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While you were watching the Caps win the Stanley Cup, here's what the Nats have been up to

While you were watching the Caps win the Stanley Cup, here's what the Nats have been up to

Look, we know you've been busy lately. The Caps won the Stanley Cup, and there are certain ... responsibilities that come with that. Parades need to be attended; kegs, stood on. 

If you spent the spring choosing playoff hockey over regular season baseball, we can't say we blame you. But with the Caps all on planes headed to a much-deserved vacation, here's what you may have missed from the first couple months of Nats baseball:

1. Juan Soto is for real 

If you had to boil down the Nats' first 70 games into one story, you'd be hard-pressed to go with anything other than Juan Soto. The 19-year-old was called up in late May and has since hit .328/.431/.541 with a .972 OPS. He's probably played his way into a roster spot throughout the summer, which is remarkable considering he had exactly 35 plate appearances above Single-A to his name. Here's what we expect from him going forward. There's surely a slump coming, but Soto looks like the real deal. 

2. People are all in a huff about Bryce Harper's batting average

It's been a weird year for the Nationals' star. He's "only" hitting .228/.369/.509. That first number is an ugly one, but he is by no means having a bad year. Harper's power has been on full display this year, with an ISO sitting at .281 and a slugging percentage over 100 points above league average. Batting average doesn't account for walks and values singles and home runs equally, so it's easy to see how his low BA could be deceiving. He's also having the unluckiest seasons of his career, running a BABIP (.216) well  below both his career and MLB averages. All the different projection models agree (to varying extents) that he's going to finish the season with roughly the same offensive production as he did last year, and the Nats will take that 10 out of 10 times and then once more for good measure. 

3. Max Scherzer is solidifying his spot in Cooperstown 

At this point in the year, Scherzer is probably the front-runner for NL Cy Young. Again. 3 in a row would put him with the likes of Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson who were, you know, first-ballot Hall of Famers. 

He's somehow gotten better this season, improving his K%, BB%, and HR/9, to name a few. He's wrestled the mantle of Best Pitcher In Baseball away from Clayton Kershaw and has become must-watch TV every five days. Enjoy it while it lasts. 

4. The Nats' bullpen has been pleasantly stress-free so far

An effective bullpen has been Mike Rizzo's white whale throughout his time with the Nationals. This year, however, their bullpen is just fine (and given years past, they'll happily take just fine). 11th in FIP, 8th in K%, 24th in BB% and 11th in LOB% are all numbers the Nats will happily take. Injuries remain a concern, but their bullpen depth and production has been about as good as they've had in the Rizzo era. 

5. Matt Adams! 

If bullpens are Rizzo's weakness, bench bats are his strength. This year's edition is Matt Adams, who's absolutely crushing the ball. He's already over halfway (13) to reaching his home run total from last season (20). He's posted a laughably-high .311 ISO so far. That won't be sustainable, but his plate discipline numbers and contact stats most certainly are. His homers are getting all the attention, and rightfully so, but he's putting together a strong all-around season. 

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Nationals set to bring back Matt Adams

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Nationals set to bring back Matt Adams

The Nationals just checked another box.

They have reached an agreement to bring back first baseman Matt Adams, pending a physical, NBC Sports Washington has confirmed.

The deal is for one year with a mutual option in 2020.

Adams flourished last season with the Nationals when he delivered an .842 OPS with an 118 OPS-plus in 306 at-bats as a part-time player. He was crucial since Ryan Zimmerman spent the middle of the season on the disabled list.

The Nationals later flipped Adams to the St. Louis Cardinals for “cash considerations”, which made him little more than a waiver claim for St. Louis. The Nationals just saved the remainder he was owed on his contract following the Aug. 21 transaction.

Adams, a quiet professional, fit well in the clubhouse. One on-field tear earned him a T-shirt homage to his nickname: “Big City doing Big City things” that several of his teammates wore pregame.

