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After tough 2016, Bryce Harper looks dominant in spring training

After tough 2016, Bryce Harper looks dominant in spring training

WEST PALM BEACH , Fla. — Nationals manager Dusty Baker discerns a difference in Bryce Harper at the plate this spring compared with the guy who struggled mightily for much of last season.

It's not his current home run binge -- that's simply a byproduct of Harper's success, and a pleasant one at that.

"He's not missing pitches," Baker said. "The last couple days, he's not missing pitches and he's not fouling balls off. When you're not doing well, a lot of times you're fouling balls off that you should putting play, whether it's a line-drive home run or a popup or something."

Harper had homered in three straight games for Washington before going 0 for 1 against Detroit on Monday. Five of his eight spring hits have been homers and he's added a double for good measure.

Harper also drew a four-pitch walk from Tigers ace Justin Verlander in a 3-3, 10-inning tie. The four-time All-Star outfielder is hitting .313 in exhibition play and began the day tied with San Diego's Jabari Blash for the spring training lead in home runs.

"He looks good. He looks real good," Baker said.

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Harper only hit two homers last spring after winning the 2015 NL MVP award. Once he left Florida, though, Harper turned it on, swatting nine homers by the end of April while hitting .286.

"Without Bryce last year, there's no way we'd have gotten off to the start that we had last year," Baker said.

That surge didn't last. Harper never hit more than four homers in any given month the remainder of the way and only mashed five after the All-Star break. His .226 average in the second half dropped Harper's season average to .243, easily the lowest of his five-year major league career. He finished with 24 homers and 86 RBIs for the NL East champions.

The previous season, Harper hit .330 with 42 home runs and 99 RBIs.

Harper's futility fueled speculation that he was playing through an injury, but he maintained publicly that there was nothing physically wrong with him.

"To me, he was (swinging) underneath and missing a lot of balls, fouling them off," Baker said.

Teammates are hoping that Harper's spring foreshadows a resurgence at the plate.

"As far as health-wise, the way his body looks -- and I think that's the most important thing -- he looks great," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

A strong spring often indicates the return of much-needed confidence for a player coming off a down year.

That might not be the case for Harper.

"Confidence ain't his problem," Baker said. "Confidence might be some other guys' problems, but I think he was probably born confident."

MORE NATS: Washington signs John Lannan to minor league deal

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Shildt, Baldelli win Manager of Year in 1st full seasons

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Shildt, Baldelli win Manager of Year in 1st full seasons

NEW YORK (AP) -- Mike Shildt of the St. Louis Cardinals has edged out Craig Counsell of the Milwaukee Brewers to win NL Manager of the Year.

Shildt earned the award in his first full season on the job. Counsell received more first-place votes in balloting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America revealed Tuesday night, but Shildt got more second-place votes and appeared on more ballots.

Shildt teared up upon learning he'd won, saying he was already in an emotional place after his mother died last Wednesday.

Shildt replaced Mike Matheny as Cardinals manager during the 2018 season, and St. Louis has been among baseball's best teams since. The club won 91 games and the NL Central crown this year, ending the franchise's three-year postseason drought.

The 51-year-old Shildt became the first manager of the year who had never played pro ball at any level. Last week, the Cardinals gave him a contract extension through the 2022 season.

Atlanta's Brian Snitker was third after winning the award last year. The Dodgers' Dave Roberts finished fourth, and Nationals manager Dave Martinez was fifth. Washington won the World Series, but voting concluded before the postseason began.

Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli won the AL prize in a tight ballot over Aaron Boone of the New York Yankees. Both received 13 first-place votes, but Baldelli got more second-place nods. The 38-year-old is the youngest to win the award and the eighth to take it in his first full season on the job.

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Nationals reportedly one of four teams interested in free agent 3B Josh Donaldson

Nationals reportedly one of four teams interested in free agent 3B Josh Donaldson

On the heels of a historic run to their first World Series championship, the Washington Nationals will remain at the center of the baseball universe with Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon hitting free agency. 

Rendon figures to be the top position player available, and if he doesn't return to DC, it appears the Nationals already have their eyes on a potential replacement. 

According to MLB.com's Mark Feinsand, the Nats are one of four teams showing the most interest in former AL MVP Josh Donaldson along with the Phillies, Braves and Rangers.

Rendon, Donaldson, Mike Moustakas and Todd Frazier highlight a deep free-agent class at the hot corner, and Feinsand adds that teams who miss out on Rendon or don't want to wait for him to make his decision can turn to Donaldson. 

Donaldson is coming off a one-season stint with the Braves where he posted a .259/.379/.521 slash line to go with 37 home runs and 94 RBI. Entering his age-34 season, Donaldson isn't quite playing at the MVP-level he did with the Blue Jays, but it's clear he can still produce.

If the Nationals aren't comfortable with committing long-term money but still want some production and a veteran presence at third base, Donaldson could be the perfect fit. 

The Braves signed Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million contract last November, so there's a decent chance he'll make a decision sooner rather than later. 

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