Gregory Bull/Associated Press
The Washington Nationals opened one door for a new ace. Simultaneously, they likely closed another on a franchise icon.
Their new starting pitcher is Patrick Corbin, formerly of the Arizona Diamondbacks. According to Jon Heyman of Fancred, the left-hander is joining the Nationals on a six-year contract worth $140 million.
The price for the 29-year-old goes beyond that. This is a team that paid the luxury tax in 2018 signing a player who declined a $17.9 million qualifying offer. The Nats must therefore forfeit their second- and fifth-highest picks in the 2019 draft plus $1 million in international bonus money.
The Nationals can justify all this because they still want to win now despite getting an 82-80 reality check in 2018. They’re not wrong to think a pitcher fresh off a 3.15 ERA and 246 strikeouts in 200 innings can help them do so.
And yet, there’s an elephant the size of the theoretical Twinkie from Ghostbusters in the room: What of Bryce Harper?
In all probability, his days as a National are over.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press
It feels weird to say that, given all that Harper and the Nats have been through.
He was the organization’s No. 1 pick in 2010. He was the National League Rookie of the Year by 2012 and NL MVP by 2015. He was an All-Star for the sixth time last season, when he ran his career OPS to .900 and his career home run count to 184. Amid all that, the Nats went to the postseason four times.
But it feels like Harper left unfinished business behind when he became a free agent at the end of October.
Though he helped lead the Nationals to those four postseason appearances, the franchise is still sitting on zero playoff series victories since 1981. The man himself left behind a frustrating disparity between his superstar reputation and reality. To wit, in 2018 he was worth less than two wins above replacement for the third time, per Baseball Reference.
Per Heyman, it’s still possible Harper will return to finish this unfinished business:
Jon Heyman @JonHeyman
nats have basically replaced salaries of wieters (11M), gio (12M) and madson (8M) with Corbin (23M) and Gomes (8M). so while other teams are wondering whether Corbin signing means they are out on Harper, the belief is that they are not necessarily out.
If the Nats find a way to bring Harper back, they’ll have pulled off the perfect offseason and positioned themselves as perhaps the team to beat in the NL, if not all of Major League Baseball.
It’s a long shot, however.
The Nats could try to sign Harper to a backloaded contract in which the big money wouldn’t kick in until after Corbin, Max Scherzer and/or Stephen Strasburg are cleared from their books. But that wouldn’t matter for the luxury tax, which only considers average annual value.
To that end, Roster Resource projected the Nationals will be about $10 million below the $206 million threshold for 2019. Even if the Nats got Harper to agree to a contract worth as “little” as $30 million per year, they’d still be flirting with more severe penalties that come with going over $226 million.
That’s one reason to believe Harper is as good as gone. Then there’s another: The Nationals are already past the point of needing him back.
While most teams around MLB have been taking it easy so far this offseason, Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post pointed out the Nats have been busy bees:
Chelsea Janes @chelsea_janes
Nationals before the Winter Meetings and Harper’s Bazaar begins:
Trade for reliever Kyle Barraclough
Sign reliever Trevor Rosenthal
Sign catcher Kurt Suzuki
Trade for catcher Yan Gomes
Sign starter Patrick Corbin
Not waiting around.
Yes, Corbin does have bust potential. But he’ll enjoy two benefits in Washington that made a difference for him in Arizona. The Nationals are set to return most members of a defense that ranked eighth in efficiency in 2018. And he’ll mainly be throwing to Yan Gomes, who was one of baseball’s top framing catchers last season.
Meanwhile, Corbin has an extreme ability to miss bats, which fits perfectly at the top of the Washington rotation. In Corbin, Scherzer and Strasburg, the Nats now have three of the NL’s 12 best contact avoiders in 2018, including both of the top two:
Data courtesy of FanGraphs
Though things could be better on the back end, the front three alone makes the rotation one of the very best in the Senior Circuit.
The Nationals should also have a better bullpen in 2019. When healthy, Sean Doolittle is an under-the-radar contender for the best relief pitcher in MLB. He’ll be joined by Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal. The former has struck out 11.5 batters per nine innings in his career. The latter had struck out 12.0 per nine before he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017. He should be fully recovered come Opening Day.
The big question is whether the Nats would hit as well without Harper. But there’s still Anthony Rendon, who should be good for a .900 OPS. They also have Juan Soto, who put up a .923 OPS as a 19-year-old in 2018. There’s also Adam Eaton, Trea Turner and Ryan Zimmerman, each of whom is a productive offensive presence when healthy.
Lastly, there’s Victor Robles. Though he hasn’t yet proved equal to the task of filling Harper’s shoes, he’s MLB.com’s No. 4 prospect for a reason. He’s a 21-year-old with power, speed and a feel for hitting. He could be Washington’s very own Ronald Acuna Jr.
It’ll be even easier to fawn over what the Nats have on paper if they find a way to bring back Harper. But according to FanGraphs’ early projections, what they have on paper right now is good enough to make them the favorites in the NL East.
That may not make it any less jarring to realize Harper likely played his last game for Washington on Sept. 30. But better that than the Nats being left to scrounge for scraps after losing him unexpectedly.