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A breakthrough for Nats?

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A breakthrough for Nats?

As the hits kept piling up and the balls kept soaring out of Coors Field, the smiles inside the Nationals' dugout kept getting bigger and bigger.

If ever a team needed a 12-run, 21-hit performance, this was it. For the first time in a long time, the Nationals were able to rest easy knowing they had a comfortable lead in hand. Not since a 7-2 victory in Atlanta on May 27 had they won a game by more than four runs.

And they hadn't hit like this since ... well, they hadn't hit like this any previous game this season. You have to go back to May 20, 2011 to find the last time the Nationals scored at least 12 runs (they racked up 17 that night in Baltimore). And you have to go way back to July 11, 2009 in Houston to find the last time they compiled 21 hits (the club record since the franchise arrived in Washington). And you can go back as far as you want but you won't find any previous game in which the Nationals pounded out 11 extra-base hits as they did last night.

Yes, in one fell swoop, this team managed to take the heat off its hitting coach, raise its season batting average four points (from .238 to .242) and slugging percentage eight points (from .387 to .395) and perhaps convince everyone in their clubhouse to request cortisone shots by daybreak.

Try picking one player of the game. You can't. Ryan Zimmerman went 3-for-5, making him 6-for-12 with two doubles and a homer since getting one of those pain-killing shots on his shoulder on Sunday. Michael Morse and Ian Desmond each went 4-for-5, each driving in a pair. Adam LaRoche smacked two homers, raising his team-leading total to 15. And Tyler Moore hit a 440-foot bomb way up into the left-field bleachers, driving in three runs himself with one mighty swing.

This was as cathartic a ballgame as ever there was, for any number of people in Nationals uniforms who desperately needed something like this.

But what was the significance of this in the bigger picture? Was this the breakthrough game that will catapult all these slumping hitters to greater heights and turn their fortunes around? Or was this merely a blip on the radar, a one-time explosion inside the greatest hitters park ever constructed and a precursor to more struggles moving forward?

We don't yet know, but we do know a few things...

1. Zimmerman looks like a brand-new hitter now that he's not feeling any pain in his right shoulder. He looks like the guy who carried this franchise for much of the last six seasons.

2. Morse was too good of a hitter to continue like this for long. With four hits, he raised his batting average an astounding 31 points in one night, from .219 to .250. He certainly appears ready to kick his delayed season into high gear now.

3. Moore looks like the real deal at the plate, a legitimate masher who can produce against left-handers and right-handers alike. The rookie is now hitting .319 with three homers and eight RBI in only 53 plate appearances

4. In a sport in which success is predicated so much on the confidence level of the players involved, there will be no more confident group this morning than the members of the Nationals lineup.

Could all of this become moot in 24 hours? Sure, the Nats could fall back into their offensively challenged ways and never come close to duplicating these feats at the plate.

Just don't tell that to anyone inside that clubhouse, which will be overflowing with confidence and good vibes when both teams take the field for tonight's game.

The only numbers that matter to them today are 12 and 21. They're the numbers that defined the most-productive offensive day this franchise has experienced in a long time.

And right now, there isn't one guy in uniform who doesn't believe they can do this again.

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Here's how the Nationals outfield could sustain the loss of Bryce Harper

Here's how the Nationals outfield could sustain the loss of Bryce Harper

If the Nationals can’t re-sign Bryce Harper, don't expect them to go searching for a high-priced free agent like Michael Brantley to replace him. 

(A note: This is still an if! We haven't closed the door on Harper staying in DC.) 

The Nationals already have a promising in-house solution if Harper walks: Victor Robles.

Robles is currently rated as the fourth-best prospect in baseball, according to MLBpipeline.com. Robles has played 34 games for the Nationals over the last two season including 21 in 2018.  His slash line this September was .288/.348/.525 with three doubles, three home runs, a triple, and 10 RBI.

Of course there's upsides to known quantities like Brantley - even if he comes with injury concerns: He hit .309 last year with 17 home runs and 76 RBI last season. In 2014, he finished third in American League MVP voting. He had a slash line of .307/.385/.506 with 45 doubles, 20 home runs, and 97 RBI. The following season, Brantley led the Majors with 45 doubles. 

