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Words that shaped a middling season for the Nationals

Words that shaped a middling season for the Nationals

Rolling to the end of the year always prompts reflection.

Things are said along the way. Proclamations, reactions, takes on the pivotal moments that can age well or later prompt head shakes. With that in mind, let’s look back at some season-defining quotes from a middling 82-80 year for the Washington Nationals.

Feb. 28
"For me, as I thought about it, the hump is every day. And I want them to embrace it, not fear it. And have fun with it." -- Davey Martinez

Never have camels been more maligned. Davey Martinez said he would use creative motivational tactics. He also directly charged at the Nationals’ multiple postseason failures. There was no tip-toeing around them. Bringing camels into spring training was among Martinez’s pursuits to loosen what was often seen as a stoic or stiff clubhouse. It also provided fodder once the season moved in a bad direction. Did camels at spring training have any influence on the season’s outcome? Of course not. It did show how far Martinez was willing to go for a jolt. It also reminded the No. 1 topic around this team remains its failure to move on in the playoffs.

April 5
“It’s a long season. We’re still feeling our way out. We have very capable men in this locker room that can do really amazing things. I’d rather be playing good in October and September than in April, to be honest with you.” -- Adam Eaton

This after a third consecutive loss dropped the Nationals to 4-3. A series sweep started things in Cincinnati. Rougher road emerged the rest of April when the Nationals went 11-16. The calendar, and many incorrect onlookers, suggested the team’s initial failings in the month were a blip as opposed to foreboding. A successful May was followed by three more months of sub-.500 baseball and a capsized season.

May 24
“When I got this job, on paper everything looked great. Starting lineup, pitching, then all of a sudden we get all these injuries. Weathering the storm, as we call it every day, it’s a grind. And this game is a grind. But, you know what? I love it and have fun doing it, and I’m passionate about it and like I said, I appreciate those boys in there doing what they’re doing because this could have fell apart a long time ago. It hasn’t and it won’t.” -- Davey Martinez

At this stage, Martinez felt much better than April. Washington went 20-7 in May, enough to vault it 11 games over .500 at one point and back to the top of the division. However, even in the lone month the Nationals’ rotation was in a groove, Martinez’s bullpen usage of his “big three” remained high. May’s push to undo April’s mess had residual effects later in the season, as well as publicly. Veteran relievers openly and privately commented on how much they were being used. How Martinez handled the bullpen in his first year as manager became one of the season’s biggest topics.

June 30
“I definitely think we can play a lot better in the second half and moving forward. I think winning games like tonight would be huge.” -- Trea Turner

The Nationals lost a one-run game -- this one 3-2 to Philadelphia -- to reach the season’s midpoint just three games over .500. They closed the month losing four of five, three of those games by one run. Inability to win tight games haunted them throughout the season. They ended up 16-24 in one-run games. By the time September hit, Washington was 12-21 in one-run games and all but eliminated from the postseason.

July 16
“I’ve been here since I was 17 years old. I’ve grown in front of these fans. Everyone who has a job here... That’s the security guard out front. The guy that works the parking lot. Those are the relationships you love. Those are the things that you see everyday. Those are the things that it’s all about.” -- Bryce Harper

Everything was forgotten for a night. Harper, dripping in patriotic odes from his bat to his shoes, rallied to win the Home Run Derby with an epic close. If the rest of the season was flat, this was a giddy meteor amid the misery. Harper had a moment with the fans, his teammates, and his father, Ron, all wrapped into one ebullient evening at Nationals Park. The night presented Harper unleashed, a state which had eluded him for several years as he toned down his maniacal play on the field as well as his public dispatches off it. One night of fun, simple as that.

July 20
“You’re not in the family.” -- Stephen Strasburg

This was Strasburg’s response to a reporter’s follow-up question the night Strasburg and Max Scherzer had a dugout argument. Clubhouse questions followed, as they do in underachieving seasons, and the Nationals’ overall vibe continued its fluctuating through the season. To see Strasburg and Scherzer -- owners of $385 million in salary -- have a public spat attached a visual snippet to what was becoming a moribund season.

July 31
“I think it tells the team that we believe in the squad we have. The 25 guys in that clubhouse, we felt all along have a chance to win this division. We’re the two-time defending champs. We’ve got the bull’s-eye on our back and the crown on our head, and until someone takes it away from us, we’re still the champs.” -- Mike Rizzo

They stood pat. For a couple weeks, anyway. The Nationals did not trade Harper -- which appears to be an error in retrospect -- gave the team one more shots as constituted, then failed to advance. It’s not often Rizzo is in between. He was here. Ownership desires, an incredibly tough team to read, along with suggestion Atlanta and Philadelphia could easily drop back to the pack delivered this stance. They didn’t push forward or fold the tent. The outcome from that decision left them wanting in several areas.

