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Ross steps up big-time, Harper continues to dazzle

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Ross steps up big-time, Harper continues to dazzle

The Nationals really needed a win Saturday in Milwaukee. So, naturally, they turned to none other than Bryce Harper to lead the way at the plate. And, not so naturally, Joe Ross on the mound.

I mean, talk about an odd couple to carry you to victory. Harper, of course, we have come to expect to do these kinds of things (ie. reach base five times). But who could have imagined the member of the Nats' vaunted rotation that would come up biggest when it was needed most would be Ross, the 22-year-old right-hander making his second career start?

Both performances were worth examining in greater detail, so let's get right to it...

ROSS JUST DID WHAT SCHERZER, ZIMMERMANN, GONZALEZ AND ROARK HAVE NOT THE LAST 10 DAYS
What exactly did Ross do? He pitched seven innings. Actually, he pitched eight, joining Scherzer and Zimmermann as the only two Nationals starters to go that deep so far this season.

But the completion of seven innings was newsworthy enough, because no member of the Nats rotation had been able to do that in any of the club's last 10 games.

Ross was able to do it for one key reason: He threw strikes. A ton of them. Like, 77 of his 108 total pitches. Those 77 strikes tied for the fourth-most thrown by any Nationals starter this year, bested only by Scherzer (who has done it three times, though each time out of at least 110 pitches).

In fact, Ross did something no pitcher in Nationals history has ever done. He faced 51 total batters before issuing the first walk of his career, a new club record.

Ross has good stuff (his fastball averaged 92.7 mph Saturday and topped out at 94.5 mph). He throws strikes. He changes speeds. And he hasn't appeared to be fazed by anything he's faced so far since his surprise promotion from Class AA Harrisburg.

Ross may have been unknown to all but the most ardent Nationals fans, but he did come with a pedigree. He was the Padres' first-round pick in the 2011 draft. His brother, Tyson, was an All-Star last season for San Diego. And now he could throw a bit of a wrench into the Nats' pitching plans.

The assumption all along was that Ross would hold this rotation spot only until Doug Fister was ready to come off the disabled list. Well, it looks like Fister is ready to do just that after he threw six scoreless innings in a rehab start for Harrisburg on Friday night. But are the Nats really going to send Ross back down after a dominant performance like this?

There is another scenario that could unfold. Tanner Roark could potentially move back to the bullpen, a boost to the area of the Nationals' roster that most needs a boost right now, and that would allow Ross to remain in the rotation a bit longer. He'd still wind up out of a job once Stephen Strasburg returns from the DL (which is likely to happen in the next two weeks). But he would have another couple of opportunities to start at the big-league level and prove that his performance Saturday was no fluke.

HARPER IS AN EVEN BETTER HITTER IN JUNE THAN HE WAS IN MAY
On the surface, that sounds impossible to believe, given the video-game-like numbers he posted in May to earn NL Player of the Month honors. But it's true.

After hitting .360 with a .495 on-base percentage, .884 slugging percentage, 13 homers and 28 RBI in 26 games in May, Harper is now hitting .415 with a .520 on-base percentage, .732 slugging percentage, three homes and eight RBI through 12 games in June.

No, he's not hitting for as much power. But he's hitting for a much higher average and reaching base at a staggering 52 percent clip.

Those numbers were bolstered by Saturday's game, in which Harper went 3-for-3 with a walk, a hit-by-pitch and two RBI. That's five plate appearances and five times successfully reaching base.

Technically, Harper didn't actually get to reach base in his final plate appearance. After taking a fastball just above his left knee in the top of the ninth, he was removed from the game. The preliminary report was that Harper was hit in the quadriceps muscle, not the knee itself, which would be a break for him and the club. Though until he shows up to the park Sunday, we won't know for sure how severe (if at all) this injury is.

Regardless, Harper's season just continues to wow everyone. He's now hitting .343 with 21 homers, 51 RBI, a .479 on-base percentage and 1.204 OPS through 62 team games (61 individual games).

How impressive is that? Well, only eight players in MLB history have ever finished a season with an OPS of at least 1.204: Barry Bonds (four times), Babe Ruth (seven times), Ted Williams (twice), Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Mark McGwire, Jimmy Foxx and Frank Thomas. Only 12 players have finished a season with an on-base percentage of at least .479: Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Hornsby, Thomas, Mickey Mantle, Tris Speaker, Edgar Martinez, Norm Cash, Arky Vaughn, Harry Heilmann and Ty Cobb.

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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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Five things to know about new Nationals prospect Tanner Rainey

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Five things to know about new Nationals prospect Tanner Rainey

In what may be a Major League Baseball first, two players named Tanner R. were traded for each other Wednesday at the Winter Meetings.

It’s a fun (unconfirmed) fact, but what really makes it interesting for Nationals fans is the fact that one of the Tanners’ last name is Roark, which means Washington now has a hole to fill in their rotation. They’ve already added Patrick Corbin, but expect the team to search for other options now.

Roark had been a staple in the Nats rotation for the last few years, and often provided a steadying presence at the back end of the rotation. He was never as talented or awe-inspiring as Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg, but he never needed to be.

Let’s focus on the newest addition to the organization though: the one named Rainey.

Here are five things to know about Tanner Rainey.

1. He went to two small schools, but still has pedigree

Rainey was born in Louisiana, and played collegiate ball at Southeastern Louisiana University and the University of West Alabama.

He was both a first baseman and a pitcher, but was drafted as a pitcher in the second round of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Cincinnati Reds.

2.  His career got off on the wrong foot

Rainey made his Major League debut in April 2018, and it could have gone better. He allowed a grand slam to Scott Kingery of the Phillies, and he finished the season with a 24.43 ERA.

Of course, the caveat is sample size. He pitched just seven innings at the big league level in 2018, and while he struck out an impressive seven batters in those innings, his WAR was -1.0.

3. He was born on Christmas Day

This, of course, allows for many fun puns, especially considering he once played for the Reds. Rudolph The Red(s)-Nosed Rainey-deer? Okay, we’ll try to come up with something better.

The Christmas Day he was born on was in 1992, so he’ll be 26 in a few weeks. It’s a little old for someone without much Major League experience, but he’s got some arm talent, and relievers regularly develop into reliable options later in their careers.

4. He has an electric arm

Rainey may struggle with command at this point in his career, but he can really whip a fastball.

While we live in the era of velocity and relievers boasting ridiculous radar gun totals seemingly every day, it’s interesting to note that 100 mph is still an impressive mark to reach. As Simon mentions, only 36 pitchers hit triple digits in 2018, and Rainey was one of them. That’s something any bullpen can use.

When taking a chance on unproven minor leaguers, you might as well take a chance on somebody with a very valuable, very elite skill.

5. He may never end up working out, but that doesn't mean it was a bad trade if he doesn't

Most minor leaguers don’t pan out. The fact that Rainey has thrown a pitch in the Majors makes his career more impressive than millions of players before him. He was ranked in the top 30 (no. 23 to be exact) of the Reds’ prospects according to MLB Pipeline, so he’s clearly talented enough for the Nats to think they can tap into his potential.

If it doesn't happen, however, losing Roark won’t be the difference for this roster in competing or not. With the rotation they have, even as top-heavy as it looks, they can certainly still compete in the division, and if it works out, they’ve acquired a dynamic piece for the back end of the bullpen.

You have to give up something to get something, and this trade could end up looking good for both teams down the road. If the Nats were set on moving Roark, which it appears they were, they could have done worse than a hard-throwing reliever in an era when hard-throwing relievers are more coveted than ever before.

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