Inbox: Does Harper sway Nats' offseason plans?

Beat reporter Jamal Collier answers questions from fans

November 9th, 2018

WASHINGTON -- The General Managers Meetings in California this week introduced us to 's "bazaar," the term coined by his agent, Scott Boras, to describe the highly anticipated free agency for his client. And this week also opened up a new batch of questions to consider about Harper's options and the Nationals' offseason.
What happens to a crowded outfield if the Nationals do re-sign Harper? And what about those other needs for the club in 2019? How does Washington plan to operate while it waits for Harper? This installment of the Nationals Inbox begins there, taking a look at general manager Mike Rizzo's "parallel plans" this offseason: one that includes Harper, and one that does not.
What are the odds the Nationals do the smart thing and sign everybody else they need before Bryce signs somewhere else rather than after?
-- @jbanal

Considering the way the Nationals quickly added two pieces in the bullpen in and , they are not going to sit around and wait for Harper's ultimate decision. Rizzo seems to have concurrent offseason plans in place: one with a path that ends in re-signing Harper, and one that does not. And he has put those in motion already.
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"It's going to be a challenge to put the best product on the field that we can. That could include Harp, and that could be doing things without Harp," Rizzo said this week. "We had to come to reality that we would love to sign him, but we may not. We have to have a strategy and a plan put together to win baseball games. We have to do what's best for the franchise, not only for 2019, but beyond."
Rizzo and the Nationals understand they have more needs to fill in their offseason to-do list than just Harper, including a catcher, a starting pitcher and perhaps a second baseman. The pursuit of Harper will naturally bring some hindrances to that process if Washington has to save a portion of its budget to devote to him. But that is why Rizzo also said it would "behoove" the Nats to have a deadline before pivoting away from Harper at some point this offseason. That would still give them time to use that money to pursue other marquee free agents, perhaps a front-line starting pitcher.
For now, no one on either side has closed the door on a reunion between Harper and the Nats, but at some point, Washington may be ready to move on.
If Bryce is re-signed, how does the outfield shake out for next year? Or does he play first base?
-- @kegstandkeg

An already crowded outfield could get even more tricky if Harper comes back to D.C. To be clear, this is a quandary for the Nationals -- deciding what to do with so many good outfielders -- that they would have to solve nonetheless.
Assuming Harper returns, he and Juan Soto are untouchable and would be best suited to play the corner outfield spots. The Nats could then pursue trade options for or, perhaps, , although Rizzo said this week it would be "very difficult for us to move him." The club has held Robles tight the past few offseasons, but he would almost certainly garner the largest return in a trade package.
The rumors of Harper playing first base have picked up some traction lately, and while I do think it could eventually be a good fit for him should his outfield defense not improve, I don't think the Nationals would sign him to make that move next season. For one, is still under contract. Also, Harper is an athletic 26-year-old in his prime. The Nats believes he should be able to roam the outfield, so re-signing him would very likely mean they would have to move another outfielder. Who that is would depend on what they can get in return.
What's a fair expectation for next season?
-- @Brandon_Warne

I expect that whichever uniform Robles is wearing when next season begins, he will have a chance to play full-time in the Majors. Perhaps that is in Washington, likely coinciding with the departure of Harper, or if the Nats find a way to re-sign Harper and make him and Robles work. Or maybe Robles will get traded to another team which sees him as Major League ready after cracking the big leagues the past two seasons.
The short version is I have no idea what Robles will bring next year. I've been impressed by what I've seen from him the past two Septembers, but it's impossible to tell what will translate from those stints. Here's what is encouraging: Robles rarely looks uncomfortable in the batter's box, his speed is real and he has been good for a defensive highlight almost every other night he starts.
"He's a talented player," Rizzo said. "The metrics like him in the Minor Leagues to translate into Major League Baseball. His skill set is off the charts. It's as good as it gets, and we think his skill set is applicable to Major League pitching. So we know what he can do defensively, on the basepaths, throwing arm, that type of thing. He's got power. It's all about adaptation to Major League pitching, and we've seen flashes of brilliance. We believe that he's going to be a really good player for us."
Should the Nats be looking at a second baseman/utility man (a Josh Harrison type) given the lack of production at second and the unknowns of 's rehab?
-- @jett_mahler

When asked about the situation at second base this week, Rizzo said he likes the Nats' situation up the middle.
"It's not a necessity or a need for us," he said. "It would have to be a very good value for us [to make a move]."
I was a little surprised by this, because I do think this is a pretty big area of need. If the season began today, the Nats would likely use a combination of and Kendrick to fill in at second base. Kendrick has continued to remain productive at the plate late in his career, but by the start of 2019, it will have been more than two seasons since he played even 100 games in a year. He turns 36 next July and is coming off a torn right Achilles. Difo is overall a pretty good defender, which is helpful on a team in need of them, but in the past two seasons, he has compiled at 74 OPS+ at the plate, providing the potential for another dead spot in the lineup.
Washington believes a pair of its young prospects -- Carter Kieboom and -- are on the way at the position soon and likely does not want to sign someone who will block them. Even if they do not go after the top free agents at the position, I think the Nationals should try to find some sort of upgrade at second, freeing up Kendrick to be the No. 1 pinch-hitting option and roam around the field as a utility player, while allowing Difo to serve as a utility infielder and spot starter.
Do you feel it's more realistic for the Nats to address an everyday catcher via the free-agent market or via a trade?
-- @RayRay3322

I think Washington will explore all options to search for a catcher, but I'm starting to think free agency is more likely. There are so few good catching options available, and the teams with good catchers are not readily letting them go.
The one team that will are the Marlins, who have had catcher J.T. Realmuto on the block for some time now. The Nationals have discussed Realmuto with Miami for nearly as long, and yet the two sides have not been able to work out a deal. I'd expect the two sides to engage again if they have not already, but by now, I'm sure Washington has a good idea what the Marlins want for Realmuto. Things can change, but that a deal has not been agreed upon already makes me doubt it ever will unless one side changes course.
However, the Nationals' catching depth is thin, and they will need to address it in some way for next season and beyond. If they cannot re-sign Harper, it especially makes sense for them to spend some of that money on a free-agent catcher, such as or .