The 2018 Washington Nationals entered the seasons as clear favorites in the National League East race, potentially favorites for the National League Championship. They would be at the forefront of the baseball world as they were set to host the 2018 All Star Game. With a rotation that featured Stephen Strasburg Gio Gonzalez and Cy Young winner Max Scherzer that Nationals had a rotation that screamed NL crown. Impending free agent superstar Bryce Harper was going to lead this team to the next level, potentially convincing him to stay in Washington after rather then hit free agency in 2019. As it so often happens in sports though projections and hype are tough to live up to.The Nationals currently sit one game under .500 at 69-70 a shocking 7.5 games back of the first place Atlanta Braves and 4.5 games behind the second place Philadelphia Phillies. A team projected to win their division by most sits in third and is showing no signs of progression. We are left to ask, What went wrong?
There have been multiple players that have underperformed for the Nationals in 2018 but we have to point the finger at the guy looking to cash in over the winter of 2019. After a strong start to the year, he’s all but collapsed. Harper posted a .986 April OPS, followed by an .856 May and a .675 June, one of the worst monthly performances of his career. By Baseball-Reference’s numbers, he’s only barely classified as a productive player for the season, with 0.1 WAR. That puts him below the batting value of two of the team’s pitchers. (Scherzer, with 0.3 offensive wins above replacement, and A.J. Cole, with 0.2.) While Harper struggled the team struggled as the Nationals fell below .500 for the first time in the season on July 4th.
Blaming Harper is the easiest route especially for those who believe he is a bit overvalued in today’s baseball standards (I am one of those people). Injuries plagued this team as well. Injuries that included former #1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg led to a decline in a starting rotation that seemed to be carrying a sluggish offense. Strasburg’s injury seemed to be the final unravelling of a team that was on the brink of falling a part. The Washington rotation outside of Max Scherzer fell a part to a tune of 5.36 ERA during the time he was absent. Despite the tailspin Nationals management was not giving up on the season, picking up long time Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera to sure up the back end of the bullpen that has been in question for multiple years. This signified the commitment to try and make one last run for the playoffs that was quickly dwindling away.
The pick up had little effect on a team that seemed to have all but given up. As the trade deadline approached Washington saw no hope in continuing its efforts. Announcing that for the right price Bryce Harper would be up for grabs. There were no takers for the 25 year old soon to be free agent. Washington was stuck, a season going no where a star that is sure to leave. It was team to unload what they could. Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams, Ryan Madson were all sent packing to teams that were truly contending. The Nationals 2018 season was all but done.
Moving on from Dusty Baker and solidifying the bullpen was suppose to make this team the better. They followed all the prototypes of a contender, deciding not to resign aging veteran Jayson Werth, calling up phenom Juan Soto, returning Adam Eaton to the lineup. Everything made sense for them. But there is something that this team has had trouble with since their move to Washington. Team chemistry has been an issue. Fights in the dugout and lack of true leadership has always been an issue. Bryce Harper is a once in a generation talent, but from the start of his career he has been thrust to a position that only mature players can make work. He is not a leader, he is just a great player. Losing Jayson Werth, an under appreciated voice of the locker room with experience as long as his grizzly beard was a lose that people did not take into account. An inexperienced manager that has never had to make big decisions cost them games down the stretch. Injuries to a bullpen that was suppose to be “fixed” put them in a situation where they currently only have two players that were on the opening day bullpen.
I am a believer in great talent but sometimes you have to have the veterans around them to make it work. Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Trea Turner and Juan Soto are great talents that you can build around, but they are not leaders. This team still has a bright future even without Harper in 2019. Victor Robles would most likely assume his role with the team next year and the return of a strong rotation will put them in the race with the Braves and the Phillies. This team’s 2018 was a bust but they can have a fresh start next year with a huge shadow of Bryce Harper gone. Nationals fans will miss their superstar but maybe its better that he is gone.