No Bryce Harper questions? Unless I missed them, in the clutter of my Twitter feed and email inbox, interest in Harper’s free agency has waned a bit. At least among readers who submitted questions for this mailbag. And maybe for good reason. There’s no clear indication of when Harper will sign, though it is clear that the Nationals are planning to go into 2019 without him. The door may not be quite closed on further negotiations between Harper and the Nationals, though it does seem less and less likely he will return to Washington.
So here are the answers to some of your non-Harper questions, regarding the Nationals' evolving rotation, their second base situation of the present and future, Dave Martinez’s second year as manager and some Juan Soto and Victor Robles chatter (because we should all get used to talking about those two guys).
Do you see the Nats making any more additions to the rotation? It looks like Anibal Sanchez has put up fewer innings than Tanner Roark in the last few years, does that put more stress on them to add even more depth to the back of the rotation?
Jesse Dougherty: I have a hunch — and please read it as just a hunch — that the rotation will be Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez and Joe Ross when Opening Day rolls around. Ross will have won the last spot in the rotation over Erick Fedde, Henderson Alvarez and possibly another veteran or two who the Nationals sign on a low-risk, potential-reward deal in the coming months. And those other pitchers would then serve as the depth starters the Nationals badly needed to get through the 2018 season.
All that said, the Nationals agreed-upon contract with Sanchez gives them a bit more financial flexibility than many originally thought. The two-year, $19 million deal will pay Sanchez $6 million this coming season and $7 million in 2020, with $6 million deferred to 2021. So there is a chance the Nationals make a run at a pitcher such as Wade Miley, who they were interested in once they traded Tanner Roark to the Cincinnati Reds earlier this month, especially since they still have a decent-sized cushion before they hit the competitive balance tax.
But, if they don’t do that, I would expect them to bring on a couple more low-cost veterans to compete for the fifth spot and provide assurance once the season begins. Those could be players much like Jeremy Hellickson and Tommy Milone, who helped fill out last year’s roster and are currently free agents. Sanchez’s recent track record versus Roark’s established durability — Sanchez is averaging 23 starts across the last five seasons; Roark has made 30 or more in four of those years — does not put any additional stress on the Nationals to add depth. They know they need it either way, especially after nine pitchers made three or more starts for them last season. Right now, they have Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Sanchez, Ross, Fedde, an unproven Alvarez and maybe minor leaguer Will Crow in the mix. They will need to expand that group, and there are a few different ways then can do that.
Who is the future of second base for us? I’m assuming the organization still sees Wilmer Difo as more of a backup?
Dougherty: There is a short-term answer and a long-term answer here, and both suggest that the Nationals do see Wilmer Difo as a utility infielder rather than a full-time solution at second base.
The answer for the short-term future is that the Nationals are still likely seeking a starting second baseman for the coming season. In early November, which feels like a lifetime ago given all the moves the Nationals have made, Rizzo suggested the team could use a mix of Difo and veteran Howie Kendrick at second base in 2019. But whether that was never actually the plan, or it changed for any number of reasons, the Nationals have since shown other intentions. After the Nationals traded Roark, a personal familiar with their plans suggested that the gained flexibility would go toward a starting pitcher and second baseman. The Sanchez signing accounts for the starting pitcher in that equation. A second baseman would be next, and the Nationals have expressed interest in DJ LeMahieu, Josh Harrison and Brian Dozier. A person familiar with the Nationals' plans suggested that LeMahieu would be too expensive to land. And so it seems like veterans such as Dozier, Harrison or Jed Lowrie could be a better, shorter-term fit, which leads into the franchise’s longer view at the position.
The Nationals remain keen on giving Carter Kieboom or Luis Garcia, two of their top shortstop prospects, a shot at second base in the future. Kieboom, 21, finished last season with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators and could very well make his debut at some point in 2019. Garcia, 18, finished last year with the Class A Potomac Nationals and isn’t as close to the big leagues. But both players are starting to learn second base and, with 25-year-old Trea Turner figuring as the team’s franchise shortstop, are at the center of the team’s future plans for that spot.
Why was Davey Martinez given a pass in 2018 and not held responsible for the team’s horrible first half? What can we expect from Martinez in 2019 and is he capable of running the new Nats?
Dougherty: The Nationals were a disappointing 48-48 in the first half last year, but they had a lot of injuries and, in general, I don’t think a three-and-a-half month stretch should be a major indictment of a first-year manager. The season as a whole did not go as planned, but there were signs toward the end of it that the team played hard for Martinez even after Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams, Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Madson were traded away in August. Would Martinez tell you he was perfect as an in-game manager? Absolutely not. Are there things he would have done differently if he had a chance to go back? I’m sure of it. But I think we can expect a more confident manager in 2019, and I believe he is even better suited to manage this team (filled with new faces, youth and athleticism) than he was to coach last season’s (led by a handful of veteran holdovers weighed down by expectations).
You also may be onto something with the “New Nats” name.
Last year at this time, Victor Robles was the top prospect. Has Juan Soto changed this? If so, what does that say about scouting accuracy?
Dougherty: I wouldn’t consider Juan Soto a prospect anymore, nor would I call Robles one if he is going to be the team’s everyday center fielder (which could very well happen if Harper does not return). And as far as what Soto’s rapid ascension tells us about the accuracy of scouting, it certainly doesn’t discredit it at all, and it also isn’t much related to Robles’s development. The Nationals made significant investments in both Soto and Robles, and the only reason they were on different tracks heading into last season was because of age (Robles was about to turn 21 and Soto was just 19). Then Robles injured his elbow in April and, because of that injury and a handful of others, Soto got his shot and sprinted with it.
Soto may have had the best 19-year-old season in baseball history, something no one could have seen coming. Robles has played just two months in the majors but could be a five-tool player once he gets more opportunities. Given all of that, the Nationals' scouting accuracy seems to be doing just fine.
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