The Nats Had a Great Offseason, Sans Harper

Even if they don’t bring back their All-Star outfielder, the Nationals spent the winter of ‘18-‘19 making smart moves to become more competitive in ‘19.

As a baseball fan and Washington, D.C. resident, I’m more excited about the 2019 Washington Nationals than maybe any version of this team since 2012. That’s the year the Nats busted onto the contender scene, and came within one win of the National League Championship Series (NLSC).

What’s more, I’ll remain very excited about these 2019 Nats whether or not they bring back star outfielder Bryce Harper.

Take this feeling with my last post about the Nats, and you might think I’m a Harper-hater. I’m not! If the Lerner family can comfortably commit nine figures to Bryce Harper while not cutting back on the team’s other needs, I’m all for bringing the franchise face back. He’s a unique talent who still has enormous potential.

But if Harper’s going to impact future needs in the bullpen or in the corner infield, or prevent the Nats from re-signing third baseman Anthony Rendon to a long-term contract, the Nats may be better off settling with a string of stellar moves already made this offseason. Let’s review!

The two weakest spots in the Nats lineup last year were at catcher and second base. Their catchers were worth -2.2 wins above replacement (WAR), 27th of 30 MLB teams. Their second basemen were worth -2.5 WAR, dead last in MLB. Together, these two (of eight) spots in the lineup lost the Nats nearly five wins compared to replacement-level players.

The Nats made three transactions this winter, the latest occurring this past week, to upgrade:

  • They traded for Indians C Yan Gomes, who was worth 2.6 WAR in 403 at-bats (ABs) for Cleveland last year
  • They signed veteran C Kurt Suzuki, worth 2.1 WAR in 347 ABs for Atlanta last year, to an affordable two-year deal
  • They just signed 2B Brian Dozier, worth 1.0 WAR in 553 ABs (a bad year compared to his career averages), to a one-year deal

Pro-rate Gomes’ and Suzuki’s 2018 production to 225 ABs each, assuming they split duties for the Nats in 2019, and the three collectively would be worth 3.8 WAR in 2019 if they were to replicate their 2018 production.

Even qualifying that number for age, minor injuries, a slight regression in performance, and more, it’s a marked improvement over the -4.7 at the two positions from the 2018 Nats.

The Nats’ rotation, normally its year-to-year strength, was less than stellar in 2018. Stephen Strasburg, the #2, dealt with injuries. Lefty Gio Gonzalez, the #3, struggled with control and was traded in August. Tanner Roark, the #4, had arguably his worst season of his career. And the patchwork of #5 starters and replacements (Jeremy Hellickson, Erick Fedde, and Jefry Rodriguez) had bright spots but were inadequate for a wannabe contender.

The offseason solution? The best pitcher on the market and a veteran experiencing a late-career renaissance.

  • The $140 million the Nats gave to 29-year-old lefty Patrick Corbin is still the largest MLB contract of the offseason, and it showed the Nats are serious about a quality rotation. Corbin was worth 4.6 WAR in 2018, seventh-best among National League pitchers. It also compares quite favorably to the lefty #3 he’s replacing (Gonzalez was worth 1.8 WAR across 32 starts with the Nats and Brewers).
  • At first glance, new #4 Anibal Sanchez’s 2.6 WAR pales a bit in comparison to recently-traded #4 Tanner Roark’s 3.4-WAR season. Pro-rate Sanchez’s season to a full, 180-inning campaign, though (he only made 25 starts), and he’s just as good as Roark’s 3.4-WAR campaign (for a lower price).

A healthy Strasburg and Corbin (both have injury histories) will be perhaps the X-factor for the Nats in 2019. Thirty-start seasons from both could be the difference between another middling effort and a return to the playoffs. But the Nats certainly gave their rotation some newfound stability with the Corbin and Sanchez signings.

The impending loss of 26-year-old Harper — he was worth a paltry 1.3 WAR in 2018, but averaged 5.5 WAR per 162 games from 2012–2017 — stings, but luckily the Nats have not one but two outfielders who could take Harper’s (literal and theoretical) place.

  • Juan Soto burst on to the scene as a Rookie-of-the-Year contender in 2018, with an impressive .292/22/70 slash line across 414 ABs, and an even more impressive 79 walks in 116 games. Soto could always hit a sophomore slump, but his strong plate discipline makes him a candidate to keep mashing. Even better for the team, he won’t collect beyond the major-league minimum salary until 2021 at earliest.
  • Victor Robles is one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and reports indicate he’s major-league ready. His 66-AB sample in 2018 was small, but he slashed an impressive .288/3/10. Also good for the team, Robles won’t collect a salary 2022 at earliest.

A combination of Soto and Robles, along with a healthy Adam Eaton, gives the Nats a strong offense and a defensive boost (Robles is regarded as one of the top defensive prospects in baseball, in addition to his top-of-the-lineup potential at bat).

Harper’s a great player, seems like a good man, and will be the face of some franchise (Nats or otherwise) in 2019. I’ll miss him if he goes to Philly, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or anywhere other than D.C. But I’m excited about the 2019 Nats with or without Bryce in the lineup.

Writing about policy, politics, baseball, and more. Born/raised in CT. Proud D.C. resident. Raisin Bran Crunch enthusiast. Always tired.

Writing about policy, politics, baseball, and more. Born/raised in CT. Proud D.C. resident. Raisin Bran Crunch enthusiast. Always tired.