- No Bryce Harper? No problem. The Nationals gear up for the 2019 season with added depth, a Hall of Fame worthy ace and two new young outfielders to replace the superstar they just lost to free agency.
2018 finish: 82-80, Second in NL East
SI's 2019 Prediction: 85-77, Second in NL East
Key additions: LHP Patrick Corbin, 2B Brian Dozier, C Yan Gomes, C Kurt Suzuki, RHP Anibal Sanchez, RHP Trevor Rosenthal, RHP Kyle Barraclough
Key departures: OF Bryce Harper, INF Mark Reynolds, C Matt Wieters
1. RF Adam Eaton
2. SS Trea Turner
3. 3B Anthony Rendon
4. LF Juan Soto
5. 1B Ryan Zimmerman
6. 2B Brian Dozier
7. C Yan Gomes
8. CF Victor Robles
1B/OF Matt Adams
INF Wilmer Difo
C Kurt Suzuki
OF Michael Taylor
1. RHP Max Scherzer
2. RHP Stephen Strasburg
3. LHP Patrick Corbin
4. RHP Anibal Sanchez
5. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
LHP Sean Doolittle (closer)
RHP Trevor Rosenthal
RHP Kyle Barraclough
RHP Justin Miller
LHP Matt Grace
RHP Wander Suero
LHP Tony Sipp
RHP Kyle McGowin
Injured List: INF/OF Howie Kendrick, OF Michael Taylor, RHP Koda Glover
Movin’ On Up! Last year was Juan Soto’s time to shine; 2019 will belong to Victor Robles. The former top prospect missed a huge chunk of last year with an elbow injury and saw Soto swipe his spotlight in the process, but he’s healthy and ready to mash as Washington’s new regular centerfielder. Armed with plus speed and power, he could make a Soto-esque impact to help fill the Nationals’ Bryce Harper-sized hole.
Sell! Trea Turner finally played a full season in 2018; the problem was that it wasn’t much good. The 25-year-old was flat offensively, posting a 101 OPS+ (his second straight year around league average), and his defense clocked in as roughly neutral. Turner is still unstoppable on the base paths, but he struggles to make consistent hard contact. He’s plenty valuable, but the line drive-ripping machine we saw his rookie season may end up being a mirage.
Appreciate This Man! With Harper gone, is this the year folks finally learn how good Anthony Rendon is? The third baseman slashed a fantastic .308/.374/.535, popped 24 homers, racked up a 137 OPS and a .383 weighted on-base average, and remains impossible to strike out, with a swing-and-miss rate of just 5.8%. Add to that his strong defense at third base, and you get one of baseball’s most well-rounded players—and one of its quietest stars.
A Modest Proposal From Joe Sheehan: Even after losing Bryce Harper, the Nationals are still co-favorites in the NL East thanks to their front-line talent, especially a star-laden rotation bolstered by free agent Patrick Corbin. Replacing Harper in the lineup, a thankless task, will be rookie Victor Robles. Robles, who missed three months last year with a hyperextended left elbow, has already hit .277/.337/.506 in two cups of coffee in the majors. At ages 20 and 21, he had a .373 OBP in the upper levels of the minors, with 25 steals in just 77 games. Robles is a top-ten prospect in the game who has the complete set of leadoff skills—speed, the ability to hit for average, and good plate discipline. He’s also a plus defensive outfielder, a boon for a Nationals’ team that, due in part to injuries, did a poor job turning fly balls into outs a year ago.
MLB.TV Rating: 8.5
Max Scherzer is must-watch viewing every start; so is every Soto at-bat. Even with Harper gone, this team remains loaded with talent and deep across the board, which makes them a fine regular option for your MLB.TV needs.
Keep an Eye Out For…: Aside from Robles, most of Washington’s top prospects are still a ways away from the majors. Shortstop Carter Kieboom will likely start the year in Double A after demolishing High A last season. That latter level is where you’ll find fellow infielder Luis Garcia. In terms of guys closer to the big leagues, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde represent the Nationals’ starter depth. The former is coming off Tommy John surgery, the latter has never found consistency in his call-ups, but both have strong pedigrees and could help if needed.
