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Tim Kurkjian says there’s no replacing Anthony Rendon in the Nationals’ lineup

Tim Kurkjian says there’s no replacing Anthony Rendon in the Nationals’ lineup

For the first time in their history, the Nationals are gearing up for a title defense. The reigning World Series champions spent the offseason re-signing several key contributors from their playoff run while making the media tour required of Commissioner’s Trophy hoisters.

One player who won’t be returning to D.C. in 2020, however, is third baseman Anthony Rendon. After finishing third in NL MVP voting last season and leading the majors in RBIs with 126, he inked a seven-year, $245 million with the Los Angeles Angels at the Winter Meetings and left behind a hole in the Nationals’ lineup that has yet to be filled.

Free agents Josh Donaldson and Mike Moustakas signed elsewhere. There has been reported to be little traction between the Nationals and either the Chicago Cubs or Colorado Rockies for Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado, respectively. Instead, Washington is giving top prospect Carter Kieboom a shot at earning the starting job at third out of spring training.

ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian sat down with NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas for the Nationals Talk podcast and discussed just how much the team is going to miss Rendon’s bat.

“They’re not going to replace him,” Kurkjian said. “He’s way too good of a hitter. But what they’re trying to do makes some sense. If Carter Kieboom is ready, and I’m not sure he is, but if he’s ready and they put him out there every day, they got a chance to have a really good young third baseman on their team.

“If it doesn’t work, they have Asdrúbal Cabrera, they have Howie Kendrick, they have other options even Starlin Castro. But none of those guys together are going to be as good as Anthony Rendon was and none of those is going to be able to help protect [Juan] Soto in the order.”

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General manager Mike Rizzo said at the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event in January that the team wants to “score runs in other ways.” He spent the winter building their infield depth, signing Starlin Castro, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Howie Kendrick to play multiple positions.

But even so, the Nationals’ lineup lacks the thump that Anthony Rendon and, in years past, Bryce Harper provided. Yet Rizzo made another area of the roster a priority: the bullpen. He inked Houston Astros set-up man Will Harris to a three-year deal and brought back playoff hero Daniel Hudson to form a formidable reliever trio alongside Sean Doolittle.

“Their bullpen is way better than it was last year, it has to be,” Kurkjian said. “Their starting rotation is still great and even though they won’t be the same team offensively—they can’t be without Anthony Rendon—I think they’re still a solid contender to win the division, solid contender to make the playoffs again.”

The Nationals figure to be in the thick of the NL East race once again, but they’d like to do so without digging themselves into the 19-31 hole that they got into last season. While the string of comebacks and miracle performances made for an unbelievable championship effort and a legacy that will endure for generations, Kurkjian believes Washington is going to need to play more like a legitimate contender all season if it’s going to return to the World Series.

“Will they repeat last year? That’s never happening again,” Kurkjian said. “It’s not that they can’t win another championship. The way they won it, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime story and we’re never gonna see that again. From them or very many other teams, either.”

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Sean Doolittle among Nationals to express support for protesters

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Sean Doolittle among Nationals to express support for protesters

As demonstrators stood in the streets of D.C. on Monday to protest racial injustice by law enforcement across the country—most recently resulting in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis—police used tear gas and flash-bang grenades to disperse the crowd in order for President Donald Trump to visit St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been damaged amid protests Sunday.

Nationals closer Sean Doolittle and his wife Eireann Dolan voiced on Twitter their displeasure with the decision to use violence in order to break up the crowds.

Athletes and sports teams across the U.S. have chimed in to express their support for equal rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. Although the Nationals had yet to release an official statement at the time this story was published, they did join the #BlackOutTuesday movement by making their profile pictures on both Twitter and Instagram black and posting blank photos.

Outfielder Juan Soto, second baseman Starlin Castro, starting pitcher Joe Ross and third baseman Carter Kieboom joined the #BlackOutTuesday movement on their Instagram accounts as well. First baseman Howie Kendrick reposted Tiger Woods’ statement on his Instagram story.

Ross also retweeted a tweet from The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill that ridiculed the NFL for making a statement in support of the protestors after the Colin Kaepernick kneeling saga resulted in the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s continued unemployment.

