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Who could upend Nats in East?

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Who could upend Nats in East?

The Nationals tonight will take the field for the 78th time this season, and incredibly this will be the 68th time they do so as a first-place ballclub.

Yes, the Nats have spent only 10 days outside of first place in the NL East, and all 10 of those days were spent in second place, none of them since May 21.

None of this, of course, guarantees anything. There is still more than half of a full season to be played, and anyone who followed this team during its inaugural 2005 campaign knows all too well how different the standings can look on October 1 vs. July 1.

But if the Nationals were to be overtaken in the NL East, which team would be most likely to do it? Who should the Nats most fear in their division?

The answer isn't as clear as most would have expected when this topsy-turvy season began.

The Phillies, the division's five-time reigning champs, have spent all but seven days in either fourth or fifth place and have offered little reason to believe they're going to turn it around. A lineup and rotation of aging stars hasn't been bolstered by the return of Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard's pending return may not make much difference either. At 36-45, they're an astounding 11 games behind the Nationals and talking about selling off free-agent-to-be Cole Hamels before the end of the month.

The Marlins, who made the division's biggest offseason splash with their Winter Meetings spending spree, are an enigma. On rare occasions, they look like as good a team as there is in the NL, with a potent lineup full of stars and a deep starting rotation. But on far more occasions they've looked like a trainwreck, an inconsistent and oft-feuding club probably takes after combustible manager Ozzie Guillen than owner Jeffrey Loria hoped when he made that hire in the first place. At 38-41, they're totally out of the race yet. But they're running out of time.

The Braves, the division's most-consistent organization, always seem to find a way to keep themselves in contention. With Jason Heyward re-emerging as a force, Michael Bourn and Martin Prado enjoying fine seasons and rookie Andrelton Simmons off to an impressive start, this is a lineup that should be able to produce. The pitching staff, though, is less of a sure thing, especially with burgeoning Cy Young candidate Brandon Beachy now out for the remainder of the season with a torn elbow ligament. And a bullpen that overwhelmed opponents in 2011 looks far less imposing these days. At 41-38, they're very much in it for now. But the only way these guys are going to overtake the Nationals is if they can find a way to beat them, having gone 2-6 against Washington so far.

Which leaves ... the Mets, a team that wasn't expecting to do anything of consequence this season yet has become one of baseball's biggest surprises. For that, credit the unorthodox-yet-dynamic 1-2 pitching punch of R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana. One's the sport's lone active knuckleballer. The other came back from major shoulder surgery to throw a no-hitter. Together, they've spelled doom for opposing hitters. Throw in a re-energized David Wright at third base, and fans in Flushing have every reason to buy into this as a legitimate contender. Can the Mets, 3 12 games back at 43-37, keep this ride going straight into September? With each passing day, they look like less and less of a fluke.

And yet, there the Nationals continue to sit, all alone atop the division, owners of the game's best pitching staff and a lineup that is finally coming together with Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse healthy and productive.

For three months, they unquestionably have been the class of the NL East. Whether they can hold that distinction through the season's final three months remains to be seen.

But given the state of the rest of the division at the moment, they sure have to like their chances.

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Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

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USA Today Sports

Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

It’s happening.

When the 2018 All-Star Weekend comes to Washington, D.C. in the middle of July, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper will compete in the 2018 Home Run Derby, but only on one condition: He has to be a member of the 2018 National League All-Star Team.

Though Harper is having a down year, only hitting .213 thus far, he leads the NL in home runs with 19.

In the June 18 update of All-Star game voting, Harper sat second among all outfielders with just north of 1,000,000 votes.

That means he’s not only going to make the All-Star team, but he’ll likely start in the outfield.

Harper, a five-time All-Star, competed in the Home Run Derby once before. He was the runner-up to Yoenis Cespedes in 2013, losing by just one long ball, 9-8.

The 2018 Home Run Derby will take place on July 16 at Nationals Park.

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It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

Remember when the Nationals put Trea Turner in centerfield so they could keep Danny Espinosa at shortstop?

Two years later it's Turner who leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR, as you surely know if you follow the Nationals on literally any social media platform. 

So while Juan Soto and Bryce Harper continue to dominate all of The Takes, it's Turner who's been the Nats' best position player this season. 

We'll start with some basics: 

Did you know that Trea Turner leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR? He's currently sitting at 2.4 WAR, above the likes of Brandon Crawford, Addison Russell, and Trevor Story, to name a few. (We'll ignore the fact that the top six shortstops in the A.L. all have a better fWAR.) He's a top-10 shortstop in baseball during one of the strongest eras in the position's history.

Even after a dreadfully slow start, Turner's still on pace to have the best season of his career. He posted a WAR of 2.9 last year and -- barring injury -- will realistically eclipse that by the All-Star game. 

At the plate, two stats jump off the page in regards to explaining Turner's stellar season. 

First, Turner is drawing a *bunch* of walks. His current BB% clip (10.6 percent) would be far and away the best of his career and up four percentage points from last year. It's a factor that helps explain - partially, at least - why his on-base percentage has risen and his BABIP has dropped. More walks mean fewer swings, fewer swings mean less contact, less contact means lower BABIP, etc. It's not the whole picture, but it's a big part of it. 

Secondly, Turner is making impressive contact on pitches out of the strike zone. FanGraphs calculates out-of-zone contact using a statistic titled O-Contact, which is a blessing considering some of the titles they choose to give their other stats. 

The average O-Contact across MLB in 2018 is 64.7 percent. Trea Turner's career O-Contact is 62.4 percent (although realistically it's closer to the high-50's - a small-sample-size from his abbreviated first season mucks up the number a bit). 

This season, Turner's posted an O-Contact of 69.3 percent. Not only is that 10 percentage points higher than his O-Contact from last season, but a top-50 clip in all of baseball. He's one spot ahead of Mike Trout!  Put both of these together with some encouraging Statcast numbers (rise in HardHit%, already matched his total 'barrels' from last season) and you can see why Turner's been thriving at the plate. 

Defensively, he's improved across the board as well. His UZR and DRS - considered the two most reliable fielding statistics, if such a thing exists - are both up from last year. He has the 10th-best UZR of all major league shortstops and ranks 1st in DRS. 

Last season, he finished 17th in both UZR and DRS (of all shortstops with at least 800 innings; Turner didn't log enough innings to be considered a qualified fielder). He ended the season with both numbers in the negative. 

You may be skeptical of defensive stats, which is fine. But if nothing else, the fact that Turner is turning literal negative stats into positive ones is encouraging. 

Lastly, Turner continues to be an elite baserunner. At this point in his career, his speed is arguably his best tool:

You'll note that purple dot allllllllllll the way on the right. That's Turner! Now, let's take a look at how his speed compares across all positions:

Essentially, Turner is faster than like, 98 percent of baseball. In fact, by Sprint Speed, he's the 6th-fastest player in the game. He also ranks 2nd across all of baseball in FanGraphs "Baserunning" measurements, only behind fellow teammate and mindbogglingly good baserunner Michael A. Taylor. 

So, Trea Turner an elite baserunner (maybe the best if you combine his raw speed with his baserunning stats), a top-5 shortstop in the field, and an All-Star at the plate. 

Juan Soto's been great and Bryce Harper is still extremely talented, but this year, Trea Turner has been the Nationals' best player. 

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