What is the key question surrounding this team in 2019?
Who are they gonna be post-Bryce Harper? I think [general manager] Mike [Rizzo] had a good offseason this year. He moved quickly and addressed some needs. Juan Soto and Victor Robles are two impact kids who, if they are who they are this year, it's gonna be a really good team. The other question is the health of Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Eaton. The good thing for them is that they do have a deep organization, and as long as the injuries aren't serious and if those guys can stay healthy and perform, it's a really good team.
Who is the most overrated player on the team?
Strasburg, just because of his injury history and inconsistencies. He continues to show you unhittable stuff some days, and then some days you wonder if you're watching the same guy. You hope the maturity level comes to a certain point where a little bit of Scherzer rubs off on him. At a certain point, though, leopards don't change their spots. I think he is who he is. For all the money that he's gotten already and is gonna make, he's still overrated, because he's never had that year that you're looking for.
Who is the most underrated player on the team?
Anthony Rendon is quietly very good. He's a tough out, he's got such a great, quiet approach, he's such a good hitter, gap-to-gap damage guy. He's adjusted to becoming a third baseman. You watch the way he goes about his business—he made the comment, when someone asked about an extension, the reporter said something about Boras being his agent, and Rendon said, well, Boras works for me. I think he wants to stay in Washington. I don't think he's going to go down to the last dollar.
What young player(s) is/are on the cusp of stardom?
When I saw Soto last year, I told my people that he might be better than Harper down the road. He's a gifted young hitter. We hear a lot about Vlad Guerrero Jr., but Soto’s only four months older than Guerrero and already has done what he did in the big leagues. This kid is really really good, and he easily could've been the Rookie of the Year last year.
What young player(s) is/are the biggest bust candidate(s)?
I think Wilmer Difo has been a bust. He had some ability to be an impact player and he's just never matured into more than a guy who can fill in for more than a day or two. I think that's why they had to go get Brian Dozier. When you watch from the outside, you know what they actually think. This would've been the opportunity to give Difo the second base job. He's had those opportunities, but he's never taken them.
Who gets the most out of his talent?
Eaton, when he's healthy and playing. He's sort of like the Brett Gardner-type guy. When he's in there, he helps you win every day. He hustles, he plays hard, he's kind of a reckless abandon-type guy, an old-school guy everybody likes to watch play. That's the reason Mike, who's a scouting guy, was always enamored with him and gave up what he gave up to get him, because he's a sum-greater-than-the-individual-parts guy.
Who gets the least out of his talent?
Strasburg. The inability to stay healthy and stay consistent, to be the dominating pitcher that he could be with the stuff that he has.
Who has the nastiest stuff on the team?
Scherzer. The shape of Scherzer's breaking balls with his fearlessness to pitch inside that [Strasburg] doesn't have ends up giving him the edge where you have the fear factor. Scherzer's got that f------ look in those eyes like a caged f------ lion, and he comes up and in at 97, that makes you uncomfortable. [Strasburg] is a little bit fearful to pitch inside. In fact, when he goes in, he makes mistakes some times. I think he's afraid to hit hitters, whereas Scherzer hits you and goes, rub it, next.
Who has the best baseball instincts/IQ?
Scherzer, you hear people talk about how hard he studies and does things, and you see such a game plan every time he pitches where he understands the shape of a pitch, the sequencing, to the point where you go wow, this guy is in such f------ control, they've got no chance. From a position player [standpoint], Trea Turner and Rendon both know how to play the game right and well all the time.
Whose batting practice makes your jaw drop?
They don't have the monster power studs, but Soto as a 20-year-old with the bat control and the power to all fields, and Rendon ... as a scout, you admire good hitters who can hit the ball hard to all fields and drive it with authority, and those guys do.
Name two guys on this team that you would immediately trade for
Soto and Scherzer.
Name the guy (or guys) on this team you would never want in your clubhouse
Strasburg and Eaton.
Whose effort could use a jolt?