Aug. 15
“We just have to keep grinding. We’ve got some really good players, some good hitters. We’ll score some runs. Our pitching we’ll get straightened out. Our bullpen is beat up a little bit, so if we start getting those guys back and healthy, things can happen. Things can happen fast.” -- Davey Martinez

The Nationals lost 4-2 in St. Louis. Seems plain enough. However, it dropped them under .500 and nine games out of first place. Jeremy Hellickson was also injured the same day. If a day felt like the end, this could well be tagged as it. Daniel Murphy was traded a week later. Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Madson were traded two weeks later. The Nationals never re-entered the race.

Sept. 1
“Just keep doing Juan Soto things.” -- Juan Soto

Juan Soto’s elite season was also unexpected. He rocketed from Single-A Potomac to the major leagues, where he finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting. He also delivered this hilarious quote when asked how he came out of a semi-slump. Soto’s emergence was a surprise salve for the rest of the season’s ailments. He turned from awe-inspiring prospect to legitimate major-league hitter. Soto also put the Nationals in a different position when negotiating with Bryce Harper.

Sept. 22
“Excited about the future. If I’m going to be part of that future, then hopefully I am, and if I’m in those plans for the Nationals organization and the Lerners, then we’ll see what happens.” -- Bryce Harper

The time everyone waited seven years for arrived. Team control of Harper was set to expire. He began to speak with reporters he knew about what’s next. During those conversations, Harper tactfully positioned himself by staying positive about the organization while suggesting his possible return was up to ownership. If he ends up elsewhere, don’t be surprised if he thanks the Nationals early in his first media availability.

Dec. 1
“Bryce is a free agent. We’re in contact with he and his reps. He knows where we stand. He knows how we feel about him. Things should take care of themselves.” -- Mike Rizzo

An overview before Harper’s offseason really began. Rizzo, like Harper, did well to manage the proper semantics when speaking about relationships and futures. That was until another prominent Nationals source reached the airwaves.

Dec. 7
“I don’t really expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on.” -- Principal managing owner Mark Lerner

Lerner’s comments on 106.7 The Fan roiled Harper’s free agency process. He, ostensibly, withdrew his team without forcing up the price for others. In public. The words were strange and caused Rizzo to unwind them to some degree during his future meetings with the media.

Dec. 12
“I think when you’re in Bryce’s shoes, you have no way of really knowing how this is going to turn out. He has great regard for the organization, Washington fans, his teammates. There is certainly a potential where that [final] day could come. It could be his last day wearing that [Nationals] uniform. And there’s potential where it could go on for the eternity of his career.”  -- Scott Boras

The closest anyone has been to hearing from Harper is when they listen to his agent, Scott Boras. He held another epic media round at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas which revealed little. With just a week remaining in 2018, Harper remains unsigned and appears all but done in Washington.


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MLB and Cuba reach agreement for players to sign more safely

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MLB and Cuba reach agreement for players to sign more safely

HAVANA -- Major League Baseball, its players' association and the Cuban Baseball Federation reached an agreement that will allow players from the island nation to sign big league contracts without defecting, an effort to eliminate the dangerous trafficking that had gone on for decades.

The agreement, which runs through Oct. 31, 2021, allows Cubans to sign under rules similar to those for players under contract to clubs in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Only players under contract to the Cuban federation are covered by the agreement, and the Cuban federation agreed to release all players 25 and older with at least six years of professional experience. They would be classified as international professionals under MLB's labor contract and not subject to international amateur signing bonus pools.

The Cuban federation may at its discretion release younger players to sign minor league contracts with MLB organizations.

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Bryce Harper to the Phillies? Looking at the chances Harper ends up with a division rival

Bryce Harper to the Phillies? Looking at the chances Harper ends up with a division rival

Winter has finally arrived for the Washington Nationals. Bryce Harper has potentially played his final game in a Nationals uniform, and all fans can do over the course of the next few months is play the waiting game. Instead of sitting around twiddling our thumbs, however, we’re going to take a look at some of the major players who will be active in Harper’s free agency this winter.

We’ll do our best to gauge how genuine each team’s interest in the superstar is (spoiler alert: they are all very interested) and try to guess how good their chances are of landing him. 

Bovada updated their odds on Harper’s ultimate landing spot after the regular season ended, and they’ve got the Nationals as the fifth-most likely team for him to (re)join. Number one on that list was the Chicago Cubs. Number two was the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Number three? The Philadelphia Phillies.

The Narrative

Nationals fans aren’t going to want to hear this, but the Phillies are absolutely legitimate contenders for Bryce Harper this offseason. I know, it’s a scary proposition.

The team’s owner, John Middleton, has been itching to spend on a winning ballclub. He’s got hundreds of millions of dollars burning a hole in his pocket (must be nice) and wants to invest in getting the Phillies back on top of the baseball world. This upcoming free agency represents the perfect time to jump back in the water, as two young megastars are on the market in Manny Machado and Harper. And, what do you know, the team’s two worst positions last year were shortstop and right field!

