Life after Bryce Harper will be good for the Nationals, whose new era begins Thursday when they play their home opener against the Mets.
Even if the Nats don’t win the tough NL East this year — and they likely won’t — there will be no reason to blame it on losing their right fielder to division rival Philadelphia.
Harper wasn’t quite the Mickey Mantle projected when the Nationals drafted him first overall in 2010. Oh, he was a solid player. Even the bitterness of his leaving for Philadelphia doesn’t blur the NL MVP award in 2015, or six All-Star appearances in seven seasons. His Home Run Derby victory last July at Nationals Park was one of the more dramatic moments in Washington baseball since its 2005 return.
But let’s see how much brotherly love Harper receives when he strikes out 100-plus times, as he has in five of seven seasons, including 169 times last year, when he didn’t hit his weight in the first half.
The Nationals also won’t miss his less-than-inspired defense or running at three-quarters speed to first base.
Washington fans still wish he were here, but it’s time to move on. Luckily the Nats have a promising replacement in Victor Robles, after finding another young outfield star last season in Juan Soto.
Robles, who can play center or right, flashed his potential in 21 games last season, and was hitting .340 entering Monday’s final spring game, against the Yankees at Nationals Park.
He should be a 20-homer man alongside Soto, who hit 22 homers with 70 RBIs in 116 games last year and should have been Rookie of the Year.
Harper was a must-watch player at bat. You stopped everything and hoped to see something great. And sometimes he delivered. But he isn’t the best player of his generation (see: Mike Trout), and Robles and Soto can compensate for Harper’s loss.
Besides, this season’s fate is more about pitching. Will Max Scherzer earn his fourth Cy Young — and third in Washington — after winning 68 games in four seasons here? Spring training says yes. Can Stephen Strasburg at 30 rebound from a lackluster 10-7 season to the form he showed while going 15-4 in back-to-back years? Will the bottom of the rotation and bullpen come through?
Pitching is far more important than Harper’s loss. The Nationals still have live bats with Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Ryan Zimmerman joining Robles and Soto.
Perhaps most important is manager Dave Martinez learning from his rookie season, when he looked like a first-year boss far too often. Some nights, he should have joined the crowd for a hot dog for all his miscues. But he has potential; perhaps he just needed a season to learn the job.
Maybe the Nats will rise above a competitive division. Either way, their fortunes won’t rise and fall on Harper, and that’s a good thing.
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