After missing the playoffs in 2018, Harper’s final campaign in D.C., the Nats got back to the postseason for the fifth time in the past eight years. What’s more, they toppled the mighty Dodgers to win their first playoff series ever. And steamrollered the Cardinals to win the National League pennant. Moral of the story? There is, in fact, life after Bryce.
Here are five reasons Washington has been able to move on — and thrive — 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. During the regular season, he hit .319 with 34 homers and led the league with 126 RBIs and 44 doubles. He was also in the top three in runs, slugging and OPS. Combined with his dependable glove work at the hot corner (plus-2 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. As if that weren’t enough, Rendon — who has an MLB-best .465 on-base percentage this October — has had a monster postseason.
“For me, Rendon is the MVP,” manager Dave 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 the end-of-season accolades shake out next month, it’s possible 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 did the opposite.
While the plate discipline has been just as good (his 108 walks was third in the NL), the power numbers spiked (34 homers). 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), was 12-for-13 in steals this year. That’s a 92% success rate, good for fourth among NL players (minimum 10 stolen bases). In left field, where he’s still very much a work in progress, he accounted for 1 run 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 veteran
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.
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 and 24 runs saved both were tops 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 helped Washington’s outfield lead the majors in outs above average (their 27 OAA were more than twice as many as that of the next-best group).
Offensively, though, Robles wasn’t as productive as Washington might have hoped and has made more than his share of mistakes on the bases, Martinez will gladly take 17 homers and 28 steals from the rookie — particularly at the bottom of the order.
4. The Big Three is living up to the hype
Juan Soto talks to Pedro Gomez after the Nationals reach the World Series.
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 led Nats starters to a 3.53 regular-season ERA that ranks second in the majors, behind only that of the Dodgers. And let’s not even talk about the postseason. (Waits patiently.) Oh, all right, let’s talk about it: This October, Washington’s starters have been historically good, posting a microscopic 2.04 ERA this postseason and a 1.35 mark in the NLCS.
“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 nearly 600 innings combined, which has helped the team overcome a historically bad bullpen — and Harper’s historic free-agent exodus.
5. Chemistry 101
According to FanGraphs, Gerardo Parra has been pretty much worthless, posting a 0.1 wins above replacement that ranks 13th among Nationals hitters. But according to his co-workers, he’s been invaluable.
“He brings the fun every day,” Martinez said of the journeyman outfielder who, ever since joining Washington in May, has been at the heart of the team’s, well, heart. From inspiring the Nats’ celebratory Baby Shark gestures to instituting their post-homer dugout dance routine to the rose-colored glasses (literally) that he wears, the 32-year-old Venezuela native has been instrumental in shifting the culture of a club that, despite its on-field success in regular seasons past, never really seemed to enjoy the ride.
Parra’s contributions are in stark contrast to the guy that he helped replace in right field. While Harper always gave the Nationals plenty of production in between the lines, he was viewed as increasingly aloof outside them, and was involved in the infamous 2015 incident in which closer Jonathan Papelbon choked him in the dugout, a flare-up that served as the poster moment of the team’s dysfunction.
As for Parra, he’s also been caught on camera having close encounters with pitchers in the dugout. But engaging in a bear hug with Stephen Strasburg couldn’t be more different than what once went down between Harper and Papelbon.
And that’s really all you need to know about the 2019 Nationals.