The Post-Bryce Harper Era Begins in Washington

The Nationals are now officially in the post-Bryce Harper era. With the news of his completion of a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, Washington will no longer employ the brash prodigy whose presence has more or less defined the franchise since his arrival as a 19-year-old on April 28, 2012. It’s clear that the Nationals have been bracing for this moment since the six-time All-Star slugger spurned a 10-year, $300 million offer that — as we’ve only learned recently — reportedly included roughly $100 million in deferred money. Save for a little less star power, and perhaps a little less swagger, the team does not appear to be that worse for wear.

In fact, the Nationals are currently projected to win the NL East, though Harper’s signing has shrunk the gap between them and the Phillies, who we now project for 86 wins to the Nationals’ 90. That a similar forecast last spring went awry was of a piece with Harper’s D.C. tenure, a period defined as much by what they did not accomplish as what they did. They were also the preseason favorites going into the two other seasons in which they missed the playoffs with Harper in tow, and while they did win four division titles in Harper’s seven seasons — including the first for the franchise since relocating from Montreal prior to the 2005 season — the Nationals failed to win a single playoff series. They went an excruciating 0-for-4 in the NL Division Series, losing to lower-seeded teams each time. Three of the four series went the distance; the Nationals squandered early leads and lost those decisive games on their home field by a total of four runs.

Lest you think that I’m attempting to hang the Nationals’ failures upon Harper himself, I’m not. While his overall playoff numbers are pretty unremarkable (.211/.315/.487), he went 7-for-15 with 17 total bases in those four elimination games. He won his MVP award in 2015, when the team missed the playoffs, and by WAR, he was more valuable in the other two seasons in which they fizzled (2013 and ’18), than in ’14 or ’16, when they won the NL East. Regardless, that era is history, and perhaps not the happiest one if you’re a Nationals fan, though it had its moments.

Back to those preseason projections. On paper or pixel, the Nationals appear to be a better team than they were last year, if not at its beginning, then certainly at its end. For one thing, they should start the season with an outfield trio that combined for just 232 games with the Nationals last year but netted 6.1 WAR while wielding potent bats: 20-year-old phenom Juan Soto in left, 21-year-old top prospect Victor Robles in center, and a healthy, 30-year-old Adam Eaton in right. Soto, who didn’t debut until May 20, posted the highest wRC+ (146) of any player with at least 300 plate appearances in his age-19 or younger season, and the third-highest WAR (3.7) of any teen behind Harper (4.4 in 2012) and Mel Ott (4.1 in 1928).

Robles, who turns 22 on May 19, missed three months of last season due to a hyperextended left elbow but played well enough in his return (including a .288/.348/.525 line in a 66 PA cup of coffee with the big club) to maintain a top-five spot within our 2019 Top 100 Prospects rankings. While the team played an out-of-position Harper in the middle pasture last year with lousy results (-7.0 UZR and -10 DRS in just 63 games), Robles is a legitimate flychaser who “projects as a 3-plus WAR center fielder with a skillset akin to Lorenzo Cain’s, and [is] big league ready right now.” Eaton was limited to 95 games due to an early-season left ankle injury that required arthroscopic surgery but hit .301/.394/.411 upon returning.

That trio will join shortstop Trea Turner, who tallied 4.8 WAR in his first season playing at least 100 games (he played all 162) and third baseman Anthony Rendon, whose 13.0 WAR over the past two seasons ranks sixth in the majors, as the pillars of the Nationals’ lineup. Meanwhile, despite Harper’s departure, the team has addressed its major needs this winter, largely in solid fashion.