If you can’t stand batters that strike out, Brantley is the guy for you.

In 613 plate appearances in 2018, Brantley struck out just 60 times. His 9.5 strikeouts per 100 at bats was tied for second-best in the MLB. By comparison, Harper’s strikeout ratio in 2018 was 24.3%. As a team, the Nationals finished tied for sixth in fewest strikeouts per game (7.96). Additionally, Brantley led qualified hitters in contact rate (90.9 percent) and swinging-strike rate (4.0 percent) in 2018. 

But even with all that, there's some question marks here if the Nats opt to swap Harper for a slightly lower-priced free agent: Brantley is a left fielder.

Over his career, Brantley has spent some time in center field but has not played there since 2015. What would the Nationals outfield alignment look like if they signed Brantley? 

Of the 112 games Juan Soto started with the Nationals this past season, all 112 were in left field. Adam Eaton’s strongest defensive position is right field. The likely answer would be move Soto to right field (where he played in the minors), Eaton to center, and keep Brantley in left field. Eaton was the Nationals’ Opening Day centerfielder in 2017.

So while a team like the Phillies may be looking to spend the money on an outfielder like Brantley, if Harper doesn't return, don't expect the Nationals to enter the market. 

At least not while their prospects look so promising.

MORE ON MICHAEL BRANTLEY

 

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Explaining my National League ROY ballot

Explaining my National League ROY ballot

This was tight. Really tight. A category for the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. A category for the Nationals’ Juan Soto.

Sorting through 16 categories showed Acuna and Soto should have split the National League Rookie of the Year award. It also showed me a narrow advantage for Soto, which is why I voted him first, Acuna second and Dodgers starter Walker Buehler third. Once the votes from other members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were added, Acuna won, Soto was second and Buehler was third. It wasn’t close. It should have been.

First, a thought about the general process here: Writers take this seriously. Once assignments for the awards are distributed, we start to talk about them in the Nationals Park press box. Even non-voters hop in on the conversation. Sympathies are relayed to those who have an extremely tight choice, as I did this season and last when I voted for MVP (I’m big in Cincinnati thanks to my Joey Votto selection).

I outline specific categories, talk to opposing players and managers and watch as much as possible in order to come to a conclusion. The only thing easy about voting for ROY this season was the chance to see the leading candidates often since one played here and the other is in the division.

I used 16 categories to largely determine my vote. They were as follows: OPS, OPS+, Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Prospectus WARP, OBP, WRC+, SB, HR, late-and-close OPS, 2 outs RISP OPS, BB:K ratio, WPA, “Clutch”, WOBA, and an overall defensive mark.

There’s no perfect formula here. But, when looking through those, Soto took nine, Acuna six and one, Fangraphs WAR, was even. That, coupled with Soto doing this in his age-19 season as the league’s youngest player (Acuna was just 20, so, like everything else the leader’s advantage here is slight), and talking to others in the league, prompted me to vote for Soto.

Again, the gaps were minute. Baseball Reference’s WAR formula favored Acuna. Fangraphs had them even. Baseball Prospectus put Soto clearly ahead. Soto was significantly better in late-and-close situations. Acuna was better with two outs and runners in scoring position.

If Soto had a distinct lead anywhere, it was via command of the strike zone, which is currently his premier talent. His walk and strikeout rates were both superior to Acuna. When asked about Soto, opponents and teammates alike brought it up.

However, Acuna is the better defender and baserunner. Points back to his favor.

Soto was intentionally walked 10 times signifying what opponents thought of dealing with him. Acuna was intentionally walked just twice (though his spot in the order has some influence there).

This ping-ponging of qualifications could go on.

What the National League East has is two of the best players in baseball. Not just young players at this stunningly low age, but two of the best. Soto was fourth in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS in the National League when adjusted to be among the qualified leaders (an explanation from Baseball Reference: In order to rank the player, the necessary number of hitless at bats were added to the player's season total.). Acuna was eighth in slugging under the same adjustment.

The 2019 All-Star Game is in Cleveland. Expect both to be there and this to be just the beginning of them being measured against each other.

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