Playing Pepper 2019: Washington Nationals

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Washington Nationals
82-80, second in NL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

What do you do when the face of the franchise is gone?  The Nationals didn’t wait around for Bryce Harper to officially go elsewhere, busying themselves with some moves to make sure that a team that has always been expected to win still has that expectation.  Were they successful or will the Harper shadow continue to linger?  Let’s go to the bloggers!

Writer Site Twitter
Audrey Stark Federal Baseball HighStarkSunday
Drew Douglas District on Deck DrewDouglasVT
Justin Howard Half Street Heart Attack HalfStreetHeart

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Audrey: The offseason had its highs and lows. The big story was their willingness to let Bryce Harper walk away and that was, in my view, a big mistake. Whether that was the right move will be debated in the years to come. However, there was a lot of roster turnover. They wanted to add to their catching depth, get someone younger that will have real chemistry with this pitching staff. So they went with Kurt Suzuki? That, to me, was a poor decision given that JT Realmuto was available. They would have given up a lot to get him, but to have a catcher of that quality for years to come? Worth it.

Then comes the good! Signing Patrick Corbin was A+. I love that deal. If 2018 taught the Nationals anything, it was that they need more than two starting pitchers to count on. Not that I don’t love Tanner Roark, because I do, but his trendlines are worrisome. I hope he has a great bounceback season but adding Patrick Corbin to a rotation with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top makes the Nats a real pitching powerhouse. I also think signing Brian Dozier was a wise move to give them a full-time option at second base.

Drew: In addition to being one of the busiest teams this offseason, the Nats were also one of the most successful. Their former face of the franchise, Bryce Harper, departed for the division-rival Phillies, but the Nats are a much-improved team. Patrick Corbin was the grand prize, but guys like Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, and Trevor Rosenthal should make an impact as well. The Nats may not be done, considering they have recently been linked to Craig Kimbrel. Landing the All-Star closer would be the cherry on top, but it would put them over the luxury tax for the third consecutive season. I’d like to see them add a reliever if they don’t sign Kimbrel, preferably left-handed. (Editor’s Note: Drew’s also proposed making a deal with the San Francisco Giants.)

Justin: The Nats had a quietly good offseason, despite the drama involving Bryce Harper, which sucked all the oxygen out of the room. The important thing is the Nats didn’t just sit on the Harper money—they spent it elsewhere once he turned down their $300 million offer. The Nationals filled holes at 2B, Catcher, and most importantly the bullpen, which has been an Achilles heel for a very long time. The big acquisition was Patrick Corbin, who signed the third biggest free agent contract behind Machado and Harper this offseason (I’d bet 9 out of 10 fans couldn’t guess that). Despite the departure of Harper, I feel much better about this team than I did last October. 

C70: As Cardinal fans, we will be keeping an eye on Trevor Rosenthal this season. What are Nationals fans expecting from him?

Audrey: I am SO EXCITED to see the return of Trevor Rosenthal! I don’t know how much Nationals fans are expecting from him, since I don’t know how much they know. But from early reports out of spring training, the velocity is there, and hopefully so is the ability to control pitches. There are some players I just root for and Rosenthal is one of them. However, he will not be a closer because Sean Doolittle has rightfully claimed that spot. How Dave Martinez chooses to use Rosenthal is still up in the air.

Drew: The Nats signed Rosenthal early in the offseason, believing he was healthy after missing the 2018 season while recovering from Tommy John Surgery. Spring Training results should be taken with a grain of salt, but Rosenthal has impressed early. His fastball has reached triple digits and the ball seems to explode out of his hand. If he is able to stay healthy, Dave Martinez will deploy him as Sean Doolittle’s primary setup man. Considering Doolittle’s injury history, Rosenthal can expect to get a few save opportunities over the course of the season.

Justin: Nothing, but that’s only because I never expect anything from relievers. They’re a volatile bunch. It’s nothing personal with Trevor, but we’ve lived through Drew Storen, Jonathan Papelbon, and Rafael Soriano. It’s been rough. That said, there are genuine reasons this year’s bullpen may be a strength, and Trevor is one of them. 

C70: Anthony Rendon will probably draw a lot of attention this year. Will the Nationals be able to sign him to an extension or could he be dealt by the trading deadline?

Audrey: I seriously doubt the Nationals would deal Anthony Rendon; he’s a fan favorite. If their season is truly dismal, though, I suppose it’s possible. He is quiet, hits lots of doubles, and is actually the sort of player I think would fit really well in St. Louis. (@John Mozeliak, I have numbers to back this up.) Extension talks given the current free agent market are always a possibility, but I really hope not. However, he flies so far under the radar I’m not sure the free agent market would give him a fair deal even under a “normal” state of affairs. That remains to be seen, but if he ends up in a Cardinals uniform in 2020 I’ll throw a party.

