Even with Bryce Harper gone to Philadelphia, the Nationals can’t escape talk of their former MVP this spring. Adam Eaton was asked about playing right field—where he was one the majors’ best defenders before moving to D.C.—full time in his stead. Juan Soto plays in the shadow of the last 20-year-old wunderkind to anchor the Washington lineup. An anonymous veteran lobs complaints at Harper’s retreating back.
It’s hard to shake the status quo in Washington, where Harper’s homers and highlights and hair took center stage for the past seven seasons. But that status quo also involved painful and repeated playoff losses, even amid tremendous regular-season success: Only the Dodgers have won more games from April through September than the Nationals during the length of Harper’s career, but they never won a postseason series despite four division titles with him on the team.
Unlike the Orioles, who are now undergoing a wholesale rebuild—from the front office to the coaching staff to the on-field product—without Manny Machado, Baltimore’s DMV neighbor in D.C. is still a top-tier contender in 2019. The Nationals could replicate the success they experienced with Harper without the 26-year-old superstar; and if they win a playoff series, they can even exceed it. The roster Harper left behind is just as talented as it ever was.
That assessment starts with Soto, perhaps the greatest individual surprise of the 2018 season. A year ago at this time, the young left fielder was a well-regarded prospect who had never played above Single-A ball, and he was set to return to that level to start the season. Then he reached the majors after a series of rapid promotions, and he posted the highest OPS+ ever for a teenager who batted at least 200 times in a season with a batting line 42 percent better than average. The rest of the top 10 is full of players so famous in baseball history they’re identifiable by only one name: Ott, Conigliaro, Cobb, Harper, Mantle, and Griffey. Now, he’s projected for the second-best batting line in the majors in 2019, behind only Mike Trout—and one spot, fittingly, ahead of Harper.
Soto is perhaps the brightest, but he’s not the only star in the Nationals’ 2019 lineup. Third baseman Anthony Rendon has been almost as valuable as Harper over the past six seasons, producing 25.8 WAR to Harper’s 26.3 since he debuted, and he’s grown even better recently, posting the two best batting lines of his career in 2017 and 2018. Shortstop Trea Turner joins Rendon as a near five-WAR player and combines decent hitting with blazing speed and a solid glove at an important defensive position.
That core fits the Nationals’ modus operandi, as the club’s sustained success over the better part of a decade has stemmed from a roster that skewed more toward the stars-and-scrubs model than a fully balanced outfit. They took strides to try to address that disparity this winter, however. While the Phillies added half a lineup’s worth of All-Star-caliber players, the Mets added their own All-Stars, and the Braves added Josh Donaldson, Washington took part in its own offseason upgrades. The Nationals committed more than $180 million in free agency with a coterie of veterans joining prized pitcher Patrick Corbin. Only the Phillies, with Harper, and the Padres, with Machado, spent more. And each player the Nationals added fits a specific and necessary role.
They overhauled the catching position by trading for Cleveland backstop Yan Gomes and signing Kurt Suzuki to take over for a group that produced replacement-level numbers in 2018. Out of 50 catchers last year with at least 200 plate appearances, only a dozen recorded a better-than-average batting line; two now play for the same team.
They built one of the deepest benches in the National League with the new backup catcher, free-agent signee Matt Adams, Howie Kendrick, and Michael Taylor all able to contribute as capable pinch hitters or step into a starting spot if injury arises.
They added Brian Dozier to fill the second-base hole created last August when the team traded impending free agent Daniel Murphy. The former Twins slugger struggled in 2018 but had rated as an annual four-WAR player during the previous five seasons. Even a moderate rebound toward his previous levels will boost the team’s floor and add a potent bat at the bottom of the order.
And though he doesn’t count as a transactional addition, but rather a prospect promotion, 21-year-old center fielder Víctor Robles could pack the greatest impact of any new Nationals position player. Ranked as a top-five prospect at FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com, Robles hit .288/.348/.525 in a cup of September coffee last season, and he would have played much more in the majors had he not suffered an elbow injury early in the season. Along with Eaton and Soto, Robles is the final piece for a group that projects as a top-five outfield even without Harper. (The Phillies rank seventh in the same category, according to FanGraphs.)
