For the first time since 2011, the Washington Nationals will go through a season without any help from Bryce Harper.
So it’s rather likely this year will be viewed, at least in part, as a referendum on whether the Nationals should have figured out a way to keep the young slugger.
“Everyone wants this answer: Is it better or worse without him? You can’t say one way or the other. Our chemistry and our vibe — whatever you want to call it — is really good. It’s one of the best that we’ve had in years. And people will read that and say: ‘Oh, well, because Bryce is gone.’ No, it has nothing to do with that,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
“If he re-signed here, and we signed all these other guys as well, it could be the same," Zimmerman continued. "You don’t know. Everyone wants to talk about (Harper), which I get, but I think everyone in here is really happy with the group we have.”
This much is clear: It’s a significantly different group.
General manager Mike Rizzo remade more than a third of the roster after the Nationals went 82-80 and missed the playoffs following two NL East titles in a row.
Max Scherzer, for one, was not surprised at all to see Washington sign free agent after free agent and add a couple of other players via trade.
“I mean, here’s the reality of it: When you lose, and you fail as a team, you’re probably going to have some roster turnover,” said Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner. “That’s just how it is in baseball. Last year was a failure for us, so our front office wanted to make changes across the board. Now we just want to get everybody on the same page.”
That job falls to manager Dave Martinez, whose second season in charge begins March 28 at home against the division rival New York Mets.
“Hopefully,” Rizzo said, “I gave him the right parts.”
Harper is no longer around after playing his first seven seasons in Washington, making six All-Star teams and winning Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. He left to sign a $330 million, 13-year contract with the Philadelphia Phillies after the Nationals offered $300 million with a significant chunk of it deferred.
No one on the Nationals produced more homers (34), RBIs (100), walks (130) or runs (103) than Harper last season.
“As good as Harper is, we had to bring in other pieces. Not just one guy, but multiple personnel,” Martinez said. “Not one guy is going to win games for you. They all have to do their job.”
Some other things to know about the 2019 Washington Nationals:
A rotation fronted by Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg added lefty Patrick Corbin for $140 million over six years and righty Anibal Sanchez. A bullpen that needed restocking added former closers Trevor Rosenthal (coming off reconstructive elbow surgery) and Kyle Barraclough, along with experienced lefty Tony Sipp. Two catchers came aboard, AL All-Star Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. Brian Dozier takes over as the starting second baseman.
Rookie to watch
A year after left fielder Juan Soto was a revelation at age 19, finishing as Rookie of the Year runner-up, center fielder Victor Robles gets his shot at 21. Robles showed glimpses of his power and speed during a call-up last season. “I feel ready, physically and mentally,” Robles said through a translator.
No “openers” here. Rizzo is a firm believer in the value of starting pitching in the most traditional sense. Having healthy and up-to-their-high-standards years from the top three members of the rotation not only will bring wins, it will ease the burden on the bullpen.
Closer Sean Doolittle is a known quantity; the rest of the rebuilt relief corps could be the real key to Washington’s success. “They say the last three outs are the hardest to get,” Doolittle said. “But they’re not always the most important.”