Any other year, the major talk surrounding the Washington Nationals would be regarding how much of a bust they were this season. However, most of the discussion has been about Bryce Harper’s pending free agency. He is perceived to be the most prominent free agent in MLB history because of his superstar talent and age. He is going to be just 26 years of age, and that is very young for an MLB free agent. So combined with super agent Scott Boras doing his negotiations, $300 million is a realistic number to throw out there, but it also has people wondering whether $400 million is attainable.
Harper accumulated a 30.7 fWAR in 927 games in his career, which is just under six full 162-game seasons (5.72 to be exact). That is a 5.4 WAR per 162 games, and nowadays, it’s hard to find a guy that may even reach 150 games. It’s six seasons of superstar-level play, and he may very well price himself out of the nation’s capital, so you can see why people are skeptical of the Nationals’ future. But, their future isn’t as gloomy as you would think.
They went 82-80 with a lot of things (primarily injuries) going wrong. But there’s a good chance that they can go back to being successful next season. It first depends on what expectations are. The World Series isn’t as legitimate of a hope as it was in the past, but they can still be a really good team because the rest of the roster still has some excellent talent.
The top of the rotation is still among the best in the game. Scherzer has shown that Father Time has nothing on him, as he’s had the best seasons of his career since 2015. And the righty is still under contract for three more seasons. Stephen Strasburg has had his fair share of injuries, but when healthy, is a frontline arm that would be the ace of almost any other team. And towards the back of the rotation, Tanner Roark has proven to be a solid innings eater that will keep the team in games, and Joe Ross showed in his second season that he has promise, but just needs to stay healthy. And the bullpen has a solid core to build around with Sean Doolittle, Koda Glover, Kelvin Herrera, and Greg Holland (if the latter two return).
But, the most significant spot that Harper’s absence would be felt is at the plate. He is not the best on defense, but his bat is among the best in the game. However, he has been inconsistent year-to-year, so you can’t predict how he would perform each season. The down years Harper has had would not be worth $20 million-per-season, let along $30 to $40 million.
And the Nationals have a really good core of position players without Harper; it would be the strength of the team. Adam Eaton is an underrated outfielder but has proven to be a really good everyday player. He is excellent on defense and 15%-20% better than his counterparts at the plate. And the veteran is under team control through 2021 (his prime) if they choose. Ryan Zimmerman is still a steady veteran performing well-above average.
Anthony Rendon has quietly become one of the best third basemen in the game and one of the best position players in the National League league. The former sixth overall pick has panned out and become a crucial part of the lineup. The 28-year-old had a .937 OPs and 25 home runs in 147 games last season and had a .907 OPS with 24 home runs in 136 games this year. But he was particularly good in the second, with an OPS near .950.
Trea Truner is part of the new crop of excellent young shortstops in the league that could be one of the best leadoff hitters and baserunners in the game. Victor Robles is one of the top prospects in baseball who has the potential to be a superstar. But in his place, outfielder Juan Soto has emerged as a potential Bryce Harper replacement, playing well beyond his years this year. As a rookie, he posted a .923 OPS with 22 home run in 414 plate appearances as a 19-year-old. Let that sink in. That is better than Harper’s age 19 season. Oh, and the Nats still have two elite prospects in infielders Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia in the minors.
The only reason you weren’t able to see the offense running in high gear was health. But, on paper, the Nationals should be fine and will still compete for the playoffs. They have one of the best cores in baseball, with the veterans locked in for at least two or three seasons, and the young guys to build around locked in for much longer. It would be nice to retain Harper, but the Nationals should not overpay.