2018 Washington Nationals: Harper’s last stand?

Next man up: Dan Johnson once helped knock the Red Sox out of the postseason with a two-out, none-on, game-tying ninth-inning homer as the Rays rallied from a 7-0 deficit to beat the Yankees, 8-7, in 12 innings on the final day of the 2011 season (1. The home run was off Cory Wade, who pitched in 161 major-league games and never earned a save; 2. David Price started for the Rays, and given the setting, his being knocked out in the fifth was less surprising than Johnson’s homer). The Nationals’ Dan Johnson is nothing like that Dan Johnson, in position, style or potential (that Dan Johnson hit five of his career 57 homers against the Red Sox, and there were other big ones. His pinch game-tying homer in the ninth off Jonathan Papelbon in September helped rally the Rays to a 5-4 win and put them in front in 2008 for good; he hit a game-winner off Scott Atchison in the 10th in 2010 that helped the Rays win the division and the Red Sox miss the playoffs). The Nats’ Dan Johnson is 22, plays all three outfield positions, hit .298 with 22 homers and 22 steals and had an .861 OPS. He ended in high Class A, which as the Nats showed last year with Victor Robles, isn’t that far from Washington.

What he said:  Coach Chip Hale on the Nats’ spring training: “I think I won the Cactus League title as a manager, and look where that got me.” What he meant: “If we don’t win a postseason series or three, we’re all getting canned.”

Three reasons it will be a good year: 1. The Nationals have Bryce Harper — at least for one more year. Harper is 25, entering his seventh season and has had more trouble with injuries than opposing pitchers for much of his career. He’s won an MVP, has a career .902 OPS and two of his last three seasons have topped 1.000. Like Harper, GM Mike Rizzo enters this season in the last year of his contract, and perhaps there’s some reciprocity at work — if Rizzo doesn’t sign Harper and the Nats don’t win the World Series, maybe he’ll follow him out of town. 2. The pitching is pretty good, too. The Nats were third in the NL and sixth in MLB in ERA and had two of the three NL finalists for the Cy Young. Three of the eight starters in MLB who pitched at least 160 innings and had ERAs of less than 3.00 were Washington’s. 3. Adam Eaton is healthy. Eaton played 23 games for the Nats last year and scored 24 runs before tearing his ACL. He has a career .358 on-base percentage and was reaching at a .393 pace last year when hurt. The Nats never adequately replaced him — Michael Taylor’s power and defense were decent but he walked just 29 times and fanned 137; Jayson Werth got 289 plate appearances with a .715 OPS; Brian Goodwin had 13 homers but just a .313 OPS. As usual, the Nats had to use their resources to bolster their bullpen, but there was no way to get someone who was on base for Harper and Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon as much as Eaton would have been.

Three reasons it won’t: 1. The Nats aren’t healthy. Eaton might be, but second baseman Dan Murphy, who has a .956 OPS in his two seasons with the Nats, is still recovering from knee surgery and didn’t play at all this spring. The bullpen, a chronic sore point, will open with Joaquin Benoit, who’s 40, and Korda Glover, who’s 24, on the DL. That’s a lot of talent and depth to lose before a game has been played. 2. Anybody seen Ryan Zimmerman? The Nats’ first baseman did a virtual spring training, getting just two at-bats in exhibition games. The Nats said Zimmerman is healthy, and did his preparation on the back fields and in minor-league games. And that he’s prepared to repeat last year’s .303/358/573 season. Maybe. But who hates signing autographs that much? 3. The bullpen doesn’t look so good again. For a team that has so much high-level talent, it gets stumped in the oddest places. Watching the Nats fail because of their bullpen is like watching a contestant on Jeopardy solve the $2,000 clues but miss on the $200 ones. The back of the bullpen is better thanks to last year’s trade for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, but there’s not another lefty between the starters and Doolittle who had an OPS against last year of less than .700. Yes, they won’t have to pitch to Harper, but there’s some pretty good left-handed hitters n the NL — here’s looking at Joey Votto or Cody Bellinger or Freddie Freeman — who’ll require a better pitcher than Matt Grace or Sammy Solis.

Team song: Louis Jordan: Nobody But Me

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