On Feb. 28, the Philadelphia Phillies acquired 26-year-old superstar outfielder Bryce Harper in a $330 million deal that spans 13 years. Harper was first drafted by the Washington Nationals in 2010 and has been with the team ever since. For Washington, this departure marks the loss of a tremendous homegrown talent who became a fan-favorite and a franchise icon. In the long run, it will be difficult to analyze the effects Harper’s absence will have on his former team. However, in the short term, the Nationals have successfully positioned themselves through an active offseason to field a better baseball team in 2019, despite Harper’s departure.
In 2018, the Nationals went 82-80 as both Harper and the team underperformed. Harper batted .249 with 34 home runs and 100 RBIs. For most players, this would be a stellar season, but for Harper, this was a disappointment considering his extraordinary talent and the fact that he has not been consistently exceptional since his MVP season in 2015. In that year, Harper totaled a .330 batting average, 42 home runs and 99 RBIs.
The club’s lackluster season left Washington prepared to send Harper to the Houston Astros at the trade deadline on Aug. 1, but the Nationals’ front office eventually declined the deal involving the superstar. Additionally, at the end of the regular season, the Nationals offered Bryce Harper a reported 10-year, $300 million extension, which he declined in November of last year.
Since that point, the Nationals have primarily resided in the background of the Harper sweepstakes. Despite their position in the Harper saga, the Nationals had an active offseason that was headlined by their acquisition of All-Star starting pitcher Patrick Corbin on a six-year, $140 million contract.
Corbin elevated his performance to an elite level last season, as he produced 11 wins with a 3.15 ERA and 246 strikeouts. Corbin’s success was driven by increased usage of his slider, which he threw 40.9 percent of the time and led to 195 of his strikeouts. Additionally, Corbin proved that he could recapture the potential he displayed earlier in his career, before Tommy John surgery forced him to miss the 2014 season and suffer several lackluster seasons thereafter.
The signing of Corbin adds a tremendous talent to a Nationals rotation that currently boasts aces Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. The trio is arguably the best of any team in baseball and will be a key driver for the team’s playoff ambitions.
Furthermore, the Nationals added starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez to the bullpen, who resurrected his career last season in Atlanta. Sanchez will replace underachieving Tanner Roark, who has since been jettisoned to the Cincinnati Reds.
Another position group that will receive significant attention is the Nationals talented outfield that is composed of Adam Eaton, Juan Soto and Victor Robles. Eaton has demonstrated his ability as an offensive catalyst at the top of the order, but injuries have forced him to miss large portions of his two seasons with the team.
In fact, Eaton’s injury last season cleared the path for Soto’s promotion at only 19 years old. Soto quickly proved that he belonged in the league, as he amassed 22 home runs, 70 RBIs and a .406 OBP in only 116 games. Finally, Robles has been the Nationals’ top prospect for several years and now he finally has the chance to earn a spot as a starter on the big league club. While none of the Nationals outfielders can single-handedly replace Bryce Harper, they possess strong upsides that can mitigate his absence.
Finally, the Nationals made several moves to better the catcher position. Last season, Washington received dismal offensive and defensive performances from Matt Wieters. As a result, the Nationals acquired defensive specialist Yan Gomes from the Indians and signed Kurt Suzuki to create a more productive catching duo.
Washington also added some intriguing bullpen options in Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal. Barraclough was among the most effective relievers in baseball during the first half of 2018, before suffering a severe drop in performance during the second half. Meanwhile, Rosenthal looks to bounce back after missing last season because of an injury. If the duo can prove to be healthy and effective, they can fill high-leverage roles this season.
While none of the Nationals offseason acquisitions will be as flashy as a Bryce Harper extension, the team is significantly improved from last season’s 82-win squad.