Drew: After watching Harper sign elsewhere this offseason, the Nats are feeling the pressure to lock up Anthony Rendon. Rendon has established himself as an elite third baseman and is probably the Nats’ best position player as things currently stand. Rendon and the Nats’ front office have publicly discussed their desire to agree to an extension, but nothing has been agreed to yet. Of course, Rendon is a Scott Boras client, so extensions rarely come easily. It is worth keeping in mind that the Nats signed Stephen Strasburg, another Boras client, to an extension in the middle of the season a couple years ago. Even if the two sides are unable to agree to an extension, the odds of the Nats trading Rendon are very slim.

Justin: That’s an unanswerable question because we don’t know what Anthony is thinking. If he wants to stay here, I’m sure the Nats can work something out. That’s what happened with Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg. If Rendon is like Harper and doesn’t give a rip about DC and simply wants the biggest contract he can get, he’s probably gone, maybe even by the deadline if the Nats are out of contention. 

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Audrey: Last year I said the Nationals would win a hundred games, so my psychic abilities are a little off. I think their pitching is strong in a relatively weak division. The team in Atlanta is my favorite for the division, but depending on what the Phillies do, they could position themselves very well. I think pitching will carry the team and I don’t like Dave Martinez as a manager. I don’t think he will make the right decisions, he will leave Howie Kendrick and Michael A. Taylor to rot on the bench in favor of Brian Dozier and Soto/Robles. Ryan Zimmerman’s health is also a big question mark. If they lose the division, I think the teams out west and in the Central are in better places to nab a wild card spot. Essentially, I don’t see them making the postseason, but I’ve been wrong before.

Drew: The days of the Nats coasting to a division title year after year are done, but that should benefit the Nats. I believe that they were hurt by clinching the division so early in previous years, which possibly led to the disastrous postseason performances. The NL East should be exceptionally competitive this year, with four of the five teams really going for it. The Nats’ pitching is going to be hard to beat, which I believe will lead to them winning the division. Don’t be surprised to see three NL East teams playing in October.

Justin: Mixed, because the division looks tougher than it’s been in a long time. The Nats have the pieces to contend, but they had the pieces last year too and that didn’t work out. The NL East might be a dogfight this year, and the Nats are likely to be a part of it. 

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Audrey: The biggest question is, “What will this team do without Bryce Harper?” It is so rare to have a threat like that in your lineup. Even when he’s in a slump, there is always the potential for him to do something ridiculously amazing. He’ll go 1-for-14 and that one will be a game-winning homer.

I don’t know the answer. I think this is a time for transition. A team with an inexperienced outfield and a manager who is effectively Joe Maddon Lite will not go very far, in my opinion. (Over a year later and I am still bitter about the firing of Dusty Baker.) This is the year of the learning curve. They can prove me wrong, but I don’t think they will. I think the organization is putting a lot of hope into the Robles/Soto duo and that could swing wildly in either direction this season.

Drew: The biggest question is how the Nats will fare without Harper, but I think they will be just fine. Their pitching staff, while lacking depth, is as good as it has ever been. Their offense should also produce plenty of runs and their defense is much better than it has been in recent years. I think Brian Dozier is going to have a big bounce-back campaign, and it should be fun to watch Juan Soto for a full season.

Justin: I’m curious to see how Davey Martinez manages this team. His rookie season was uneven, and that’s being very generous. For whatever reason, last year’s team looked disjointed from beginning to end. Some of that was not his fault, but he didn’t do himself any favors with bullpen mismanagement and a lack of emphasis on fundamentals (Martinez himself admitted the latter). We’ll find out soon if this team has better leadership and a better focus—or if the Nats manager revolving door continues to revolve. 

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Audrey: Honestly, the highlights for me are Max Scherzer and Sean Doolittle. I love watching them pitch. Max Scherzer is the sort of player whose determination can be felt all the way up in the 400-level. Doolittle is just The Best™. Bryce Harper was the reason I went to Nationals games all the time and now it’s more of a shoulder shrug. Asking whether I would rather watch the Nats game or the Cardinals game is like asking whether I’d prefer to watch Juan Soto or Paul Goldschmidt. The answer is, “Why would you even ask the question?”

I don’t expect to enjoy watching the Nationals very much at all. I will root for them because I love some of the players, but on the whole it’s just not a team I find myself cheering for. I’m not invested enough in their remaining players to tune in regularly.

Drew: I can’t wait to see the Nats generate runs with speed and small ball. Dave Martinez is a big proponent of small ball, but he did not have the personnel to make it work last year. Now, with Trea Turner, Victor Robles, and Adam Eaton as legitimate stolen base threats, I expect to see a fair amount of small ball. Hit and runs do not occur much anymore, but Turner and Eaton are a perfect match to hit and run at the top of the lineup. The Nats are as athletic as they have ever been, which should make for an exciting season.

Justin: Juan Soto. Also, Juan Soto. 

My thanks to everyone who gave a little time to tell us about the Nationals.  The big name may be gone but there’s still a lot of hope around this team!

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