Since I asked for your mailbag questions on Tuesday, the Washington Nationals brought back veteran starter Jeremy Hellickson and Bryce Harper reportedly met with the San Francisco Giants as his free agency bleeds deeper into February. You can read more about Hellickson and what that signing means for the Nationals’ starting rotation here, and more about the head-scratching Harper sweepstakes here.
Otherwise, let’s get some answers with on the Nationals’ pitchers and catchers reporting to in West Palm Beach, Fla., this coming Wednesday. The next time I do one of these will be from spring training, hopefully sometime soon. It’s been a long and odd offseason by many measurements, but baseball is almost back. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions, and please feel free to ping me again on Twitter if I wasn’t able to get to yours.
If Harper signs for less than the Nats offered (particularly to the Phillies) how spurned should we feel as fans? And how should we react?
Jesse Dougherty: I can’t necessarily tell you how to feel as a Nationals fan because it’s not a perspective I possess, but I can provide some context here. At the end of the regular season, the Nationals offered Bryce Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract for him to chew on before the other 29 teams could start negotiating with him. This was the Nationals trying to make the most of their exclusive access to Harper while the 26-year-old outfielder was still on their roster. But Harper did not wait six years to become a free agent only to sign a deal before actually hitting the open market, and him taking that initial offer was never a realistic possibility. The Nationals always knew that.
The offer expired around the start of free agency — end of October, start of November — because the Nationals laid out an offseason plan that assumed Harper would not be back. So, if Harper were to take a less lucrative offer, from the Philadelphia Phillies or any other team, it’s not a case of him spurning the Nationals. The Nationals met with Harper on the Saturday before Christmas, and seem to be one of the handful of teams still in the mix to sign him. But that doesn’t mean 10 years, $300 million is being used as a baseline in negotiations, or being used in negotiations at all. His free agency has dragged on for longer than expected and to the point where that offer is likely obsolete.
If Harper signs with the Phillies or Chicago White Sox or San Diego Padres or whoever, you have every right to feel disappointed and sad. But those emotions should not be colored by the offer the Nationals made to Harper in September. That will be one other thing to discuss once Harper eventually agrees on a contract, but it won’t serve as an indication of how he feels about the Nationals as an organization or playing in Washington.
What are some areas tangibly where Dave Martinez can improve in his second year as manager?
Dougherty: Bullpen management. There were a number of injuries to key relievers last season and many situations in which pitchers simply had to execute better, but there were also frequent cases when Martinez seemed to leave a guy in for one or two batters too many. Some of that may have been to test a handful of young relievers — such as Wander Suero, Jimmy Cordero, Austen Williams and so on — especially after the Nationals stripped down their roster in August. But a more disciplined approach to how Martinez deploys his relievers could go a long way, especially since the Nationals are vowing to be much better in close games and may lack some of their past offensive firepower should Harper not return.
How do they plan on splitting the catching duties? Pitcher preference, alternating days, etc.
Dougherty: This will be something to watch throughout spring training after Martinez and General Manager Mike Rizzo didn’t provide an answer when they discussed the catching situation this winter. That is almost certainly because they are not yet sure how time will be split between Yan Gomes (a 31-year-old coming off an all-star season) and Kurt Suzuki (a 36-year-old coming off another strong offensive year). There is no natural platoon because both are right-handed hitters. Decisions will likely be made on a day-to-day/week-to-week basis, with matchups, relationships between each catcher and the starting pitchers, and streaks and slumps all taken into consideration.
That said. it seems like Martinez will pair Suzuki with veteran starter Anibal Sanchez as much as possible. The two played together in Atlanta last season and Sanchez credits Suzuki with a lot of the adjustments that led to a sort of late-career renaissance. He threw far fewer fastballs, nearly ditched his slider altogether and made a cutter a featured part of his six-pitch arsenal. Sanchez threw to Suzuki 16 times in 2018 and posted a 2.82 ERA for those starts.
Realize Juan Soto has one MLB season under his belt. But using his age-19 season, approach, batting eye and apparent maturity, can you make the case that he has a chance to be a better hitter than Bryce Harper?
Dougherty: This will be a natural (and fun) debate for years to come since Harper and Soto began their careers at the same point, and Soto could very well replace Harper as Washington’s middle-of-the-order star. They are also both left-handed-hitting outfielders. All the parallels make it impossible to avoid comparing them.
There are two reasons it is tough to forecast whether Soto will be a better hitter than Harper. The first is that Soto is only 20 and, with all the tape from his 19-year-old season, pitchers should be much more prepared for him in 2019. The second is that Harper is only 26 and still has a lot of time to either improve or digress, so it’s hard to truly know at this point, what to compare Soto to. But if you look at each of their age-19 seasons, it is clear that Soto has better plate discipline and patience than Harper did. Soto walked 79 times compared to Harper’s 56 at the same age, even though Harper had 123 more at-bats. That refined approach at 20 years old should really help Soto navigate teams pitching around him and attacking him with a flurry of breaking balls.
They also hit the same number of home runs (22) at 19, Soto had more RBIs (70 to 59) and a considerably better batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Does this all mean Soto will be a better career hitter than Harper? Absolutely not, as he has many challenges ahead and a ton to prove. But he is off to a better start, and that counts for something.
Should we expect to see Carter Kieboom or Luis Garcia at all this season?
Dougherty: Kieboom and Garcia, both high-level shortstop prospects, are learning to play second base to potentially form a double play pair with Trea Turner in the future. But after signing veteran Brian Dozier to a one-year deal, and with Howie Kendrick and Wilmer Difo as bench options, Washington has no reason to rush either player through the system. It is very possible that Kieboom, 21, makes his debut in September once rosters expand. Garcia, who is 18 and behind Kieboom in the middle-infield pecking order, is likely still a few years away from the majors unless injuries clear a path (like they did for Soto at 19) or he plays so well that there is no other choice but to call him up.