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What if Bryce Harper re-signed with the Nationals?

What if Bryce Harper re-signed with the Nationals?

Bryce Harper told his wife, Kayla, he wanted to hear the Nationals’ offer. He figured he would return to Washington, the only place he played, and anchor himself there until gray started to creep into his famous follicles.

Then, he heard it.

It was lower than the original, chock full of deferred money, a lean on what had become a stagnant market for Harper’s services. The Nationals knew Harper would reject their initial offer to enter free agency. They knew he would reject their subsequent low-ball offer. They were only in for the brief optics of the idea. They were not steadfastly trying to retain Harper. He left for Philadelphia.

That’s reality. But, we’re here to play with alternative realities during “What if?” week. In this case, what if Bryce Harper re-signed with the Nationals?

First, picture the press conference: Harper sits down in Nationals Park, every local and national outlet is there, he reiterates his love for the city. He talks about raising children while working for the Nationals. His dad threw him pitches in the park just that prior summer. He hopes to do the same with his kids one day.

He’ll never be a free agent again. Harper’s time in Washington started when he was 19 years old. It will end when he is twice that age. Managing principal owner Mark Lerner will speak of Harper in paternal terms. Mike Rizzo will, as well. Scott Boras will pontificate. The media swath following the team will receive its typical jolt from Harper’s presence.

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The Nationals now have the best outfield in baseball. And, it’s probably not close. They combine for 86 home runs and 13 WAR in 2019. Harper is engaged on defense, making them the best defensive outfield, too. Between his arm, Victor Robles’ arm and Juan Soto’s growth, few want to run on them.

And the lineup is devastating. Harper replaces Adam Eaton as the No. 2 hitter. Trea Turner still leads off, Anthony Rendon follows Harper, and Soto follows him. Instead of having the best 3-4 combination in baseball -- like they did with Rendon and Soto -- the Nationals have the best 2-3-4 mix, and, when Turner is healthy, possibly the best 1-4. On the days Howie Kendrick hits fifth, the OPS of each player looks like this: .850, .882, 1.010, .949, .966. They crush right-handed pitching.

Eaton is gone. The cost control in his team-option-laden contract is appealing, but his recent play and health concerns undermine his value. He fetches three prospects, one of which is a catcher, the other two low-level pitchers. Washington’s farm system desperately needs an influx of both.

The math problems begin the following year. Harper’s huge contract limits the Nationals’ flexibility. They paid him and Patrick Corbin. Now, Rendon is leaving and Stephen Strasburg has opted out. Ownership decides they can’t bring on another enormous contract. Both leave.

Their departure begins to stir animus toward Harper’s contract. He wanted all the money when it was due and not in deferrals. The organization capitulated. They will have to maneuver around the cost for the next decade. Max Scherzer coming off the books in two years will help. The competitive balance tax annually creeps upward. Soto and Robles severely out-perform their low-level contracts, providing some flexibility.

Harper is a salve for Rendon’s departure. Instead of Starlin Castro hitting third, it’s Soto because Davey Martinez decides stacking lefties doesn’t matter when it is these lefties. Castro hits fifth. The first baseman du jour hits cleanup. Fewer questions about the offense follow Washington into spring training 2020.

Kids keep coming to see Harper. His voice in the game grows as he ages. He hides less from the media, lets his guard down a bit more, while also measuring his words. Jayson Werth counsels him on the side. Ryan Zimmerman and Scherzer help him navigate in the clubhouse day-to-day. Once those two depart, Harper is the top voice for the organization. When things are bad, he needs to answer, absorb blame, motivate himself and his teammates as much as the latter can occur in baseball. He’s the franchise face, for better or worse, the next decade.

Does he have a 2019 World Series title to rest on? Perhaps. The offense and defense (were he to play defense with vigor like he did in Philadelphia and did not in 2018) would both be better. The pitching staff would be the same because ownership went over the CBT this one time to take a maximum swing. It’s the following year when things become tough. And the next decade in D.C. baseball would belong to him, no matter what.

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