Stephen Strasburg

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3 things to watch in Nationals' visit to Philadelphia and Bryce Harper's new home

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3 things to watch in Nationals' visit to Philadelphia and Bryce Harper's new home

The 2019 MLB season has hardly started but the Washington Nationals are already in the middle of their second series of the year against the Philadelphia Phillies. The first was a two-game series last week, which featured Bryce Harper's first return to the nation's capital, and they split it 1-1.

Ahead of Tuesday's Nats-Phillies game, here are three things to watch for the second matchup in the three-game series.

1. Can Bryce Harper play a good host vs. his old team?
To the Phillies' fans that is. On the road at Nationals Park, Harper put on a show, rubbing his talent in the face of his booing former fans. In the two-game series vs. the Nats last week on seven at-bats, the $330 million man had five hits and drove in three RBI while getting walked three times. He reminded Washington exactly how much it will miss him -- and hate playing against him for the next 13 years -- but can he show the Phillies' hometown crowd how well he can play against his former team?

2. Will the pitching woes continue?
Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Sean Doolittle look like the only guys on the mound holding it together. So far this season, the Nationals' pitching issues seem like they picked up right where they left off last year. The bullpen is struggling, so whether Scherzer or Strasburg are nearly perfect or make a tiny mistake, Doolittle is already 2-0 and the only reliable one out of the bullpen. 

Example? Trevor Rosenthal's ERA is infinity. 

“We have to come up with something. We have to figure something out for him,” manager Davey Martinez said about Rosenthal, who missed all of 2018 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. “These guys have got to pitch. But we’re going to need Rosey. We really are. So we’ve got to get him right.”

After out-dueling Noah Syndergaard and the New York Mets in his first start of the season, Strasburg will face off against the Phillies' Aaron Nola. If the Nats' right-hander can give the team a good start, perhaps he'll inspire the bullpen. Or the team will have to pray Strasburg survives eight strong innings with Doolittle closing it out.

3. Can Anthony Rendon stay hot?
Yes, it's still very, very early in the 2019 season. But the Nationals' third baseman has one of the best batting averages in the NL. And against the Phillies last week in the two-game series, Rendon went 5-for-8 with two home runs and three RBI. The Nats need him to keep doing what he's doing, especially against of offensive power like the Phillies.

Download the MyTeams app to see a livestream of the Racing Presidents podcast from Salt Line at 5:30 PM EST on Tuesday. The game broadcast will be at 7:05 PM ET on 106.7 the Fan and MASN2. 


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Anthony Rendon sounds like Stephen Strasburg in contract extension talks -- and that's a good thing


Anthony Rendon sounds like Stephen Strasburg in contract extension talks -- and that's a good thing

NATIONALS PARK -- Anthony Rendon wants to simplify in all instances. He claims he doesn’t know why a hot streak starts or strikeout occurs. His defense in 2018 was on par with his previous efforts because he simply tried to “make the play in front of me.” Asked his goal for the 2019 season, Rendon turned to the baseline for all parents. “Keep the baby alive?” 

This preference for ease has filtered into Rendon’s thoughts about his contract situation. He will go through arbitration this offseason, receive a raise, then continue to monitor the four-month-old child as he enters the final year of his deal. He’ll watch his beloved Houston Rockets while spending time in “God’s country” down in Texas. Rendon will avoid the media whenever possible. The extended growth of black hair below his chin will eventually need attention. Things are quiet, at least when the baby sleeps.

While the rest of the baseball world fixates on Bryce Harper, Rendon’s contract status simmers in the background -- which is his preference. He wants everything to exist that way, out of the spotlight, off to the side, basic and sound.

This should excite the Nationals. Though Scott Boras is not prone to allowing an extension for his clients before they hit free agency, Rendon sounds a lot like Stephen Strasburg before his surprise 2016 extension. Strasburg was open to the early deal. He felt Washington was his second home (and likely didn’t trust his fluctuating health). Staying here bumped him behind Max Scherzer in the pecking order. He would avoid ever being the face of a franchise, a burly right-handed savior provided with the largest contract in some middling organization’s history. Instead, he just slips into the background here.

That sounds like a process that would suit Rendon. Boras is moving around with a packet to tout Harper, using adjectives like “iconic” as Harper tweets repeatedly about the state of his hair (it’s gone now). The next time Rendon is described as something more than serially underrated or tweets about personal hygiene will be the first.

