There will be endless story lines to explore as Harper joins one of the Nationals’ division rivals. A reeling Nationals’ outfield probably will not be one of them.
None of the above players will be expected to replace Harper’s production and presence on their own. That would be too tall of an order considering Harper’s power numbers, plate discipline and place as one of the sport’s biggest stars. The Nationals, as a whole, will fill the Harper void by committee, with acquisitions of two proven catchers (Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki), power-hitting second baseman Brian Dozier and lefty pinch-hitter Matt Adams. Then there is Anthony Rendon, one of baseball’s most-productive hitters, shortstop Trea Turner, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and, after all of that, an athletic outfield that can do more than hold its own.
In Soto, the Nationals a have a left-handed replacement for Harper in the middle of the order. They also have a potential franchise cornerstone coming off one of the best 19-year-old hitting seasons in history. It was even better than Harper’s, important considering how often the two will be compared. Harper played 139 games at age 19, and Soto appeared in 116; they had the same number of home runs (22); and Soto had a better batting average (.292 to .270), a better on-base percentage (.406 to .340), a better slugging percentage (.517 to .477), more RBI (70 to 59), more walks (79 to 56) and fewer strikeouts (90 to 120). He is the biggest reason to believe the Nationals’ outfield will not just be okay without Harper, but could even thrive. Now he needs to live up to the expectations he set for himself by being so good at such a young age.
Eaton will be the full-time starter in right field and either the first or second hitter in the order. He has struggled to stay healthy in his two seasons with Washington but has proved to be consistently productive when on the field. The team’s situation in center field is not as clear cut. Nationals Manager Dave Martinez reiterated Thursday that Robles and Taylor are competing for the spot. Either will be a defensive upgrade over Harper, who struggled in occasional time in center field and was not painted kindly by advanced fielding metrics. And Martinez insists that, however spring training goes, both Robles and Taylor will play.
“Here’s the deal with both of those guys: As we move along, we need them both,” Martinez said. “They’re both going to play. Michael’s doing very well. And Victor’s doing well. I’d like to see Victor play a little more this spring. But center field, both of them are going to play there. Whether it’s a competition or whatever, I view it as: They need to get ready.”
Martinez wouldn’t say whether Robles would start the season with the Class AAA Fresno Grizzlies if he isn’t the full-time starter. It is too early to forecast that, even if the Nationals’ philosophy is that young talents need to play every day. Robles has two total months of major league service time but has flashed the potential to be a five-tool player. He is still considered Washington’s top prospect and, if that translates, they’ll have a dynamic pair in him and Soto. If Robles needs more time to develop, especially after missing most of last year with an elbow injury, Taylor provides Gold Glove-caliber defense and is working on a shorter, simplified swing after slumping for the final months of 2018.
Does this all mean the Nationals’ outfield is better off without Harper? It’s hard to improve after losing a six-time all star who may still have his prime ahead. But this is not an outfield that will hinder Washington’s quest to edge Harper and the Phillies — as well as the Atlanta Braves and new-look New York Mets — in the National League East. It is an outfield that could aid that effort considerably. It is an outfield that should cue plenty of optimism and excitement moving forward, even without Harper, and especially while playing against him 19 times before the year is over.