On the verge of an historic contract, Bryce Harper is about to garner a 330 million dollar contract; shattering the largest contract in free agency in American Sports history (Manny Machado, 10 years/$300 million with the Padres). It would also break the 10 years, $325 million extension that the Marlins had given the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton.

Between the contracts given to Stephen Strasburg in 2016 (7 years, $175 million), 3-time Cy Young and best pitcher in baseball Max Scherzer signed in 2015 (7 years, $210 million) as well as the contract handed out this offseason to Patrick Corbin (6 years, $140 million), the Nats have a minimum of $85 million a year on 3 starting pitchers on average. That alone is higher than the whole payroll of the Tampa Bay Rays by $35 million dollars. That $35 million is just under what Bryce is warranting per year for the next 10 years. With adding Anibal Sanchez (2 years, $19 million) and retaining Jeremy Hellickson (1 year, $1.3 million), they have a minimum of $10 million added to the original $85 million figure. Hellickson’s contract with Washington also includes up to $5 million in incentive bonuses. Assuming he maxes out the contract, they’re spending $100.8 million on their starting rotation. That’s half of the payroll of a vast majority of the league.

With that, the Nationals had to shrewdly build a contending team with a smaller amount of funds. They have an excellent core, and a somewhat solid bullpen that will get them by if needed. They don’t have the luxury of re-signing Bryce, but that’s okay, because they don’t even need him.

Offseason Additions

Kurt Suzuki in his first stint with the Nationals (AP).

With Bryce’s contract coming off of the books, that alone clears up $21M. The subtraction of Matt Wieters takes away around $10 million in what turned out to be an awful contract. Mark Reynolds, Tanner Roark and Greg Holland’s contracts are also all out of the equation. They made a total of around $8M. All in all, the Nats cleared up just about $40M in payroll space.

They used this to sign Patrick Corbin; who is set to make an annual average of $30M. However, Corbin’s contract is extremely backloaded, with the final year sitting as high as $35M. The club’s 2019 hit will only be around $12 million. That’s a fraction of the estimated cost and still gives them around $28 million to work with, financially. They used this to bring back fan favorite Matt Adams ($3M), bring back Kurt Suzuki (set to make $4M in 2019), Anibal Sanchez, Yan Gomes ($6M), Trevor Rosenthal ($7M), Kyle Barraclough ($1.7M), and probably the most valuable asset, second base slugger Brian Dozier ($9M). In total, they’ve upgraded massively and have broken even.

Team Perspective

Max Scherzer in a start at Tropicana Field, 2018. (Kim Klement, USAToday)

The Nationals, no question, have one of the best rotations in the league. The 3-time Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer is coming off of his first 300K season, but has won a Cy Young in both leagues (something only few have accomplished), while winning back-to-back in 2016 and 2017. Finishing second in 2018, “Mad Max” posted a 9.5 WAR whilst leading the league in innings pitched (18 wins, 2.53 ERA). The question with Max is his age. He’s defied the aging curve better than anybody since the legendary Nolan Ryan. He has actually improved with age. Stephen Strasburg, however, is at the prime age of 30 with a 27 lifetime BBRef WAR. While he’s been prone to injury, he’s owner of some of the filthiest stuff in baseball. He has an impressive 3.14 lifetime ERA and strikes out 240 batters every 32 starts. He has swing and miss stuff and has his sights set on his first Cy Young award in 2019. Corbin, the Nats biggest free agent prize, had a 3.15 ERA last year in Chase Field. That is predicted to go down with a better pitchers environment. As for Anibal and Hellickson, the two vets eat innings and had sub-3 ERAs in 2018. With so much money invested in a great starting staff, the Nats need to do more than just hope to get their money’s worth.

All of this set in stone, it’s just one piece that is involved in putting together the puzzle that is a championship team. The next key component is the lineup. In 2019, the lineup looked like this:
C Matt Wieters, 0.6 WAR.
1B Ryan Zimmerman, 1.3 WAR.
2B Howie Kendrick, -0.2 WAR.
SS Trea Turner, 4.1 WAR.
3B Anthony Rendon, 4.2 WAR.
LF Juan Soto, 3.0 WAR.
CF Adam Eaton, 1.1 WAR.
RF Bryce Harper, 1.7 WAR.
Now, if you move Eaton to RF and put in Victor Robles (Nationals top CF prospect), then that automatically improves you defensively because you have an actual CF and RF in their respective spots. As for Bryce, the dude’s one of the worst rated defensive right fielders in the game. For 2019, we subtract Wieters and plug-in the platoon of Yan Gomes (2.6) and Kurt Suzuki (2.1). The backstop duo combined for a 4.7 WAR. That’s more than 4 more wins added, in theory, in 2018. ‘Zuk had a knack for the big hit and both higher batting average and OPS than Wieters. They combined for 16 more homeruns, and are all-around better catchers defensively. For the same price of Wieters in 2018, they’ve completely upgraded for 2019. The Suzuki signing also weakened the 2018 NL-East champion Atlanta Braves; Suzuki’s former team. It was the first time since 2015 the Nationals lost the East.

