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What happens if Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon both leave?

What happens if Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon both leave?

When Kawhi Leonard walked off the Staples Center floor Friday night, a fellow former San Diego State attendee caught his eye.

Stephen Strasburg was sitting courtside near the end of the bench. Leonard stopped for a brief greeting after recognizing him. To Strasburg’s right was a smiling Scott Boras.

The quick exchange sent social media palpitating -- as just about anything does -- because free agent Stephen Strasburg was in Los Angeles with Boras. It also provided a clear reminder of what is at stake with Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. Both could be gone next year, prompting debates about how they will be received when returning to Washington, who was at fault for their departure and what more should have been done.

Let’s assume it happens.

Not because that is the probable outcome -- retaining one of them, probably Strasburg, appears the most likely outcome. But instead because this is a discussion about contingencies. If they both leave, where do the Nationals go?

We know a few things to guide a discussion about what the Nationals could do without two of their most important players:

-- The competitive balance tax threshold moves to $208 million next season and the Nationals reset their penalty clock in 2019 by staying under the $206 million threshold. This provides them wiggle room financially as well as a chance to maintain their usual top-10 spending. Only once in the last five years did the Nationals’ payroll land outside of the top 10. They will spend.

-- Strasburg was set to make $25 million next season. That was on the books. It’s now in hand.

-- A seven-year, $210 million offer to Rendon means a budget with another roughly $30 million (which would be a raise of $12.2 million for Rendon after playing under a significant salary last season provided for goodwill and to avoid arbitration). More money there.

-- The free agent class is not great beyond Gerrit Cole, Strasburg and Rendon. 

So, where can the Nationals dump their funds to remain competitive? All the options live with the duality of being flawed but reasonable.

First, to the pitching. Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez remain. The fifth spot will be a toss-up for Austin Voth, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde. Perhaps a veteran is at spring training for a look, too. But, no matter what happens with Strasburg, the other four slots are clear.

Which means Washington is looking for a No. 3 starter, essentially. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Wheeler are the two most compelling options. 

Ryu is 33 years old, put together a 2019 that almost doubled his second-best year in production and is a pitcher focused on command. 

Wheeler is enticing. And frustrating. He’s 29 years old, but there is not much mileage on his arm since he missed 2016 and 2017 because of a UCL tear (Tommy John surgery) and mild flexor strain during his rehabilitation. Wheeler’s innings pitched have increased each season since he returned to the major leagues: 86 1/3 innings, 182 1/3, 195 1/3. His raw stuff suggests he should be a more dominant pitcher. His 2019 FIP (3.48) suggests he is not there. However, his 2019 fWAR, 4.7, put him eighth in the National League. 

Dropoff from there is significant. Only a handful of teams, maybe fewer, can afford to pay Cole, which puts Ryu and Wheeler in spots to create a very competitive market for their services.

Third base is limited. Josh Donaldson is the clear second-best option behind Rendon. He will be in his age-34 season. Mike Moustakas is at least intriguing -- but may be a presence elsewhere on the field for Washington or another team. Moustakas played 44 games at second base last season. The Nationals could opt for him to mix-and-match in the infield. Signing both seems unlikely, though it would be a potent offensive situation. That lineup could look like this (with 2019 fWAR in parentheses):

Trea Turner (3.5)

Adam Eaton (L; 2.3)

Josh Donaldson (4.9)

Juan Soto (L; 4.8)

Ryan Zimmerman (0.1) 

Mike Moustakas (L; 2.8)

Victor Robles (2.5)

Kurt Suzuki (0.6)

Pitcher

That lineup does not make up for Rendon’s departure. However, it provides depth, a long line of quality at-bats and flexibility. The challenge is finding money for Donaldson and Moustakas. A wrinkle in all of this: Washington could hand the second base job to Carter Kieboom, making a push for a free agent moot at that position.

So, pull everything together this way: the rotation of Scherzer, Corbin, Wheeler, Sánchez, flavor of the day (Voth appears the front-runner). Donaldson or Moustakas at third base. A veteran second baseman (Starlin Castro, whose BABIP was down 26 points over his career average last season?) to pair with or protect Kieboom.

