If, and it’s a big if, the Washington Nationals are able to sign Bryce Harper, who’s made it known he’d like to return to D.C. if he’s in the Nats’ plans, there will still be decisions that have to be made, like how do they align the outfield?
The obvious, and easy answer, is to stick with Juan Soto, Harper, and Adam Eaton left to right around the outfield like they did most often this season.
With that alignment, top prospect Victor Robles, who missed significant time after suffering a hyperextended left elbow early last season, would likely start back in Triple-A after he got in only 40 games and 182 plate appearances in the minors in 2018, (with another 21 games and 66 PAs in the majors in September).
While Robles has been knocking on the door for a couple seasons now, the injury was a big setback in his development, and it would make sense to get him more time in the minors at the start of the 2019 campaign.
[ed. note - “Here’s what Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez said Robles needed to work on going forward after getting a good look at the outfielder late this season: “For me it’s just — his defense, get better on his routes. You saw him steal today, which was pretty impressive. The guy was 1.2, and he stole the base, which was kind of nice, and continue to work good at bats and put the ball in play with two strikes and use the whole field, I mean that’s what he needs to do and what I’ve seen so far and what I’ve known of him, he’s gotten to be really good, he really is.”]
Michael A. Taylor could be the fourth outfielder again, though Davey Martinez would have to find a way to get Taylor, who’ll turn 28 in March, 2019, more at bats, after they dried up once Eaton returned from ankle surgery and started to play every day again this season.
Taylor appeared in 90 games and started 72 in the first half (.240/.303/.373, 18 doubles, two triples, five home runs, 25 walks, 87 Ks in 306 PAs), but played in just 44 games after the All-Star Break, starting 14 (.176/.228/.297, four doubles, triple, home run, four walks, 29 Ks in 79 PAs).
Taylor seems like a candidate for a trade this winter, a change-of-scenery-type move after he’s had multiple opportunities to claim one of the everyday spots in the outfield over the last few years, but if he stays, the Nationals need to find a way to use him in some way that actually makes use of his talent.
Howie Kendrick, who suffered a season-ending achilles injury in mid-May, is under contract for 2019, but what the Nationals can expect from the 35-year-old, 13-year veteran after that sort of serious injury is a big question mark.
When he did play (40 games, 160 PAs), Kendrick put up the sort of numbers (.303/.331/.474, 14 doubles, four home runs, five walks, 29 Ks) he’s put up in his career (.291/.334/.422 with a 162-game average of 36 doubles and 12 HRs).
With or without Harper, the Nationals have options in the outfield. If Harper stays, however, one thing that Washington won’t do, at least according to GM Mike Rizzo, is play the soon-to-turn 26-year-old into a first baseman so they can make room for Robles in the crowded outfield mix.
Rizzo reluctantly entertained a hypothetical when asked about that possibility during his final weekly interview of the regular season with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies.
“I don’t like to get into those,” Rizzo said, “I mean, Harper has never played first base before so I think that’s a little bit of a stretch.
“[Ryan Zimmerman] is under contract next year, he’s got an .840 OPS so he’s been a good player for us this year, so we’ve got a lot of options and opportunities, so when that aspect of roster building and construction comes into it, we’ll address all those issues, but I don’t see Harper being an everyday first baseman next season, no.”
All the “Bryce to first!” talk is a result of the fact that Harper was seen doing some work at first base this past season, though his manager downplayed the significance of what was witnessed by reporters in the nation’s capital.
“It’s just kind of him getting outside his comfort zone,” Martinez explained in early July, “... and letting him do something different. And he’s actually not bad. I don’t know if he’ll ever start a game there, but I believe that if we’re in a pinch and we have to make some kind of decisions in-game, he probably could play there. So it was good to see, and see him out there fielding and working with [first base coach Tim Bogar].”
Zimmerman actually finished the season with an .824 OPS. He put up impressive numbers in the second-half, after missing time (58 games) with an oblique injury that limited him to 85 games and 323 PAs this season, but once he was healthy and back playing every day, it looked like the Zim of old out there at times.
In 52 games and 198 PAs in the second-half, Zimmerman put up a .295/.374/.538 line with 18 doubles, eight home runs, 21 walks, and 31 Ks, so let’s not write up his baseball obituary just yet.
What were we talking about again? Oh, the outfield mix if Harper returns. Well, we’ll see if he’s back in D.C. in 2019 before continuing that line of discussion, I guess...
But seriously, Zim was pretty good in the second half, and stop suggesting that he move closer to the plate, internet.