WASHINGTON -- This week, the Nationals officially revealed their report dates for Spring Training, with pitchers and catchers set to head to West Palm Beach, Fla., by Feb. 13. Outfielder Adam Eaton even got a head start and arrived at the team's complex on Thursday. The countdown to baseball's return has officially started.
Washington has already been perhaps the most active team in the Majors this offseason, and its slate of moves has so far culminated in reaching an agreement to sign second baseman James Dozier on Thursday. Yet there is still one major domino to fall: Bryce Harper remains unsigned and on the minds of Nationals fans, with a little more than a month to go before the team's first workout.
Today's Nationals Inbox begins with Harper and the fallout that his potential return could bring.
:: Submit a question to the Nationals Inbox ::
Harper is on my mind. Spring Training is days away. Aren't the guys worried about will happen? No way they can be just "whatever," right? Especially if he ends up in Philly?
-- Jane B., Churchton, Md.
Yes, I think everyone -- fans, the team, the media -- all hoped there might be more clarity by now in the Harper sweepstakes. One thing is for sure, though: The Nationals are certainly more involved than it seemed they would be earlier in the offseason -- especially after a radio interview on Dec. 7 with team owner Mark Lerner, in which he said he thought Harper had moved on. "I don't really expect him to come back at this point," Lerner told 106.7 the Fan.
MLB.com's Mark Feinsand reported this week that there is momentum building toward a reunion between the Nationals and Harper. The Phillies will reportedly make their big pitch on Saturday, with Phils owner John Middleton leading the team's delegation and prospects of "spending stupid money" to meet with Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, in Las Vegas.
Washington and Philadelphia have certainly ended up as the two favorites for potential landing spots, but it is still unclear when this is all going to end. If by "the guys" you mean the players, then I think they will be fine. They've been answering questions for years about Harper's free agency, and they understand that his potential departure is part of the game. General manager Mike Rizzo has said that the team does not want to respond to moves made by the rest of the division, and I don't think he would feel the pressure to do so if Harper signed with Philly. And I think it's helpful to consider the additions the front office has made in the meantime. The roster has been revamped to ensure the team is competitive in 2019, no matter where Harper winds up.
If Harper re-signed with the Nationals, how would they work the outfield? Would Victor Robles start the season in Minors? Or would they trade Eaton?
-- Jonesy, Washington
The Nationals will find themselves in a bit of a quandary if they are able to bring back Harper, as they'll have too many capable outfielders on the roster. It's not the worst issue to have, but it is one they would have to remedy. Juan Soto isn't going anywhere. The organization has been reluctant to include Robles in a trade the past two offseasons, and while re-signing Harper could warm up some to the idea of parting with him, I still think it's unlikely that the Nats could find a trade they would go through with. Robles is going to get an opportunity to become the starting center fielder in 2019.
This means that the Nationals would likely have to explore trades for Eaton and Michael A. Taylor, although I'm not sure what kind of return they could get on either right now. Eaton has not been healthy for a full season since 2016, and while Taylor is still loaded with tools and potential, he also regressed so badly at the plate last season that he worked with hitting coach Kevin Long to remake his swing and played winter ball to get more reps. The team would be selling both players at the low point of their value. Still, if the Nats bring back Harper, I'd be shocked if one of those two is not moved.
If Harper returns, how does it change how the team will handle Anthony Rendon negotiations?
-- Jack, Washington
The answer to this is unclear. Here's what Rizzo had to say at the Winter Meetings when asked about how discussions of a long-term deal with Harper could affect discussions with Rendon: "Those hypotheticals, we'd have to figure out what the deals look like, what the structure is. So there's too much hypothetical to answer it. But we love both players, and we'd love to have both of them."
Ken Rosenthal wrote in The Athletic on Thursday that it's a question that industry insiders are also wondering about: How far can the Nationals go to potentially sign both players? I think it would really depend on what kind of contract it would take to re-sign Harper. Would that contract be closer to the reported 10-year, $300 million contract the Nats initially offered, or one for significantly more money? Also, what sort of opt-out clauses or option years might be necessary for Harper? And what kind of deal, exactly, is Rendon -- perhaps the most underrated player in baseball -- seeking? All of these factors are really uncertain.
One thing is for sure: The Nationals have made a pitch both to re-sign Harper and extend Rendon. They don't think it's out of the realm of possibility to sign both long-term.
How should we look at 2019 Dozier replacing '18 Daniel Murphy? Both are above-average offensive second baseman with liability at fielding. Is this an upgrade, downgrade or equal move?
-- Benjy L., New York
The Nationals really got very little out of Murphy last season after offseason right knee surgery pushed back his 2018 debut to June. He only played in 56 games and struggled to get going at the plate. Even when he did, his power was sapped, and he finished around league average at the plate with a 105 OPS+. (League average is 100.) Murphy's already limited mobility was hampered even more on the field, and he was worth minus-0.8 WAR, per Baseball Reference, before the Nats traded him to the Cubs.
Even at his best, Dozier will not be the kind of hitter Murphy was during his first two seasons in Washington -- because that Murphy was one of the top 10 hitters in the National League -- but Dozier should be a strong bounceback candidate for 2019 after playing through a right knee injury last year. Defensively, he may only be a slight upgrade (but an upgrade nonetheless), and he should provide 25-homer power to a lineup in need of it. I'd project Dozier to be a slight improvement over last year's injured Murphy, although he is unlikely to replicate Murphy at his best.
Do you think Washington will add a starter? If it does, I think Wade Miley is fine.
It doesn't look like the Nationals are going to sign another starter to any sort of guaranteed deal. When asked if adding to the rotation was in the team's plans after signing Anibal Sanchez, a source responded that they "doubt it." Washington is comfortable with a rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Sanchez and likely Joe Ross as the fifth starter -- and with good reason. If healthy, Washington's rotation could be one of the best in the NL. But it's short on depth; Erick Fedde, who has been injured or inconsistent during his short time in the Majors, will be No. 6 on the depth chart. After him ... crickets.
I expect the Nationals to invite a few veterans to camp on Minor League deals with big league invites to compete for jobs. This will push Ross, and maybe they'll also strike gold on a bounceback candidate; this is similar to their reasoning for bringing in Henderson Alvarez. But unless something changes -- and for the pitching-focused Nats, it shouldn't be ruled out -- they don't seem likely to sign another starter to a Major League deal before Spring Training begins.