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Know your enemy: Washington Nationals

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Harper? Or no Harper? The Nats say they’ve moved on, but...

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

This profile of the Nationals could be woefully out of date in a few days if Bryce Harper signs with them. Obviously, that would make a huge difference in the Nats’ offense and how they arrange their lineup, but with Harper still sitting on the sidelines as games begin, the answer to that remains to be seen.

Wait. Didn’t you just read those words yesterday?

Yes, yes you did, only it said “Phillies” instead of “Nationals” and “Nats.” The fact is, Harper could still sign with either of those teams, and obviously that would change where the team that gets him would rank in the N.L. East. The Nats say they have “moved on” from Harper, but that could just be posturing.

The Nats, who slumped to 82-80 in 2018 in their first year under manager Dave Martinez after two straight division titles in 2016 and 2017, are still a very, very good team, and like the Braves, they have two outstanding young players from their own organization: Juan Soto and Victor Robles. In fact, it can be argued that the Nats might be better off just playing those two and forgetting about Harper, who they reportedly offered a 10-year, $300 million contract last fall.

Soto hit .292/.406/.517 with 22 home runs in only 116 games — at age 19. That matched the N.L. record for home runs by a teenager. It had been set by... Harper, six years previous. (The major-league record is 24, set by Tony Conigliaro in 1964.)

The Nats have some other very good offensive players returning, including Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman, and solidified second base by signing Brian Dozier. Dozier slumped last year, split between the Twins and Dodgers, but is just one year removed from a .271/.359/.498 season with 34 home runs (4.5 bWAR). If he’s anything close to that, the Nats offense will be formidable.

They’ll also have a new catcher in Yan Gomes, acquired in a trade from the Indians. Gomes is a good defender who can hit well enough to fit into that lineup (in other words, he doesn’t have to be “the guy”).

As has been the case for the last four seasons, the Nats rotation will be led by one of the best pitchers on the planet, Max Scherzer, who is now 34 but shows no signs of slowing down. He’s been well worth the huge contract the Nats gave him, which now has three years (including 2019) remaining. Last year Scherzer became only the second N.L. pitcher to strike out 300 batters since 2002 (Clayton Kershaw in 2015 is the other) and he’s only a couple of years away from 3,000 career strikeouts. The Cubs have always had trouble with him, too, and last year was no exception, as Scherzer allowed just three runs and one walk to the Cubs over 16 innings, with 22 strikeouts.

The Nats improved their rotation by signing former Diamondbacks lefty Patrick Corbin to a six-year deal. There’s some risk involved, as Corbin’s 2018 season was by far his best. Will he be able to sustain that?

Washington’s bullpen was not very good last year. They have addressed that by acquiring Kyle Barraclough from the Marlins and resurrecting former Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal off Tommy John surgery (I had hoped the Cubs would take a chance on Rosenthal). Sean Doolittle returns as closer and not only is he a fine pitcher, but an even better human being. He and his wife Eireann Dolan live in Chicago in the offseason and are actively involved in many charitable programs there. Here’s just one of the things they did this winter in Chicago:

Props to them. They’re good people.

The Cubs will visit Nationals Park May 17-18-19 and host the Nats at Wrigley August 23-24-25.