His role will be the same as last season: insurance for Zimmerman, as well as a power left-handed bat off the bench who will receive the occasional start if Zimmerman is healthy.

Adams’ return also enables the Nationals to shop for a true second baseman as opposed to a hybrid player like Marwin Gonzalez. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has continually moved the needle from standing pat to hunting for a starting second baseman. For now, a platoon of Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick is in place.

The Nationals' largest gap remains in the rotation following the trade of Tanner Roark. They need to find 180 innings in a thin free agent pitching market to replace Roark’s production from the last three seasons.

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic first reported the agreement with Adams.

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Tanner Roark is out, who could be in?

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Tanner Roark is out, who could be in?

LAS VEGAS -- Let’s strip the name and take a blank taste test. Wednesday, the Nationals sent an average of 197 innings out the door. That’s 591 outs. It’s not something to shrug off.

Trading Tanner Roark for a reliever, a minor-league one at that, extracts a path to almost 600 outs. The Nationals need to find a new one. Choices to do so aren’t very enticing.

They are back in the starting pitching market because of Roark’s regression the last two seasons coupling with an increase in pay. He’s expected to earn around $10 million out of salary arbitration. The Nationals are gambling they can find equal effectiveness through another starter -- or two.

There’s money to allocate now. It’s not much for the remaining upper tier of free agents. It’s sufficient to bring in someone on a one- or two-year deal and perhaps apply to a more versatile bench piece than a straight backup at first base.

Washington made Patrick Corbin the highest-paid pitcher this offseason. He was priority one. In a vacuum, he may not be worth six years and $140 million. But not all players carry the same value with every franchise. The Nationals had a clear need for another potent starter, and preferably a left-handed one at that. They received the combination with Corbin.

The challenge for the Nationals is handling this market after Charlie Morton and Lance Lynn complicated it. Morton signed a two-year, $30 million deal with Tampa Bay. Lynn received a three-year, $30 million contract from the Texas Rangers. If the Nationals didn’t want to pay Roark $10 million, they surely don’t want to pay another pitcher something near what Morton and Lynn received, even if it allows more control. Roark was entering the last year of his contract.

Dallas Keuchel remains atop the available starters. By WAR, the next-best available pitcher is 34-year-old Anibal Sanchez. He put together what appears to be an outlier season in 2018 following three consecutive years of significant regression. Sanchez’s ERA-plus went 80, 73, 70 before spiking to 143 last season, the third-best mark of his 13-year career. Sanchez has also averaged just 138 innings pitched on average the last four years. That’s a lot of outs between the workload Roark handled and Sanchez has as he heads into his age-35 season.

Next on the list by WAR? Gio Gonzalez. Moving on.

After that? Not much inspiration. Left-hander Wade Miley pitched well in just 16 starts last season. He has a carer 4.26 ERA. Miley has not put together a strong full season since 2013.

Matt Harvey? Trevor Cahill? Clay Buchholz?

Brett Anderson? James Shields? Jason Hammel?

These are not exactly places to hang your hat.

However, the Nationals have little choice. Their solution to replace Roark’s outs will come from outside the organization. Depth at Triple-A Fresno is negligible. Options in Double-A to help the rotation now are non-existent.

They have one intriguing pitcher lurking: Henderson Alvarez. The Nationals signed him to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.

“Chance to make the team, if not, to pitch in Triple A for us,” Mike Rizzo said of his outlook on Alvarez.

Alvarez threw a no-hitter in 2013. He was an All-Star in 2014. Shoulder surgery was followed by shoulder discomfort, then another shoulder surgery. Alvarez didn’t pitch in 2016. He started three games for Philadelphia in 2017. He then pitched in the Mexican League in 2018, where he finished with 4.60 ERA in nine starts. The wildest of wild cards here.

Washington has also kept an eye on Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who is available through posting system.

Somewhere, they need to find another 180 innings.

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