Yogi Berra once said “if you see a fork in the road, take it.” While that may be typically less-than-helpful, the Nationals find themselves at a crossroads, with one of those big, franchise-altering decisions regarding their still-young star slugger, Bryce Harper, before them. 2018 may have muddied more than clarified the situation.
To a large degree, the Nationals have had it easier in the regular season than any contender in baseball, with the possible exception of the Cleveland Indians. With the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies rebuilding, the Miami Marlins doing their usual cry-pauper schtick, and the New York Mets being the Mets and Metsing up a few seasons, Washington entered every season since 2012 as the divisional favorite.
The 2017-2018 offseason was relatively quiet for Washington, with no follow-up trade like the one that brought Adam Eaton to the team. Nor was there a major free agent signing, though this was largely due to the fact that there were few significant free agents available last offseason and even fewer that fit the team’s needs. (Catcher was a position in obvious need of an upgrade, but there was nary a great free agent catcher to be found, and a trade for JT Realmuto failed to materialize.)
Sure, I liked Lorenzo Cain, but considering the team’s minor league talent, would that have been the most efficient signing? The Nationals did at least dip their toes into the Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta markets, but given the disaster of a year Darvish had and with Arrieta being merely solid, it’s hard to say there was much in the way of regret there.
For a team that didn’t expect to have to worry about the Braves and Phillies — yet — and faced a luxury tax threshold beckoning and an uncertain future after the short-term, there’s a very good argument that this was the right way to play the offseason. If the team had dough they were absolutely dying to spend, putting it towards a future Harper contract, if the team went that way, made more sense.
While Washington has had above-average payrolls, it’s not a team that historically has dipped that deeply into the free agent market. They spent aggressively to bring in Max Scherzer (as they should have) but otherwise haven’t spent $50 million on a single free agent player since Jayson Werth.
The team was active, but low-key, picking up a number of role players like Matt Adams, Jeremy Hellickson, and Howie Kendrick. These constituted depth pieces for a contender rather than foundational talent.
Much was made about the team moving on from Dusty Baker, but similarly, I felt it was the right move at the time. Dusty’s challenge in 2016 and 2017 was to take a veteran team, keep them from murdering each other, and guide them along on cruise control. That’s Baker’s specialty. But a the team that had reached the possible end of the Bryce Harper era and now faced the challenges of transitioning to a new core, whether by retool or rebuild? That’s not something I was as keen on having Baker handle.
ZiPS still saw the Nationals as the class of the NL East, but with an 89-73 record, they were the only projected division winner with a median win guess under 90 wins. The projections didn’t see this as the year that it was more likely than that the Braves or Phillies took a step forward, but it was still a 1-in-3 chance (32.4%) that a non-Marlin team toppled the team.
While the season started off strong with a sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, an 11-16 April left the Nationals spending a good chunk of the early part of the season in fourth place, behind the Phillies, Braves, and the surging Mets.
Things seemed to have righted themselves in that lusty month of May, but while Washington ending May in first place, with a 33-23 record, it had become clear that the Braves and Phillies had shown real improvement, not simply an early-year mirage.
The team was in first place and largely hadn’t even yet seen the full benefits of phenom Juan Soto in the lineup (43 PA through the end of May). The only player who wasn’t really hitting at that point was Michael A. Taylor, who was already on borrowed time with Adam Eaton’s return expected.
Then the team’s pitching largely collapsed. At the end of May, Washington’s 3.45 FIP was the second-best in baseball, behind only the Houston Astros. Over the rest of the season, it was 4.52, 24th in the majors. While Scherzer was more or less his usual self, the rest of the rotation combined for a 5.35 ERA.
By the time the trade deadline rolled around, there were a lot more arguments for the Nationals being sellers than buyers. While the team was theoretically still on the outskirts of both the Wild Card and NL East races, they were only hovering around .500.
The Dodgers claimed Bryce Harper on revocable waivers, but the Nationals never seriously discussed trade terms with Los Angeles. It was one of those instances in which you heard a lot of behind-the-scenes rumors. I wonder if we’ll ever get a full, true story about what happened. Did the Dodgers not make a serious offer, taking advantage of their disappointing win total at the time, hoping to keep Harper from a rival? After all, it wasn’t a Randy Myers situation where Washington would just say “fine, he’s yours” so there was little risk in a block.
Or were the Nats owners, primarily the Lerner family, simply not interested in trading Harper when push came to shove? I think it far more likely they were a roadblock to a possible trade than team president Mike Rizzo. Remember, Harper was in a different situation than Manny Machado was, where there was actually a good chance that the owners of his current team would re-sign him in free agency.
Washington ended the season in second place in the division, but that was due more to the Phillies deciding to stop winning games ever than to any impressive late-season surge from the Nationals.
What Comes Next?
The Bryce Harper question is of course the one that will dominate this offseason. Spending $300 million (and maybe more) on a player who has just one MVP-type season in his portfolio is a major risk. But Washington may feel they need to retain him just to keep pace with the Braves and Phillies, one of which has a far better farm system and the other of which possesses a deeper bank account.
Harper’s not the only pending financial decision, either. Anthony Rendon is a free agent after 2019 and it wouldn’t take a crazy-good year from Stephen Strasburg to make him think he could beat four years and $100 million after next season or three years and $75 million after 2020.
The good news is that whichever way the team goes, they do have impressive build-around talent in Soto, Victor Robles, and Trea Turner. But given their division, Washington may be in trouble if they resort to half-measures. In fact, if they want to spend $300 million, Manny Machado is likely a better fit on the roster than Harper, with the added bonus that they can stick it to their rival up the B-W Parkway.
Way-too-Early-Projection – Victor Robles
Ha, you thought this was going to be Juan Soto, didn’t you? Just picture a whole bunch of really big numbers. There, you have the Soto projection.
In essence, a Harper-less Nationals outfield would likely be best configured with Soto, Eaton, and Victor Robles. So with Robles the least established as a major leaguer right now, we’ll go with him, certainly no chopped liver as a consensus top-ten prospect coming into 2018.
Not the flashiest projection around, but ZiPS anticipates Robles to be a contributor in the majors very quickly. If Robles is your third-best outfielder, it makes the “pay Bryce Harper $35 million a year” case harder to make for the team.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.