Nationals want to be more athletic next season


LAS VEGAS — Several times during the first two days of the Winter Meetings this week, the Nationals have stated that the proverbial door is not closed on a potential reunion with Bryce Harper. That does not mean they have not prepared themselves for life beyond Harper, however, and begun to envision how they can still build a successful club.

The 2019 Nationals want to be younger, more athletic and play better defense behind an improved pitching staff headlined by free-agent signing Patrick Corbin. Instead of counting on one player to replace the production lost if Harper signs elsewhere — on average about 4.4 Wins Above Replacement per season, according to Fangraphs — they plan to get contributions from a variety of different places.

LAS VEGAS — Several times during the first two days of the Winter Meetings this week, the Nationals have stated that the proverbial door is not closed on a potential reunion with Bryce Harper. That does not mean they have not prepared themselves for life beyond Harper, however, and begun to envision how they can still build a successful club.

The 2019 Nationals want to be younger, more athletic and play better defense behind an improved pitching staff headlined by free-agent signing Patrick Corbin. Instead of counting on one player to replace the production lost if Harper signs elsewhere — on average about 4.4 Wins Above Replacement per season, according to Fangraphs — they plan to get contributions from a variety of different places.

“I’m comfortable with our offense and the ability to score runs and win games,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “I like the roster that we have currently. I think we’ll score runs in a different manner. We’ll play the game in a different manner than we did last year, probably. But I still think that the upgrade at different positions, and the upgrade in defense will help us play the game better.”

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On offense, the onus of picking up the production without players like Harper or Daniel Murphy or Matt Adams will be on a few different players. Victor Robles, the Nats’ top prospect and MLB Pipeline’s No. 4 overall prospect, will likely step into a starting role in center field. They expect Adam Eaton to be healthy for a full season. And the combination of Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki should flip catcher from a dead spot in the lineup to a strength.

Washington also aims to be better at run prevention next season. Last year, the Nationals ranked 25th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved (-55). Murphy was a liability at second base, Matt Wieters was a poor pitch-framer behind the plate and Harper had the worst defensive year of his career. Overall, the team was too old with too many players who did not move around well in the field. The Nats are likely going to upgrade defensively at each of those positions next season.

The Nationals finished last in the National League last season in Baserunning Runs, a metric developed by Baseball Prospectus that calculates how much players contribute above or below an average baserunner. If Washington can run the bases better and turn more balls in play into outs on defense, it expects to be able to replace the production that could be lost from Harper, along with an improved pitching staff led by Corbin.

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“If you look to see what we’re doing, we’re trying to get more athletic,” manager Dave Martinez said. “We’ve got younger players coming up. Two catchers that can move pretty good. We’ve got Robles, Michael [A. Taylor], Eaton, who is going to be healthy, [Juan] Soto moves pretty good in left field. We’re trying to get more athletic and change the game.

“We talked a lot about going into Spring Training and really hone in on fundamentals. We lost a lot of games last year [by] one run. Giving teams 28, 29, 30 outs, I think that’s the difference. We’ve got to get better at it.”

Athleticism has been key for the Nationals as they prioritize players this offseason. It was one of the main skills Rizzo touted about Corbin during his introductory press conference last week. And perhaps athleticism will tailor their thinking in at least one key bench spot.

To complement Ryan Zimmerman at first base the past few years, the Nats have used players such as Clint Robinson (2014-15), Adam Lind (’16) and Adams (’17). They all provided a left-handed power bat, but little value elsewhere on the field. To fill that role this upcoming season, the Nationals do have interest in adding a player who could potentially play both first and second base.

“We always like a big left-handed bat, but we’ll see where it takes us,” Rizzo said. “We could go a little bit different this year and go for a more versatile type of bench that could fill in different spots. But there’s a lot of different routes that we could do.”

Of course, one of those routes also includes re-signing Harper at some point this offseason. But whether Harper returns or not, they have already begun to talk about shifting their focus to fundamentals, which will be one of the focal points and talking points of Spring Training, and making those small tweaks that could lead to major improvements next season.

“Granted, and I’m not going to say we’re losing Harp, because the door is still open,” Martinez said, “if he’s not back, I like the way we’re set up.”

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier





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