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State of the Nats: An impressive weekend in New York

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State of the Nats: An impressive weekend in New York

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The Yankees have so much money, they are thinking about paying Bryce Harper to not play outfield

The Yankees have so much money, they are thinking about paying Bryce Harper to not play outfield

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that the Yankees might have interest in Bryce Harper this offseason. The Harper-to-the-Yankees narrative has been ongoing for years, going back to Harper’s high school years. It’s also driven by a long and storied history of New York flexing their financial might over the rest of the baseball world.

What is surprising, however, is hearing that the Yankees might have interest in Harper as a first baseman.

Would a potential $300 million contract be worth it just to have Bryce Harper play first base? New York seems to think so. 

Harper mostly played catcher in high school, though his prodigious bat made a position switch a long-term inevitability. Outfield was the natural landing spot, as it’s considered to be the easiest position to learn and would allow Harper to focus on realizing his vast potential at the plate.

In his seven seasons in the big leagues, Harper has played more innings in right field than every other position combined, and the overwhelming majority of his other defensive innings have been in left and center. He is credited with one career game at first base, coming in 2018, though the inning count there is zero.

If he is going to head to the Bronx, however, another position switch might be a necessity. The Yankees are one of the few teams in baseball who already have two power-hitting behemoths in the outfield, in Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. 

Either Judge, Stanton or Harper would be miscast in center field, especially considering Harper’s extreme defensive struggles in right last season.

Plus, it would take away at-bats for 2018 breakout Aaron Hicks and potential 2019 breakout Clint Frazier. Additionally, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are still hanging around.

There’s always the option of using one of three as the designated hitter, but the Yankees already have too many power hitters to find at-bats for, and not everyone responds well to not playing in the field.

The one position where the Yankees don’t seem to have a clear answer is first base, hence the recent speculation. Most fans haven’t quite bought in on Luke Voit’s out-of-nowhere 2018 season, and Greg Bird has never been able to put together a full, healthy season.

First base is generally considered to be even easier than the outfield. At the very least, it requires less range, which could be beneficial to Harper as he enters his prime and starts to slow down. It would fill a hole for the Yankees, both in the field and in the lineup, as the bulk of their power comes from right-handed hitters.

Obviously, this speculation is very preliminary, though the prospect of Harper taking aim at the short right field porch in Yankee Stadium is enough to excite any New York fan and haunt the nightmares of fans of the other 29 teams.

At the end of the day, the Yankees may end up interested in Harper playing first base, and in fact, they definitely should be interested in it. But it will come down to what Harper is interested in. If he really wants to wear the pinstripes, he may not have a choice. 

Much like 2018’s other mega free agent, Manny Machado, Harper will have to weigh the idea of playing in New York versus moving off his favored position. If the Yankees can pull it off, then Major League Baseball will have a new superteam to deal with.

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Nats could add another catcher beyond Suzuki, but don't expect it to be J.T. Realmuto

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Nats could add another catcher beyond Suzuki, but don't expect it to be J.T. Realmuto

The story of his signing was simple: Mike Rizzo came to Dan Lozano, Kurt Suzuki’s agent, early and with a direct offer. He told Lozano that Suzuki was “their guy” in this offseason’s hunt for a primary catcher. Suzuki, 35, was pleased Rizzo offered a two-year deal instead of one. His former team, the Atlanta Braves, also offered him a contract at the end of the season. Suzuki declined, hopped into free agency, and decided promptly to return to Washington.

Boom. The end. 

“[Rizzo] told my agent from day one that I’m their guy,” Suzuki said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Whether I’m a guy that catches 120 games or 90 games, or whatever they want me to do, I just told them I will be ready to do whatever you want. And he said I am going to play, obviously. I just said, ‘Whatever you need me to do.’ So whether that’s 80, 90, 100, 120, it really doesn’t matter to me.”

The question is what the Nationals will need him to do. Room remains for another veteran catcher since Suzuki will reportedly average $5 million annually on his contract. That long-rumored Nationals target J.T. Realmuto could be that veteran catcher is doubtful. There is little reason to pay Suzuki and then trade a high-end prospect in a deal for Realmuto, since that trade would put Realmuto behind the plate for roughly 130 games. A $5 million backup is an ultra-expensive one, especially for a team shaving pennies. Which is why Suzuki is in line to be the starter throughout the season.

“I think at this point of my career, I got no ego. I’ve never had an ego,” Suzuki said. “It was just the point where [Rizzo] said I’m their guy, whether I’m a guy that’s going to catch 50 games or I’m a guy that’s going to catch 120 games. He made it clear that he is going to bring me in to help the team win. And that’s the bottom line.”

He will help. Nationals catchers were among the worst in the league offensively last season. Matt Wieters was injured much of the year. Pedro Severino showed he had no chance at the plate. Spencer Kieboom hit .333 in September. That run was only good enough to pull his average to .232 and his on-base percentage to .322. Not great.

Suzuki’s offense has improved the last two seasons. His OPS+ was above 100 each year in Atlanta, marking two of the three times that happened in his 12-year career. He was an All-Star the other season he reached triple digits. 

Suzuki is not an analytics buff. He didn’t change his offseason routine that focuses on exercise and clean eating via food supplied by his wife, Renee. So, what gives at the plate?

“Honestly, I have no idea, just being honest,” Suzuki said. “Obviously, I started my career off doing pretty well and then kind of hit a little slump. And then the last two years at age 33 and 34, kind of had like a renaissance I guess. And I really haven’t changed much. I go out there and I don’t really think about launch angle and all these analytical things. I go out there and I just try to do some damage.”

He did mention an interesting idea. Suzuki explained relaxing at the plate is crucial to him. Pitchers throw harder now. Much harder on average than when he arrived in the major leagues in 2007 as a 23-year old playing for Oakland. Which means he is going to let them do the work by supplying velocity. He just wants solid, not Herculean, contact. The plan has worked the last two seasons.

But how Suzuki is defensively will be in question. Baseball Savant provides catcher “pop” times, which measures the time from the moment the pitch hits the catcher’s mitt to the moment the ball reaches the fielder’s projected receiving point at the center of the base, and Suzuki was 93rd out of 108 (Kieboom was 36th, though he played much less).  

All of which hints another veteran catcher could be coming along, the same way the Nationals opened last season with Wieters and Miguel Montero. Suzuki is the start. A coming veteran is a backup. Kieboom and Severino are the emergency plan. Realmuto is a dream lost.

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