Seven months ago, I boldly declared that the Washington Nationals would be just fine, thanks, without Bryce Harper. It turns out they were more than fine.
After missing the playoffs in 2018, Harper’s final campaign in D.C., the Nats are back in the postseason for the fifth time in the past eight years. It’s the first time they’ve been there without Harper, and it’s proof positive that there is, in fact, life after Bryce.
Here are five reasons Washington has been able to move on without its former franchise face:
1. Rendon is raking
Although he has one fewer MVP award than Harper, the dirty little secret in the District is that Anthony Rendon has been the team’s best and most complete player for several years now. It’s a secret finally starting to make its way around the league.
In July, after being an All-Star snub on multiple occasions in the past, the 29-year-old third baseman made the Midsummer Classic for the first time in his career. Batting almost exclusively in Harper’s old No. 3 spot, Rendon has put up huge numbers. He’s hitting .322 with 34 homers and leads the league with 124 RBIs and 43 doubles. He’s also in the top three in runs, slugging and OPS. Combined with his dependable glove work at the hot corner (plus-3 runs saved), it’s the kind of campaign that has him on the short list for a certain piece of hardware, along with names such as Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger and Ketel Marte.
“For me, Rendon is the MVP,” manager Davey Martinez said of the player who finished 11th in last year’s balloting and sixth the year before that. “What he means to this organization, this city, our lineup, it’s tremendous. He’s earned all the accolades he’s going to get.”
Depending on how these last games shake out, it’s possible that Rendon could wind up tied with Harper in the awards column.
2. Soto is a super soph
When Juan Soto exploded onto the scene last season as a 19-year-old rookie and did things that few if any teenagers had done, he instantly became a walking and talking insurance policy for if/when Harper departed via free agency. Although some wondered if the young outfielder would regress in his second big league campaign, he has done the opposite.
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While the plate discipline has been just as good (his 106 walks are second in the NL), the power numbers have spiked (34 bombs). Between that and figuring out how to handle off-speed pitches, Soto has become a Harper-esque middle-of-the-order thumper. Said hitting coach Kevin Long: “He understands his skills and is also willing to try a few minor things to get even better.”
Perhaps the most significant upgrades in Soto’s game have nothing to do with the dish.
In spring training, the Dominican product said he spent the offseason trying to improve his speed and defense. By all appearances, the work has paid off. After swiping five bases as a rookie, Soto, whose minor league teammates called him Gamba (Spanish for bowlegged), is 12-for-13 in steals this year. That’s a 92% success rate, and it’s tied for third among NL players (minimum 10 stolen bases). In left field, where he’s still very much a work-in-progress, he has accounted for zero runs saved, an improvement on the minus-5 he posted a year ago.
So much for that sophomore slump.
3. Robles is roaming center field like a vet
If Soto was Washington’s insurance policy, then Victor Robles was the addendum. The flashy rookie, who entered 2019 as the 10th-best prospect in baseball according to ESPN’s Keith Law, took over as the Opening Day center fielder and hasn’t looked back. Actually, that’s not true.
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Back in April, it seemed that Robles was in over his head defensively, as he regularly misread and/or misplayed balls in the outfield. But he has learned on the fly and quickly become one of the better center fielders in the game.
“That kind of arm you don’t see very often,” Soto said of his teammate, whose 12 assists lead center fielders and whose 21 runs saved rank second among all outfielders.
Thanks to the speedy Robles, the Nationals didn’t think twice about sliding veteran Adam Eaton to right field to fill the void created by Harper’s departure. Together, Robles, Eaton and Soto have helped Washington’s outfield lead the majors in outs above average (their 26 OAA are more than twice as many as that of the next best group).
Offensively, though Robles hasn’t been as productive as Washington might have hoped and has made more than his share of mistakes on the bases, manager Davey Martinez will gladly take 17 homers and 26 steals from the rookie — especially at the bottom of the order.
4. The Big 3 is living up to the hype
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When Washington inked lefty Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract in December, it pretty much signaled the end of the Harper era in D.C. It also gave the Nationals’ rotation a 1-2-3 punch as good as any in the game.
Corbin, ace Max Scherzer and deputy ace Stephen Strasburg all rank among the NL’s top six in strikeouts. And FIP. And WAR. Together, they’ve led Nats starters to a 3.51 ERA that ranks second in the majors, behind only that of the Dodgers.
“They’ve been phenomenal,” Martinez said of his three-headed mound monster. “The reason why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Perhaps most importantly, Washington’s troika has logged more than 550 innings combined, which has helped the team overcome a historically bad bullpen — and Harper’s historic free-agent exodus.
5. Their foes are friendly
The NL East was supposed to be the NL Beast. With the exception of the Marlins, every other team in the division was expected to be stout. While the defending champion Braves have been as good as advertised (and then some), New York and Philly — a pair of clubs that were billed as markedly improved — have disappointed.
Yes, the dysfunctional Mets seemed to have Washington’s number this year, winning 12 of 19 matchups, including several in dramatic comeback fashion. But against the rest of the league, the Mets have been essentially a .500 club. As for Harper’s new team, the Phillies? Decimated by injuries to the bullpen and outfield, they were eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday … by the Nats.
When it comes to cooperative competition, nobody has been more magnanimous than Miami. Against the Marlins, Washington coasted to a 15-4 record. But that was always going to happen.
Just like the Nationals were always going to be fine without Bryce Harper.
Trea Turner crushes a loud grand slam to give the Nationals a lead they wouldn’t surrender, and Washington clinches a playoff berth.
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