Here’s a quick position-by-position breakdown comparing the Nationals’ 2018 performance at each position with the 2019 projections currently in our depth charts:

Nationals 2018 Performance vs. 2019 Projections
Position 2018 WAR 2019 Proj Dif
C 0.8 2.6 1.8
1B 2.4 1.7 -0.7
2B 1.3 2.4 1.1
SS 4.9 4.5 -0.4
3B 6.0 5.5 -0.5
LF 3.4 4.6 1.2
CF 3.2 2.3 -0.9
RF 4.1 2.7 -1.4
DH -0.7 0.8 1.5
SP 14.3 16.1 1.8
RP 0.4 3.1 2.7
Total 40.1 46.3 6.2
Projections from our Depth Charts as of 2./27/19

By WAR, the improvement is about six games, but here it’s worth remembering that projections are inherently conservative. Hence the built-in expectations for regression from Turner, Rendon, and Max Scherzer, who very well could have won a fourth Cy Young award with his 220.2-inning, 7.2 season; he’s projected for “only” 5.8 WAR.

It’s also worth remembering that last year’s bunch was actually better than the 82 wins they ended up with, at least by WAR. They were decidedly unclutch on both sides of the ball, ranking 26th on the offensive side (-5.07 wins), 27th on the pitching side (-1.97 wins), and 29th overall (ahead of only the Dodgers); they underperformed by eight wins relative to PythagenPat, and by seven wins relative to BaseRuns. Remember, there’s nothing predictive about clutch scores, no expectation of carry-over.

The Nationals’ biggest offseason addition is free agent Patrick Corbin, whose six-year, $140 million deal was the largest of the winter until Manny Machado’s and then Harper’s surpassed it. The 29-year-old southpaw tweaked his repertoire and stayed healthy en route to a slew of career bests: innings (200), ERA (3.15), FIP (2.47), K% (30.8%), K-BB% (24.8%), and WAR (6.3). He’s a potentially vast improvement upon the since-traded Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez. The rotation’s other addition, Anibal Sanchez (on a two-year, $19 million deal), tweaked his own repertoire to emphasize a cut fastball and turned in his first really productive season since 2014, pitching to a 2.83 ERA and a 3.62 FIP in 136.2 innings. Given that he just turned 35 and hasn’t qualified for an ERA title since 2013, there’s obviously some risk involved, but the move makes sense. At the back of the rotation, Jeremy Hellickson has returned on a one-year, $1.3 million deal; he’ll compete for the fifth starter job with Joe Ross, who’s now more than 20 months removed from Tommy John surgery.

The wild card here is Stephen Strasburg, who turned in career worsts in ERA (3.74) and FIP (3.62) while being limited to 130 innings last year due to shoulder inflammation and cervical nerve impingement. The gap between the rotation’s projections and last year’s performance doesn’t seem all that wide thanks to the expectations for regression from Corbin (3.5 WAR) and Scherzer, though the 177 projected innings for Strasburg (albeit with just 3.1 WAR) would be his highest total since 2014.

The bullpen, forever the bane of general manager Mike Rizzo’s existence given the apparently annual need for midseason overhauls, ranked 26th in the majors last year and still appears as though it could use some work. The team has added Trevor Rosenthal, who missed all of last year due to Tommy John surgery, via a one-year, $7 million deal that includes a mutual option for 2020, but aside from Sean Doolittle — who alas has missed at least six weeks in each of the past four seasons due to injuries — the rest of the cast still looks quite lackluster; no other reliever projects for more than 0.2 WAR. It would behoove Rizzo to upgrade the cast before the Nationals have to continue dealing the likes of Nick Pivetta (to the Phillies in 2015 for Jonathan Papelbon), Felipe Vazquez (to the Pirates in 2016 for Mark Melancon), Jesus Luzardo, or Blake Treinen (both to the A’s for Doolittle and Ryan Madson in 2017).