I thought Zimmerman was very lackadaisical. Maybe it's just his age. But him and Strasburg could both use a little jolt to take this team a lot further than they've ever been and where they should go to every year. Especially in Zim's case, this might be the end of the road. He's been a great National from day one, and I love the guy, but he needs to find every bit of energy to close this thing out and go as deep as he can and really contribute to this team, because he can do that at times when he's going good.
Who do you want at-bat or on the mound in a season-defining moment?
Rendon and Scherzer. Rendon because of that calmness. He never panics, he's not afraid to hit with two strikes. Season on the line, you're probably hitting against somebody's closer, he might make a bastard pitch at 97 miles per hour, and when [Rendon] is right, he doesn't panic and he's good enough to hit a line drive into right-centerfield. Scherzer, naturally, when I first started doing this, I remember somebody talked about starting pitching and asked, who's the guy you would pick if there were someone holding your family hostage and if you lose the game, you lose them? And [Scherzer] was always my top pick. For a while it was Curt Schilling, now it's been Scherzer for the last few years. I can't think of all the guys over the years—Pedro Martinez or whoever—but there's always that guy who's a warrior out there, and he's that guy.
Who don't you want in that situation?
I was disappointed in how undisciplined Dozier had become last year. I think you saw that in Los Angeles. On the mound, our golden boy, Strasburg. But if he has a really bad cold, I might give him the ball. I thought that [2017 NLDS Game 4] would vault him into being that guy, and it didn't. In that moment, he did it. I think more times, he's going to disappoint you than not.
Which under-the-radar prospect/non-roster invitee could make a splash this season?
There's a couple candidates for this for me. Trevor Rosenthal, he could be huge in that bullpen, matching him with Sean Doolittle. If he takes a step forward, Koda Glover, but he's not healthy. And if Zimmerman fails, Matt Adams could impact this club in a really big way.
Is the current manager one you would hire to run your club?
Not on what I saw last year. This was a playoff team that underperformed and lacked focus, and I thought [Dave Martinez] got outmanaged a lot. He's got to get better with this group, because he's got an owner and a GM who aren't afraid to fire managers. Sitting next to Joe [Maddon] for eight or nine years doesn't make you smart through osmosis. When you get the key to the kingdom, the game moves really fast, and you better be able to think fast on your feet.
What is the ceiling for this team this year? What about the next three years?
They're certainly contenders and maybe the favorites to win the East because of the total roster construction, and their starting pitching gives them an edge over the Phillies. They can go really deep. I think their window is starting to close over the next few years, though. There's probably this year and next year, but going on from there, they've got to look at ways to turn the roster over somehow. I think Patrick Corbin may have been the first step in that.
Emptying the notebook:
Matt Wieters hurt them last year. I think the combination of Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, when you get two veteran guys who can handle a staff and handle the bat okay and keep both of them fresh all year long, that's a pretty dynamic catching situation to have ... There's a reason Mike wouldn't put Robles in any deals. He's not far behind Ronald Acuña, Soto and Guerrero in terms of total package of talent. He's an explosive runner who can steal bases, he's got power for a wiry kid, he's a well-above-average centerfielder. That's going to be a dynamic team with him and Turner atop the order ... Michael Taylor is a guy I've always targeted as a change-of-scenery guy. He's an insurance policy for Eaton, so they can't really afford to trade him ... Corbin has got really good stuff, two good catchers, and he doesn't have to be the top of the rotation [guy]. He's probably a No. 2 starter. If he goes out and pitches how he's capable of, he could have a really good year. You saw all of [what he did last year] before he had Tommy John [surgery]. I just think it took some time, and John Smoltz talks about it all the time, feel on those secondary pitches and command [take] longer than the 17, 18 months most guys come back in ... I was absolutely shocked midseason when I saw how good Anibal Sanchez was doing in Atlanta, because I thought he was done. But he figured out how to sequence his pitches, stay out of the middle of the plate and change speeds. Him and Jeremy Hellickson are going to give you five or six quality innings most of their starts at the bottom end. I thought that was a good sign ... Doolittle's really good, he's extremely deceptive. You pair him with Rosenthal, if he's throwing 99 again with his secondary shit being good, that's pretty filthy. And you get Glover healthy, and they've got Kyle Barraclough. They added a pretty nice bullpen to this club.