WASHINGTON -- After a quiet few weeks free of news from Bryce Harper's much-anticipated free agency, the Padres became the latest team to jump into the fold for the star 26-year-old outfielder with a meeting on Thursday in Las Vegas. It adds another contender into the mix with the Nationals, Phillies and White Sox, who still lurk in the background.
That Harper's impending free agency has continued into February still remains as the biggest question hanging over the Nationals' winter; however, there are no shortage of topics on the minds of D.C. fans as pitchers and catchers prepare to head to West Palm Beach, Fla., for Spring Training in less than two weeks.
With that, we begin this week's edition of the Nationals Inbox by sizing up the rest of the National League East.
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How are the Nationals matching up against the rest of the division this 2019 season?
-- Peter L., Arlington, Va.
Our MLB.com writers made some way-too-early predictions at the start of the year, and we named the Nationals as the favorites to finish back on top of the NL East in 2019. Early Vegas odds have done the same, with an over/under around 87.5 wins. Other projection systems such as Steamer and ZiPS have yet to release their evaluations, but after a productive offseason and with so much talent still on the roster, I'd have to think they will be at least as optimistic -- if not even more optimistic -- on Washington.
I think this division is going to be really good, and it will be fun to have four competitive teams trying to win at the start of the season. The Braves are the defending division champs and were very close behind in MLB.com's poll. Signing Josh Donaldson and bringing back Nick Markakis should make that lineup dangerous to face once again. The Phillies added Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson and Jean Segura, and it has been well-documented that they are not done. The Mets acquired Edwin Díaz, Robinson Canó, Wilson Ramos and Jed Lowrie, and with a healthy rotation, they could be a formidable challenger. Right now, I'd give the Nats a slight edge in the division, but with so many good players remaining on the market, that edge could swing easily.
What are the Nationals' needs? Do they need left-handed bullpen help and maybe a utility player?
-- Drew L., Fairfax, Va.
I think the Nationals have had a very productive offseason and addressed all of their major needs, so we're talking about minor stuff here. But there are a few question marks I see: The starting-rotation depth is lacking. The Nationals have four pretty reliable starters, although two of them have a pretty lengthy injury history. From their fifth spot (which I'm assuming is Joe Ross) and down, there are a lot of unknowns and unproven players. I think this could come back to bite them if they don't find a way to shore this up.
I actually am a bit higher on Sammy Solís than most, and I think it's fair to give him one more shot to prove he can be a reliable arm. That being said, the Nationals could probably use one more lefty reliever. Matt Grace was very good last year, but it's hard to know if he can repeat that again. And even if Solis does rebound from last season, his injury history means it would be wise not to lean on him too heavily.
I do think they have a pretty solid position-player base and bench, regardless of who is playing right field.
I would rather have another pitcher like Dallas Keuchel or even Wade Miley, and let Harper go. What do you think?
-- Erick M., Derwood, Md.
First off, I think it's important to note that the Nationals don't have to choose either/or, because both would make this team a lot better. That being said, I just went on about how I think the rotation depth is what leaves the most to be desired on this club right now, so adding a pitcher like Keuchel would solve that issue. Now, you'd be asking the Nats to sign the two best free-agent pitchers on the market, which seems unlikely, and Miley finalized a deal with the Astros on Friday. Miley was one of the pitchers the Nationals pursued before they signed Aníbal Sánchez. Theoretically, if I had to pick either or, I don't think it's a bad argument to make that they should sign a pitcher like Keuchel -- or even perhaps another shutdown reliever like Craig Kimbrel -- because it fills a need where Harper would be a luxury for an outfield that should still be pretty good.
That being said, the Nationals are just about $11 million under the Competitive Balance Tax, according to estimates from Cot's Contracts, and they have given every indication that they would like to remain under that threshold next season. So I do not think they will make any more major additions to this pitching staff.
With the injury history regarding Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Ross, is it possible there will be a six-man rotation instead of five?
-- Timothy F., Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I don't think so. The Nationals have shown very little willingness to use a six-man rotation in the past, mainly because their top two pitchers, Strasburg and Max Scherzer, lean pretty heavily on their routines and it's probably not worth disrupting that. They have inserted a spot starter into the rotation every once in a while to give everyone a break, but that's probably as far as it'll get. I do think the idea makes some sense, especially with an eye toward preserving Strasburg, but one issue is there's not a particularly strong sixth candidate for them to rely on.
Any word yet on non-roster invitees to Spring Training?
-- Dale T., Cleveland
The Nationals have yet to reveal their entire list of non-roster invitees, and they usually do not until right before they head to camp. A couple of names have trickled out, however, in right-hander Henderson Alvarez and left-hander Vidal Nuño, both of whom I expect will get serious consideration to make the pitching staff with a good spring.