“He’s a terrific player that nobody talks about,” Mike Rizzo said this weekend. 

Rizzo went on to say previous talks about an extension for Rendon will continue. The Nationals wants him to stay. Rizzo put no qualifiers on the idea.

Rendon calmly said he is open to an extension when asked Sunday. 

“Obviously, they like me, so I guess that’s a good thing. It means I have been doing something right,” Rendon said. “But, yeah, I’m up for it. We’ve been talking about it over the last year or so or whatever. If we can both come to an agreement and both sides are happy, why not?”

He followed with an odd, though justifiable, answer when asked if he would be worried about playing in the final year of his contract without an extension.

“No, no, that’s out of my control,” Rendon said. “The only thing I can control is one game at a time, so I am going to worry about that. … Shoot, I might pass away before the end of the season comes, a plane might crash or something. So I’m worried about one thing.”

Tracking back to Strasburg in 2016 provides quotes that could easily be attributed to Rendon in 2019. Recall that extension was worked on in the offseason before it trickled into the regular season. Once it was finished -- littered with opt-outs, fluctuating and extended money, plus a $175 million total value -- Strasburg explained his priorities. 

“I think what they believe in and what I believe in kind of coincide,” Strasburg said then of the organization.

Here’s Rendon on Sunday about Washington:

“I think just the fact that this is all I’ve known thus far,” Rendon said. “They drafted me, in 2001, that was a long time ago. So, you know, just grown familiar with the place and you have a soft spot I guess for your hometown, your first team, so why not stick with one team?”

It’s easy to hear another line from the Strasburg press conference being replicated in a future Rendon feting, too.

“I think this was player driven -- the agreement,” Rizzo said in 2016. “I think that Stephen wanted to be here and he expressed that to Scott. We hammered out the best deal that we could.”

Being in a place to pay Rendon is among the reasons for the Nationals not to pay Harper. There are other factors -- a need for rotation help, a bountiful outfield without him, nothing in the pipeline at third base --  that also backs a process where the Nationals decide to take Harper’s would-be cost and spread it around. And they could well have a taker in Rendon, just like they did in Strasburg.


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2018 Nationals Position Review: Questions remain at starting pitching behind Scherzer, Strasburg


2018 Nationals Position Review: Questions remain at starting pitching behind Scherzer, Strasburg

As we continue our look at the 2018 Nationals roster position-by-position, we turn our attention towards the starting pitching, which can best be defined as Max Scherzer and everyone else.

2018 Nationals Position Review: Starting Pitching

Max Scherzer

Age: 33

2018 salary: $22.1 million

2018 stats: 18-7, 2.53 ERA, 33 GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 220.2 IP, 300 K, 51 BB, 12 HBP, 0.911 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 12.2 SO/9

During a season where there were several things going wrong with the Nationals organization, Scherzer once again was a model of consistency. An 8.0 inning performance with 10 strikeouts and three runs or less is not just the bar, it is the standard.

Every fifth night in D.C. was must-see baseball because Scherzer was pitching. 

These numbers would suggest a higher win total than the 18 he garnered this season (same can be said about 2017). But, an inconsistent offense was the demise of one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball. 

His numbers this season were extremely similar to his back-to-back Cy Young awards the past two years. Already he is lined up as a finalist for the NL Cy Young award for this season. His 300 strikeouts and 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings were career-highs.

Were it not for the ridiculous numbers Jacob deGrom put up, Scherzer would be in line for his fourth Cy Young.

Next season is when Scherzer gets a big pay increase. Jumping up to over $27 million a year for the final three years of his deal, Scherzer is in line to earn more in 2019 than any other Nationals player. It is near impossible to argue that the ace is not worth the money. But having Scherzer and Bryce Harper potentially accounting for a combined $60 million of the Nationals payroll is a huge factor in the team’s hesitation to bring back the outfielder to a lucrative contract. 

Tanner Roark

Age: 32

2018 salary: $6.5 million

2018 stats: 9-15, 4.34 ERA, 30 GS, 0 CG, 180.1 IP, 146 K, 50 BB, 10 HBP, 1.281 WHIP, 9.0 H/9, 7.3 SO/9

There was a period near the end of the summer where Tanner Roark was hot and with the hope of Strasburg coming back, the postseason run was imminent. Getting a win in five straight starts reminded us of the variety that he is able to command over the plate. 

