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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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Max Scherzer's first start since hamstring injury was a battle, but one he won against the Mets

Max Scherzer's first start since hamstring injury was a battle, but one he won against the Mets

Better. Though the bar was low.

Max Scherzer worked for six innings Tuesday night in New York. He made it through one roughshod inning during his last outing against the Mets because his hamstring “tweak” was enough of an alarm that he decided to stop pitching.

That was seven days prior to his start against the Mets, which the Nationals won, 2-1. Ostensibly, Scherzer had not pitched for 13 days. He lasted the one inning, needed to work his hamstring problem out, then find a way back to the mound.

Davey Martinez wanted him to stop sprinting -- the initial cause of the hamstring problem -- in between starts. Scherzer did not want to stop sprinting, so he continued to do so once he felt better. He also pitched twice from a mound in the days before the bottom of the first on Tuesday. Both times, he felt 100 percent when pushing and landing. The hamstring was fine. So much so, that he expected to throw the 105 pitches he did to hold off the Mets across the grinding innings they imposed on him.

“Took some shots there early, but didn’t break and found a way to execute pitches there later in the game,” Scherzer said.

RELATED: TREA TURNER'S SWING HAS TAKEN TIME TO ADJUST WITHOUT REPLAY ACCESS

He finished with seven strikeouts across the six innings. Just a run scored. But, there were eight baserunners and Scherzer was in severe trouble in both the first and second innings. Those were the issues as he hunted a path to better out-pitches and location.

“It honestly kind of reminded me of Game 7 of the World Series when he went out there and he couldn’t zone in on the strike zone,” Martinez said. “His stuff was good. His pitch count got high. Once he settled in, we started noticing he started getting through the ball a little better. Balls started coming down. Started throwing a lot more strikes.”

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“Even though my pitch count got out of control, I was just able to just stay with [Kurt Suzuki] and continue to pound the zone and find a way to get through six [Tuesday],” Scherzer said.

The good is clear: He is back on the mound, healthy, throwing 98 mph and 100-plus pitches. Stephen Strasburg returned two days prior, though he is not 100 percent. Scherzer is physically right, if slightly rusty. That combination was sufficient in his first start after the hamstring problem.

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With no access to in-game video, Trea Turner’s swing has taken time to adjust

With no access to in-game video, Trea Turner’s swing has taken time to adjust

Heading into the Nationals’ four-game series with the New York Mets this week, Trea Turner was hitting just .196 on the young season with one home run. The vaunted base stealer had been thrown out on the basepaths three times while having yet to swipe a bag successfully. In the field, he’d racked up three errors.

It was a frustrating start for the 27-year-old shortstop, who’s coming off a season in which he played with only nine fingers and still found a way to serve as a catalyst atop the Nationals’ lineup. Now fully healthy, Turner was expected to play a role in helping Washington absorb the loss of Anthony Rendon in the middle of its lineup.

Normally, poor at-bats would prompt Turner to head down to the replay room for a quick look at his mechanics. He goes into the clubhouse in between innings and examines his previous swings to see if he needs to make any adjustments. It’s a practice Turner has grown to rely on over the course of his major-league career.

But this season, Turner hasn’t had access to the replay room after MLB banned in-game video as part of its health protocols for playing in the middle of a pandemic. Instead, he’s had to wait until after each game before being able to break down his swing. It’s made for slower progress, but after going 5-for-9 with two home runs and four RBIs over the first two games of the series in New York, he feels that his adjustments have started to pay off.

“I felt good in the box and I feel like my approach was good but not having video is a little different and I feel like in years past I was pretty good at going back and just checking out the swing real quick and making the little adjustment I need to make in game,” Turner said in a Zoom press conference after Tuesday’s 2-1 win.

“Finally made the right adjustment a few games ago and started putting the barrel on the ball and feeling a little better. The last four or five games or so my contact has been a little bit stronger and it was just a matter of time for the hits to start to fall.”

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Turner hasn’t been the only member of the baseball community to express how the lack of video access has changed their approach. On Saturday, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash told MLB Network Radio that he wasn’t pleased with MLB’s decision to ban something that had become an integral tool for coaches and players during games.

“Without being too controversial, I think it's absolutely ridiculous,” Cash said. “It's probably one of the worst things that I've seen Major League Baseball do in take video away from players. Video is what makes us good. It helps us learn, it helps us coach, it helps us attack. And it's been taken away from us because of one team, or a couple teams' stupid choices.”

“We can't even watch a game; we cannot watch our own game. Our players cannot come in and watch a game in the clubhouse. It is asinine. The entire protocol system, how they came up with that, it is wrong. They're doing an injustice to players.”

While it’s unknown whether the real reasoning behind MLB’s decision is related to health protocols or the sign-stealing scandals that surrounded the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox over the offseason, Turner isn’t making any excuses. In fact, the results are beginning to turn his way.

Entering play Tuesday, Turner had a hard-hit percentage of 40.9 percent, well above his career rate of 32.5. His batting average on balls in play was just .238 (league average is .300), indicating he had been getting unlucky on some well struck balls. In fact, his groundball rate is down five percentage points from his career average while his flyball rate is up 10 percent.

Then came his home run off Mets starter Rick Porcello in the first inning. Turner took a breaking ball high and away and hit it off his back foot on a line straight into the seats in right field.

It was only Turner’s second opposite-field homer of his career after he hit none all of last season. Yet even with the adjustments he’d been making to his swing, he said that he didn’t go into the at-bat looking to hit anything to right field against Porcello.

“I think it’s just swing path and pitch,” Turner said. “I’ve hit a few balls to right-center out in certain stadiums, mostly probably at home, and I don’t know if those are opposite field per se. They might be more center field but I just think when you’re facing righties, to hit an opposite-field home run is fairly tough. He tried going toward that backdoor sinker and I just felt like it was the right swing on the right pitch and just keeping it fair and not slicing the ball.”

Turner will continue tweaking away at his swing, hoping to produce results like he has so far in the New York. But with or without the video replay room, he doesn’t expect the opposite-field homer to be the start of a new trend.

“I don’t have necessarily that oppo power some of these big guys get,” Turner said. “I usually have to pull them but every once in a while, if you get the right pitch on the right swing, it sneaks out. So I’ll take it.”

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