nats team. Likelihood: Slim. Baseball likes to celebrate baseball during the World Series. 

2) Joe Gibbs - The greatest winner the city has ever known. Gibbs is the epitome of class and maximizing player’s potential. A three-time Super Bowl winner that can probably still fire in a fastball. Likelihood: Even slimmer. Baseball likes to celebrate baseball and certainly not the NFL. 

3) Tom Boswell - A sports columnist to throw the first pitch of a World Series game? Damn right. Nobody did more to keep the hope for a new D.C. baseball team alive than Boz. For more than 30 years there was no baseball in Washington, and every year, Boswell would work his contacts about possible moves or expansion back to the city. For D.C. fans that were starving for baseball information and needed a leader in their quest to get America’s Pastime back to the Nation’s Capitol, Boz was their champion. No journalist will ever be more intrinsically involved in a professional team’s success than Boswell is with the Nationals. Likelihood: Slim. The media isn't supposed to be part of the story.

4) Alex Ovechkin - The best athlete in D.C. in the last century. Not just a scorer, but a champion now. This isn't about the Caps just did it so the Nats can too. This is about D.C.'s best supporting the local 9. Likelihood: Decent chance. He's a huge star and has been at Nats games throughout the franchise's existence. 

5) Livan Hernandez -  He threw the first pitch for the Nationals organization at RFK 14 years ago. A fan favorite and a winner, Livo is loved by Nats fans.  Likelihood: Seems like a good chance Livo will be involved in some capacity, first pitch might be a stretch though.

6) Wale - For young fans across the city, Wale is the most accomplished musician the city has produced. He proudly supports the Nationals and wears the Curly W just about everywhere he goes. Likelihood: Decently slim. Wale might not be quite a big enough star for a World Series first pitch but it would make a lot of sense for him to be involved somehow. Maybe he can say Play Ball!

7) Dave Grohl - A native of Northern Virginia and an incredibly accomplished musician. Getting Grohl to perform the National Anthem before next Friday’s Game 3 would be even cooler. Likelihood: Good chance, if he will do it. Not sure how much Grohl reps the Nationals. But him doing the Anthem would be incredible.

8) Anthony Williams - I know we said no politicians but if Williams wasn’t the mayor in 2004 the Nationals never make it to Washington in 2005. Securing the funding to build Nats Park wasn’t easy and probably cost Williams’ future in D.C. politics. The vote to build the stadium only passed by one vote and soon after Williams announced he wouldn’t run for re-election, but walk around the Navy Yard now and ask yourself if it was the right decision.  Likelihood: Slim. It would be very cool though if the Nats' Ted Lerner and Williams came on the field together to see just how big their vision became. 

9) Walter Johnson's relative - I don't know who this would be, but Babe Ruth's granddaughter threw out a pitch at a World Series game within the last decade. This would be a nice nod to a local icon as well as a tie to the last time a D.C. baseball team made the World Series. Likelihood: Strong. Baseball loves to honor its past especially with a local tie. 

10) Frank Robinson's relative - A baseball legend and the Nationals first manager when they arrived in D.C. in 2005. Robinson passed away earlier this year and is one of the game's all-time greats. Likelihood: Strong. Baseball loves to honor its past and especially with a local tie. Robinson would probably get honored during the Series this year anyway since he passed away in February. 

Wild Card - Tony Kornheiser. A national star now with his ESPN success, Kornheiser wrote for The Washington Post for years. He's also a huge Nats fan and talks about almost every game throughout the season on his podcast, which has a massive audience. Likelihood: Strong, but Tony will need to stay up late and deal with a huge crowd, neither are things he particularly likes. La Cheeserie.  

Note: It’s probably fair to ask why I wrote this piece as I cover the Redskins and rarely, if ever, write about the Nats. Well, I’ve been at just about every major Nationals milestone as a fan, in person, in good seats and in bad. I watched Livo throw the first-ever Nationals pitch from the nosebleeds at RFK. I watched Jayson Werth hit that Game 4 homer from standing room seats at the Red Loft bar. I was there for the opening of Nats Park and the Game 5 loss to the Cubs. I traveled to Harrisburg to watch Strasburg pitch in the minors and I’ll never forget the electricity of his Nats Park debut. I watched Bryce Harper play in Bowie. I love this baseball team, and while I loved the Orioles when the Nats didn’t exist, there was always a big hole not having baseball in my hometown. Yes I’m a reporter but I’ve never covered the Nats. I’m a fan, just like you. 

Let’s go win the World Series.