There has been rampant speculation that Middleton would like to go after both Machado and Harper, which is an even more terrifying proposition for the Nats. It’s unlikely to expect Philly to land the two biggest fishes in recent memory, but you can bet your bottom (300 million) dollar(s) that they’ll be in play for at least one of the two studs.

Harper has played well at Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Phillies, in his career. His 14 home runs there are the most he’s hit in any ballpark outside of D.C., though his tOPS+ in Philadelphia is just 104 (essentially, he’s hit about 4% better at Citizens Bank Park than his usual splits everywhere else).

Harper doesn’t have the same personal connections to the city of Philadelphia or the Phillies organization as he does with the Cubs and Dodgers (and obviously the Nationals). In this case, the narrative surrounding this signing would be more about the Phillies announcing themselves to the baseball world as “back.” 

Given their youth, early success last season, talented farm system, and obvious willingness to spend big, it’s an easy narrative to sell to Harper. Plus, the Phillies wear pinstripes, and we know how important that was to a young Bryce.

In reality, if Harper signs with the Phillies, the narrative for the baseball world would focus on the team’s ability to compete immediately, and the narrative for Nats fans would be Harper not just leaving D.C. as he’s entering his prime, but leaving to join their most bitter division rival. It’s safe to say if this ends up happening, there won’t be any Bryce Harper statues in D.C. any time soon. 

The Roster

Of all the teams expected to make a run at Bryce Harper, this one makes the most sense from a roster perspective. There are two sides to that coin: the finances, and the players already on the team. 

From a financial standpoint, Scott Lauber did a nice job breaking down how much the Phillies will actually be able to spend this winter. According to his math, the Phillies have about $69 million committed to six players next season, plus around $38 million set to go to players who are arbitration-eligible.

By all accounts, the organization wants to spend big again now that their rebuild is wrapping up, which means their payrolls in the early part of the decade are probably more informative than recent years.

When competitive, the Phillies were regularly spending $160-170 million, and that was good enough for top five in all of baseball. The average top five salaries in recent years have gone up even from that, meaning we can probably expect them to spend in the $180-200 million range. They may not jump up all the way back to that mark in one year alone, but it’s fair to assume they have more than enough money to commit to Harper both in the short and long term without hamstringing themselves from making other improvements to the roster.

In other words, yes, they can afford to give Harper a record-breaking deal.

From a players standpoint, it makes even more sense. According to Baseball Reference, the Phillies outfield as a unit had a combined WAR of negative-6.7 in 2018, which unsurprisingly was dead last in baseball. Even just looking at right field specifically, Philadelphia was at negative-2.9, half a run worse than any other team.

For the sake of thoroughness, let’s take a look at who will be around in the outfield over the next few years.

Odubel Herrera is the only player signed to a long term contract, as he’s set to be there through at least 2021. Aaron Altherr, Nick Williams, and Rhys Hoskins are all under team control for the next three seasons as well, thanks to limited service time, though Hoskins is the only one of those who looks like a true star. Their current outfield is very reasonably priced, but questions remain as to whether or not it will actually end up any good. Plus, Hoskins’ future may ultimately end up being at first base. I’ll also mention Scott Kingery, who is signed for several seasons at a reasonable deal, but who will play the vast majority of his games in the infield. His versatility is worth pointing out, however.

At the end of the day, the Phillies enter the 2018 offseason with maybe the worst outfield in baseball, and their only potentially great outfielder is likely to move to the infield.

What I’m saying is they have a giant, gaping, Bryce Harper-sized hole in their outfield. 

The Odds

When people ask me where Harper is going, I’m always sure to mention the Cubs as a possibility, in addition to the chance he stays in Washington. The third team I find myself going back to everytime is the Phillies. 
It’s just so obvious of a fit from a personnel standpoint, they’re in the right stage of their rebuild (i.e. at the very end) and are just now entering their contention window, and they have a boatload of money to spend.

There probably isn’t another team in baseball with the same combination of roster need, contention readiness, and financial might, so the only thing keeping the Phillies from being favorites is the perceived comfort and familiarity Harper has elsewhere. 

Really, though, how often do free agents trying to set the record for biggest contract in MLB history find themselves picking a team based on the friends they already have there? The betting favorite should be whoever is willing to give Harper the biggest offer possible, and no one else has the financial flexibility and motivation that the Phillies do.

If anything, Philadelphia’s odds coming in at +550 are too low, and if I was someone who wanted to place some hard-earned cash on Harper’s final destination, it’d be mighty difficult to look elsewhere.

I know, I know, Harper going to the Phillies would be the ultimate dagger for Nats fans. Please don’t shoot the messenger.