Dozier and Robles will help address another roster-wide issue as well, as Murphy and Harper were the greatest culprits in the Nationals’ poor defensive numbers last season. As a capable but not exemplary fielder, Dozier is at least better than Murphy, who will probably move down the defensive spectrum to first base in Colorado this season, while FanGraphs graded both Robles’s fielding ability and arm with 70 ratings on the 20-80 scouting scale—the former tying him for the best mark of any prospect in baseball.
That improved defense will help a pitching staff that could probably fare well by itself, given the dominance of its best pitchers. Max Scherzer remains the most consistent ace in the majors; he was better last season than in any of his three Cy Young–winning campaigns and missed out on a fourth trophy only because the Mets’ Jacob deGrom pitched like prime Walter Johnson. Scherzer somehow boosted his strikeout rate (if only barely), lowered his walk rate, and decreased his home run rate, and he evinced no ill effects of age despite celebrating his 34th birthday in July.
Stephen Strasburg, in contrast, suffered his worst-ever season in 2019, but almost all of his ERA inflation (to 3.74) was the result of an increased home run rate. Sixteen percent of the fly balls Strasburg allowed flew beyond the fence last season, versus a career average of just 11 percent before last season; tweak that dial back down to its usual level and Strasburg should look like the same pitcher he always has, generating lots of strikeouts, allowing few runs, and probably hitting the injured list a time or two throughout the season.
That duo, which has paced the team’s rotation ever since Scherzer arrived in D.C. via his own large free-agent deal, gains a third partner in Corbin, who was basically Scherzer’s statistical equal last season. The Nationals would be optimistic to expect quite that level of production from the lefty again, but all his underlying numbers—from stingy walk and home run rates to a revamped pitching philosophy that saw him throw the majors’ most valuable slider more than 40 percent of the time—point to continued success for the $140 million man.
The offseason shopping helped round out the back of the pitching staff, too. Free-agent signee Aníbal Sánchez enjoyed an unexpected 2018 bounce back in Atlanta, and even if the batted-ball luck he enjoyed there is doomed to regress, a useful change to his own pitch mix makes him an intriguing bet to succeed at the back end of the rotation. So too with Jeremy Hellickson, whom the Nationals brought back after a moderately effective 2018 campaign. And Washington signed Trevor Rosenthal and traded for Kyle Barraclough to add to a talented if volatile relief corps.
The Nationals possessed most if not all of those advantages in 2018, however, and didn’t reach the playoffs then. Their 82-80 record was actually the club’s worst since Harper arrived. But that disappointing mark masks another factor that should help the 2019 version: There’s almost no way they’ll suffer worse luck this season. By run differential—a better predictor of future success than straight win-loss record—the 2018 team’s record “should” have been 90-72, which would have sent it to the playoffs. Much of this disparity stems from remarkably poor performance in high-leverage situations, as the Nationals finished 26th in batting Clutch rating and 27th in pitching Clutch; the good news for D.C. is that there’s no correlation between a team’s Clutch scores from one season to the next.
None of this regular-season optimism guarantees Washington a smidge of playoff success, of course, and fans would be forgiven from planning for anything of the sort. Not when a 98-win Nationals team didn’t win a playoff series, or a 97-win Nationals team, or a 96-win Nationals team, or a 95-win Nationals team—all since 2012.
Harper himself wasn’t to blame for those playoff defeats. He mostly hit well in those trips: He tripled and homered in Game 5 against St. Louis in 2012; homered three times and OPSed better than 1.000 against the Giants in 2014; reached base at a .458 clip in 2016 against a Dodgers team so afraid of his power that they kept walking him; and launched a titanic homer to save the Nats from going down 2-0 against the Cubs in 2017.
Rather, the Nationals have been unfathomably unlucky in October. In their first of four playoff appearances with Harper, they lost Game 5 of the NLDS at home after coming one strike away from victory. In their next three playoff trips, eight of nine losses came by a single run. Perhaps the Nationals are simply cursed—though playoff curses have been snapping at an awfully high rate as of late. But perhaps their luck will even out on one of these tries.
Washington faces a long road to reach that opportunity. Both the NL East and wild-card races are looking to be fiercely contested. Yet the Nationals are a leading contender, as both FanGraphs’ and Baseball Prospectus’s preseason projections give the team a slight advantage in the division. That appraisal might remove the team from “Ewing Theory” consideration, as it still clearly has believers despite losing its most-publicized star—but otherwise, the 2019 Nationals are a perfect test case of the idea that even such a loss doesn’t automatically portend failure, but in fact can yield even greater success.