A full season from Turner would provide more offense. It’s fair to expect an uptick from Robles. Wheeler has potential to be a top-10 pitcher in the National League. Is it Strasburg and Rendon? No. Though it remains a forceful team if a full contingency plan needs to be enacted -- especially if the bullpen is simply league average.

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Nationals, Sánchez blasted by Orioles in another mediocre performance

Nationals, Sánchez blasted by Orioles in another mediocre performance

WASHINGTON --  The Nationals are 4-6 following a Friday night drubbing by the Baltimore Orioles, a team not expected to be remotely good in 2020.

The season’s fluctuations are under way. The Nationals went 1-4, looked listless and were charged with not having fun. They won three in a row to complete the push for an even record. They lost Max Scherzer and two games since. Friday night was particularly abhorrent. They were smacked 11-0 by an Orioles team which had 19 hits. It could have been worse.

“This is just one of those games where you’ve got to put it behind you as quick as you can and come back tomorrow and regroup and go get ‘em tomorrow,” Davey Martinez said. “This game was about as lopsided as I’ve seen in a long time.”

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Aníbal Sánchez has problems. His ERA is 7.84. It, like the Friday night score, could be worse.

He shrugged off his poor start to open the season. Sánchez was more irritated Friday -- back on the mound 12 days after the first time. When he walked Renato Núñez on a 3-2 pitch which wasn’t close to a strike, he yelled, then left the mound to pace. Pitching coach Paul Menhart came to visit.

Recall last year. Sánchez opened with a 5.91 ERA across April and May. He was much better in the following two months, righting his season and helping the Nationals from their malaise. But time for a course correction this season is limited.

“I think the situation that happened last year was [me] out of routine,” Sánchez said. “This is only something you have to handle no matter what. … This is going to happen this year early in the season. I think when you’re out of routine, it’s really hard to see what’s going on. Right now I can see the difference between the games with fans and no fans and all the kinds of things. A little bit something in your mind. At the end, I think I need to figure out how to control my game in all those situations.”

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Sánchez has made 16.7 percent of his starts (and the team is through the same amount of its season). Only nine remain. Reacting to two starts in normal times is not recommended. However, these are not normal times. Much like the offense -- which failed to score for the first time this season -- Sánchez needs to quickly gather himself. However, Trea Turner doesn’t feel the squeeze is on them yet.

“If we do, it’s just going to snowball on us,” Turner said. “There’s no point to. I think it’s more perspective -- more teams are in the playoffs this year, so you’ve got more room for error. More opportunities to make up ground. That being said, it is a shorter season. We need to take advantage of every game because we’re playing some good ball clubs. They kicked our butts [Friday]. Got to be ready each and every day.”

The Nationals play two more games during the weekend against Baltimore. Austin Voth starts Saturday, Stephen Strasburg returns Sunday. Friday opened a 13-games in 13 days stretch after the jumbled beginning of days off and postponements. Martinez said they were happy to finally be starting what a season traditionally feels like. Day after day, game after game. Time and geography lost to the rhythm of playing.

But, the Nationals entered the game 29th in Major League Baseball in runs, then failed to score. The only team to score fewer is the coronavirus-riddled St. Louis Cardinals who have played five games this season. Their starting staff is yet to anchor them. The bullpen has an injury to its most important offseason signing and Sean Doolittle is ineffective. Fixable problems, but problems to be sure.

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Phillie Phanatic returns favor to Bryce Harper with custom jacket

Phillie Phanatic returns favor to Bryce Harper with custom jacket

Despite only being in year two of his 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, Bryce Harper's love for the Phillie Phanatic is well-known.  

On Friday, the team mascot returned the favor by showing some love to Bryce Harper with his new custom suit jacket.

Let’s all take a walk down memory lane since it is #FlashbackFriday and relive the moment when Bryce Harper took his love for Phanatic to the next level on Opening Day with this look: a custom olive-colored suit with pictures of team mascot Phanatic scattered throughout the inside. 

This is just a reminder to find someone who loves you as much as the Phanatic loves Bryce. Or vice versa. A bromance like no other.

Now if the Phillies are smart, they’ll make these suits available for the fans. If they do, there'll be no competition for the best-dressed fan base in the future.

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