Nationals left field prodigy Juan Soto. (Sports Illustrated)

The 22-year old top prospect Victor Robles has a better glove than Harper, but we haven’t quite gotten an opportunity to see how he develops in a full-time role. That said, a full season of Juan Soto’s godly walk-rate and power should replace Bryce by himself. Soto, in a more limited role, had a better all around season than Harper last year. Soto had a .923 OPS (142 OPS+) vs. Bryce’s .889 (133 OPS+). Soto got on base at a more efficient rate (.402 to .393) and hit for a lot more power (.517 to .496). Mix that in with defensive difference, age and the fact one will be make $32.5M less, Bryce Harper is ultimately expendable. Juan Soto alone should make the Nats not worry about Bryce.

The most vital piece to the Nationals is the cornerstone of the franchise manning the hot corner…Anthony Rendon. With a lot of emphasis on young superstars such as Nolan Arenado, Alex Bregman and Manny Machado, third base is a deep position. It makes sense that with such an outpour of talent that some won’t get as appreciated as they deserve. Add in a former MVP, a 3-time Cy Young Award winner and a player who has been a National since 2005, it makes sense that he’s not even appreciated by his own squad.

Rendon has finished higher in MVP voting the last 2 seasons than Harper has and has excellent instincts and range at 3rd base. Stellar defensively, Rendon is not a slouch with the bat either as he posted a .308/.374/.535 statline. For comparison’s sake, Harper posted a .249/.391/.494 statline. Rendon’s overall OPS was .20 higher, which is a much grander difference in baseball than the casual fan may realize. Harper has a better walk rate, but Rendon has an exceptional contact rate with raw power that makes him an overall more complete hitter. In addition to his bat and glove, Rendon is a natural clubhouse leader. Rendon is set to make $18M in 2019. He is open to an extension as he is a free agent in a year from now. Unlike Harper, he shouldn’t command as much to be a more vital player to the team.

Trea Turner has shown flashes of all five tools, and is a piece the Nats hope can reach his maximum ceiling, while the grizzled veteran Ryan Zimmerman enters his 14th year in a Nationals uniform.

The lineup, heading into 2019 looks as followed:
LF Juan Soto
SS Trea Turner
3B Anthony Rendon
2B Brian Dozier
1B Ryan Zimmerman
C Yan Gomes/Kurt Suzuki
CF Victor Robles
RF Adam Eaton
Bench: Howie Kendrick, Matt Adams, Michael A. Taylor, Wilmer Difo, Adrian Sanchez

Nationals closer Sean Doolittle. (NBCSports)

The Nats look pretty strong, eh? This is where that changes. Closer Sean Doolittle was recently named MLBs 2nd best reliever, but he doesn’t quite have the swing and miss stuff that is traditionally found within the closer. He’s best suited for set-up, but is a very quality arm to close if need be. This, however, is where it begins to get rather bleak. With the loss of Greg Holland, who was stellar for the Nationals down the stretch (0.84 ERA in 24 games), there really isn’t another proven arm within the relief core. The most notable arms are that of Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough; both new additions. Rosenthal has a 2.99 lifetime ERA, but hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2017. He is also returning from Tommy John surgery, and is a massive question mark because nobody can estimate just how well he’ll perform. Barraclough, however, is a bargain pickup because his ERA was north of 4 in over 60 games last season. The bullpen is obviously the Achilles heel, and as the old story tells, you cannot win ballgames without a bullpen. Koda Glover has promise, but got hurt yesterday in Spring Training. Justin Miller saw his first big league action in over a year last year and rewarded Washington with a 3.60 ERA. However, as his workload increases, it’ll be interesting to see if he returns to form. His ERA in 3 seasons prior was over 5. Sammy Solis saw action in over 50 games in 2018 and had an ERA of 5. The Nationals had a bullpen in the bottom 5 of the league in 2018.

In conclusion, the Nationals did improve their team, even if the biggest offseason story is what they’ve (seemingly) lost. The owner came out and said this past weekend that they’ve moved on from Bryce. That’s okay because they used the money they’ve saved and replaced him with a top tier starting pitcher, and filled their lineup holes. To address the bullpen woes, they’ve gotten the low-risk, high-reward type of ballplayers. They finished at .500 in 2018, and the division has only gotten harder with the Philles, Braves and Mets all making improvements. I see them at 2nd again, but with a better overall record. The Nats future, however, is in tact with an excellent core and surrounding roleplayers.

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