He would be an okay No. 3 or No. 4 pitcher, the problem is he was pitching second on a semi-regular basis. The injuries that led to this is not necessarily his fault. What is concerning is that he consistently allowed a batter to reach base in every inning. He was always behind.

At 32, he has been on the Nationals for six years now with three really good seasons and three blah seasons.

Entering his final year of arbitration with the team, he likely won’t make much more than he did this season. It is imperative in 2019 that he has another good season before entering free agency. 

Stephen Strasburg

Age: 30

2018 salary: $15 million

2018 stats: 10-7, 3.74 ERA, 22 GS, 0 CG, 130.0 IP, 156 K, 38 BB, 8 HBP, 1.200 WHIP, 8.2 H/9, 10.8 SO/9

It’s crazy that Strasburg has been with the Nats for nine seasons now. Another injury-plagued season inhibited the former No. 1 draft pick from not only pitching like a No. 2 but also from performing as a pitcher worthy of the title. 

This season was the worst WHIP of his career at 1.200. He could not stop guys from hitting to get on base. His ERA (3.74) was also a career-worst. Washington needed another repeat performance of 2017 where he finished third in the Cy Young voting.  Instead, he had to take breaks for multiple injuries throughout the year. 

Injuries will always circle around the conversation of Strasburg. If healthy (which is a big if), he still is the Nationals best option aside from Scherzer. Based on his progression from Tommy John surgery in 2012, this year looks just like an anomaly. It is hard to tell though given the history and how certain situations transpired. 

His contract doubles, like Scherzer, to $35 million in base salary in 2019.

Jeremy Hellickson

Age: 31

2018 salary: $2 million

2018 stats: 5-3, 3.45 ERA, 19 GS, 0 CG, 91.1 IP, 65 K, 35 BB, 8 HBP, 1.073 WHIP, 7.7 H/9, 6.4 SO/9

Injuries propelled Jeremy Hellickson into meaningful starts for the Nats last season. While he did not get far into games, manager Davey Martinez knew the limitations of his starter. Every night he typically got to the sixth inning using a fair amount of pitches but was able to manage his base runners.

Some nights he was a pleasant surprise in the rotation and kept the game competitive. That is more than most of the non-Scherzer starts from this rotation. 

Nevertheless, he is a free agent for 2019. Given the bigger question marks behind Scherzer in the rotation, he is not likely to return to Washington given its needs. If he does return, then expect him to be called on to be a regular starter.

Erick Fedde

Age: 25

2018 salary: $545,000

2018 stats: 2-4, 5.54 ERA, 11 GS, 0 CG, 50.1 IP, 46 K, 22 BB, 0 HBP, 1.530 WHIP, 9.8 H/9, 8.2 SO/9

All Erick Fedde got was 11 starts in 2018, his second year in the big leagues.

The Nationals’ 2014 draft pick showed the ability to retire batters this season, but at the same time, he left plenty of balls over the plate. Only once did he make it to the seventh inning.

His second stint as a starter in September was far better than his stretch in the first half of the season. Next season expect him to be with the Nats more than in the minors and be the plug-in guy in the rotation.  

Gio Gonzalez*

Age: 33

2018 salary: $14 million

2018 stats (with Washington): 7-11, 4.57 ERA, 27 GS, 0 CG, 145.2 IP, 126 K, 70 BB, 2 HBP, 1.531 WHIP, 9.5 H/9, 7.8 SO/9

Gio Gonzalez was with the club for 6-plus seasons before being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. Compared to recent seasons, 2018 was Gonzalez's worst year since his rookie season back in 2008. 

This year though was extremely ugly. All of his losses in the second half of the season were terrible, not something you can afford from a guy that is supposed to be third on the depth chart. It got to the point that every time he left the mound, it was because the Nats were out of contention in that game.

Trading Gonzalez for prospects made sense once the Nationals fell out of contention.

He is a free agent for this offseason, and, while unlikely, it isn’t out of the question for the Nats to re-sign him. The only way that would reasonably happen though is if he signed for less money than his previous contract. Another, more desperate team will likely throw money at his feet.