Position-wise, catcher Matt Wieters is gone (he settled for a minor-league deal with the Cardinals on Tuesday), while Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki have come aboard, the former via a trade with the Indians and the latter on a two-year, $10 million free agent deal. The team should see improvement on both sides of the ball. While Wieters, Pedro Severino, and Spencer Kieboom (with 13 PA of Miguel Montero) combined for just a 68 wRC+, both newcomers were above 100 last year and own career marks of 92 (Gomes) and 90 (Suzuki). Gomes is one of the majors’ better pitch framers (7.5 runs last year according to Baseball Prospectus), and while Suzuki (-7.5 runs) is one of the worst, Wieters was no great shakes either (-3.7 runs); including the other facets of backstopping in BP’s defensive metric, last year’s Nats finished with -4.7 Fielding Runs Above Average, while the two newcomers combined for 3.6 runs, albeit in more playing time than will be available to them as a tandem. It’s still an upgrade.

At second base, Daniel Murphy didn’t debut last season until June 12 as he recovered from October 2017 microfracture surgery on his right knee; he didn’t regain his stroke for another three weeks and played just a total of 56 games before being dealt to the Cubs on August 19. Newcomer Brian Dozier, whom they signed to a one-year, $9 million deal, is a former All-Star coming off a down season in which a bone bruise in his right knee led to bad habits at the plate and a career-worst .215/.305/.391 line and 0.8 WAR. Though he’s entering his age-32 season, he’s projected to rebound to 2.2 WAR, and even if his defense isn’t league average, it should be an improvement over Murphy’s. Backup Howie Kendrick, limited to 40 games by a ruptured Achilles tendon, will reprise his utility role, helping out at second, both corner outfield spots, and even first base.

Also returning to first base, in a backup capacity, is Matt Adams, who spent the first three quarters of the 2018 season with the Nationals before being dealt to the Cardinals in an August waiver trade. The 30-year-old lefty swinger, who signed a one-year, $4 million deal that includes a mutual option for 2020, hit for a 107 wRC+ with 0.8 WAR. He’s decent insurance given that the Nationals never know what they’re going to get from the latter-day Ryan Zimmerman; last year, it was a 114 wRC+ and 1.4 WAR — still his second-best showing since 2013 — in 85 games, but with more than two months lost to oblique and calf injuries.

All told, that’s a solid offseason, albeit one that could have been improved with an additional quality bullpen arm or two. Free agent Craig Kimbrel is probably not an option, as his addition would almost certainly push the payroll over the $206 million luxury tax threshold (the Nationals are at $195.5 million according to Cot’s Contracts). The lower tiers of remaining free agents have largely been picked over, but even guys like Adam Warren have stronger track records and better projections than Kyle Barraclough and Justin Miller, who are next on the depth chart behind Rosenthal.

In the bigger picture, there are still questions that can’t be answered immediately. Can the Nationals use some of the Harper savings to retain Rendon, who will be a free agent after this, his age-29 season — and should they? Can manager Dave Martinez improve after a rookie season in which he burned through the best relievers of a thin bullpen and was said to have other clubhouse problems as well? This is a team that has chewed through managers over the past decade, and some have pointed to the way Harper was handled as part of the problem.

For better or worse, the Nationals won’t have that excuse to fall back upon, but even without Harper, they still appear to have enough talent to win the NL East and, perhaps, break their cycle of October heartbreaks. It’s on them to live up to that promise.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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4 years ago

So this doesn’t have a lot of relevance to the postseason, but some of the Nationals’ underachievement in the regular season–relative to the projections–is at least partially due to Harper not hitting his benchmark. Here are the depth chart projections in February, with actual wins in parentheses:
2018: 6.0 (3.5)
2017: 5.7 (4.8)
2016: 6.6 (3.0)
(In 2015, however, any failure of the Nationals that year cannot be blamed on Harper, who was awesome)

The big issue for the Nationals, at least in 2019, is whether Eaton can stay healthy. Eaton is a 3-4 win player when healthy, a good table-setter at the top of the lineup for other guys to drive in. If he can’t, then they’re going to miss Harper. But if Eaton can turn in close to a full season, it seems likely that signing Corbin, Dozier, and upgrading the catching will more than make up for losing Harper…at least this year.