The Philadelphia Phillies, who entered last August in first place in the National League East, have rather drastically upgraded their lineup this offseason, with general manager Matt Klentak acquiring J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen. With or without Bryce Harper, the Phillies have a playoff-caliber lineup with Spring Training looming.
The problem for the Phillies is that the division-rival Washington Nationals are in an interesting situation. While it’s still possible they ultimately re-sign Harper, it feels less-than-likely that they’ll be able to retain perhaps the most accomplished player in the history of their franchise. Almost no team is able to lose a six-time All-Star entering what should be his prime and feel like they have a chance to be a better team. But the Nationals are in that rare situation.
No, this isn’t an indictment on Harper. The 2019 Nationals, of course, would be better with Harper, a former National League MVP. But like the Phillies, the Nationals look like a formidable team as currently constructed, one that figures to be better than they were in 2018.
The Nationals may lose Harper, but they’ll get a full year of Juan Soto in 2019, who, even at age 20, is probably a darkhorse National League MVP candidate. In 414 at-bats in his rookie season, Soto slashed .292/.406/.517 with 22 home runs, 70 RBIs, 79 walks and a 3.7 fWAR in just 116 games. Not only did he also enter the league with the Nationals as a teenage phenom, but like Harper has done throughout the course of his career, Soto murdered the Phillies in his rookie season, hitting .308 with six home runs, 14 RBIs and nine walks in just 74 plate appearances.
If not Soto, third baseman Anthony Rendon could also win the National League MVP in a contract year. Rendon, 28, has played in the shadow of Harper, but since 2016, FanGraphs says only Cleveland Indians superstar Jose Ramirez has graded out as a better third baseman. That means that Rendon – who, curiously, has never made an All-Star team – has graded out as a better third baseman than Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Justin Turner and Kris Bryant over the past three seasons. In a potential walk year, 2019 may finally be the moment that Rendon steps into the spotlight.
That says nothing of shortstop Trea Turner, who posted a 4.8 fWAR in 2018, a higher fWAR than any Phillies position player since 2010 (Chase Utley). Victor Robles, the No. 4 overall prospect in baseball, will be the team’s everyday center fielder if Harper doesn’t return. The Nationals may lose Harper in their lineup, but they remain extremely deep, with Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Eaton, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Howie Kendrick, Michael A. Taylor and Matt Adams all in the picture as well.
And the Nationals lineup probably isn’t even their strength.
Three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer will anchor what should be one of the best starting rotations in the league. At 34, it’s fair to wonder how much longer the six-time All-Star will continue to pitch at this level. At the same time, despite finishing runner-up to Jacob deGrom in the National League Cy Young Award race, 2018 may have been the best season of Scherzer’s illustrious career. In 220.2 innings a season ago, Scherzer posted a career-low 2.65 FIP and career-high 7.2 fWAR. That doesn’t lead you to think he’s about to fall off.
Stephen Strasburg struggled to stay healthy in 2018, with two injured list stints limiting him to just 22 starts. Strasburg has a fairly noteworthy injury history, but he’s still only 30 and finished third in National League Cy Young Award voting as recently as 2017.
Oh, and the Nationals edged out the Phillies and New York Yankees to land two-time All-Star Patrick Corbin, who despite being one of the most coveted free-agents this offseason, may not start until the Nationals third game of the season. Will the Phillies look smart in 2023 and 2024 for not going to six years to obtain Corbin? Probably. But will a division rival be better in the interim for acquiring Corbin, who finished fifth in a crowded National League Cy Young Award race in 2018? You bet.
Bullpens can be difficult to project. That’s been especially true in recent years for the Nationals. For example, the team gave up on a struggling Blake Treinen in 2017, trading him to the Oakland Athletics in a deal that netted them Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. Doolittle was excellent for the Nationals in 2018, posting a 1.60 ERA and closing 25 games. But Treinen may have been the best reliever in the entire sport in 2018, posting an 0.78 ERA in 68 games and finishing sixth in American League Cy Young Award voting. While the Nationals would like a mulligan on that trade, Doolittle will close games for them in 2019, with new acquisitions Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough slated to set-up.
In the same way that we’re pretty sure that the Phillies lineup and bullpen should be playoff-caliber and less sure about the starting rotation, that’s about where the Nationals bullpen stands. The Phillies possess an ace in Aaron Nola, with quite a bit of uncertainty afterwards. Doolittle has been one of the game’s better relievers over the last two seasons, but he has to get the ball with the lead in the ninth inning.
In any event, this will be a telling year for second-year manager Dave Martinez. After unceremoniously letting Dusty Baker go after the 2017 season, the Nationals went just 82-80 in 2018, their worst record since 2011. Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem suggests that based on the Nationals run differential in 2018, they should have won 90 games, which would have tied them with the National League East Champion Atlanta Braves. That doesn’t speak especially well to the job that Martinez did. It does, however, make you think that the Nationals are due for some positive regression in 2019, which could mean they will stand in the way of the Phillies returning to the postseason for the first time in eight seasons.
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