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Al Galdi’s #ChinMusic Blog: is Juan Soto lessening the importance for the Nationals to re-sign Bryce Harper?

 

1. Arguably the worst first two months to a major-league season ever in terms of weather-postponed games continued with what happened with this Nats-Yankees series. A juicy series between two of the hottest teams in the majors ended up not happening, as Tuesday night’s game was suspended due to rain with the score tied at three through 5 1/2 innings and then Wednesday’s resumption of that game and previously-scheduled Game 2 were rained out and won’t be made up until June 18, which is the day before the Nats begin a three-game series with the Orioles at Nationals Park. The bizarro spring weather across the country gave us a record number of weather postponements for the month of April, during which, remember, the Nationals’ Opening Day game at Cincinnati was rained out.

What is especially bad is that fans who had tickets to Tuesday night’s Nats-Yankees Game 1 are out of luck. Tuesday’s game was considered an official game by Major League Baseball (even though the game is still tied), and so only those with tickets to Wednesday’s game will be admitted to the resumption of Tuesday’s game on June 18. I don’t know about you, but if I’m someone who paid good money for Nats-Yankees Game 1 on Tuesday night, I’m not happy. MLB and the Nats should work to give those fans something if they so choose, like vouchers to selected games. It has never been easier for fans to not go to games given the cost and inconvenience of going to games and the HD-television experience. Leagues and teams should do all they can to make fans not feel like marks for trying to go to games.

 

2. Bryce Harper got bombarded with free-agency-related questions from New York reporters prior to Tuesday night’s Nats-Yankees Game 1, and, unlike during spring training, he handled the questions just fine. Bryce, as you may recall, famously began his press conference at Nats camp in West Palm Beach, Fla. on Feb. 19 by threatening to be “walking right out the door” if asked about 2019. I hated that from Bryce, as it came off way too harsh and sensitive. Bryce, predictably, was peppered with free-agency-related questions by New York reporters on Tuesday, and he handled the questions just fine, essentially repeatedly deflecting attention toward this season. Who knows who Bryce will sign with after this season; personally, I still think that the Nats have an at-least-solid chance of re-signing him. But if he is intent in playing in a major baseball market like New York, he better be prepared for a media that isn’t nearly as kind and benign as the one in D.C. Nobody in New York cares about threats to be “walking right out the door” if you’re asked about a topic you don’t want to talk about. I hope that Bryce learned a lesson from that three months ago.

 

3. Speaking of Bryce Harper’s impending free agency, something that’s become impossible to ignore is how well Nats outfield prospect Juan Soto is doing this season. Soto and Victor Robles are the Nats’ top two prospects and two of the best outfield prospects in baseball. Robles is recovering from a left-elbow injury suffered in trying to make a diving catch for Triple-A Syracuse in April. His recovery was expected to take several months but not require surgery. In the meantime, Soto, who had not been as well-regarded as Robles, is on fire. Soto began the season at Low-A Hagerstown, had a 1.300 OPS over 16 games and 74 plate appearances for the Suns, then was promoted to High-A Potomac, had a 1.256 OPS over 15 games and 73 plate appearances for the P-Nats and then was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg. He has a .943 OPS over seven games and 31 plate appearances for the Senators.

Soto is in just his age-19 season. Despite the youth, I don’t dismiss for a second the notion of the Nats promoting him to the major-league level at some point this season, especially with Adam Eaton’s return uncertain and Michael A. Taylor having disappointed. Well-regarded prospects almost always end up being promoted to the majors sooner than people think; Bryce and Anthony Rendon are classic examples of that. This unfortunately may be a lost season for Robles, who is in his age-21 season. But Soto is in another universe right now. And the notion of the Nats having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to re-sign Bryce this coming offseason in order to stay good, to me, remains wrong. As talented as Bryce is, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on him when you have Robles and Soto may be completely unnecessary, to say nothing of Bryce’s undeniable injury history.  And I say this as someone who respects the heck out of Bryce.  But the Nats may be in the oh-so-rare position of being able to replace one phenom with another (or maybe two) and at a fraction of the cost.

 

4. We had another round of bad Nats injury news on Thursday, as we learned that Matt Wieters, who has been on the 10-day disabled list with what was labeled as a left-hamstring strain, had undergone left-hamstring surgery. The Nats offered no timetable for a return, but the expectation is that he’ll miss several months if not the rest of the season. There are multiple layers to this development.

First of all, I hate seeing this for Wieters. Yes, I hated the Nats’ signing of him in Feb. 2017 to a one-year, $10.5 million deal with a $10.5 million player option for 2018 from Day 1. He has been a declining player for years, his previous team (the Orioles) so obviously wanted no part of having him back, and the widespread belief is that Wieters (a Scott Boras client) was forced on Mike Rizzo by the Lerners. But that doesn’t mean that I ever want to see someone suffer an injury like this. Wieters will be a free agent after this season. Given how loaded this upcoming free-agent class is set to be and how underwhelming the offers were for so many free agents last offseason, you tell me, how spicy do you think the market will be for a free-agent catcher who a) is coming off major hamstring surgery b) is entering his age-33 season and c) had a -0.6 bWAR in 2017? This may well be the end of Wieters’ career. To his credit, no catcher in the American League was better at gunning down runners trying to steal over the first half of this decade. And I also should mention that Wieters was having at least somewhat of a bounce-back 2018, as he has a .342 on-base percentage and 0.4 bWAR.

The second major level to Wieters undergoing left-hamstring surgery is what now for the Nats at catcher? Pedro Severino obviously becomes the Nats’ no. 1 catcher, and the man who two years ago was viewed as the Nats’ catcher of the future now has the perfect chance to live up to that hype. But what if he doesn’t? The Nats have very little depth at catcher. Jhonatan Solano is on the 60-day disabled list due to bone chips in his right elbow. Prospect Raudy Read is serving an 80-game suspension without pay for violating MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. The Nats on May 11 did select the contract of Spencer Kieboom from Triple-A Syracuse, but he’s a 2012 fifth-round pick. If Severino surges (and he does have a .386 on-base percentage this season), then the Nats are fine. But if he doesn’t, how quickly do you think Rizzo places a call to Miami to reignite trade talks for J.T. Realmuto, who the Nats reportedly pursued last offseason? And have you see the season that he’s having? Realmuto has a .924 OPS over 106 plate appearances. He is under team control through the 2020 season. Trading for him would not be cheap.

And then a third major level to Wieters undergoing left-hamstring surgery is add another major injury to a Nats list that’s getting quite long this season. The Nats’ 10-day disabled list includes Wieters, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, Brian Goodwin and Matt Grace. The Nats’ 60-day DL includes Solano, Adam Eaton, Joe Ross, Koda Glover and Joaquin Benoit.

 

5. Adam Eaton on Wednesday spoke publicly undergoing left-ankle surgery on May 10 and did what Mike Rizzo would not do on that day: put a timetable on a return. He stated a goal of six weeks, which, yes, sounds awfully bullish to me, but at least now there is a sense that he may well not miss the rest of the season. Eaton also revealed a major sense of relief given that the problem that had been plaguing his ankle hopefully now has been fixed off a flap of cartilage that didn’t show up in any of the three imaging tests that the Nats gave Eaton over the previous month being removed: “It’s going to be soon. I want to push things. We know exactly what’s going on in there now. We have answers. And I’m pumped to get after rehab and strengthen the crap out of this thing and be back for half of the season. That’s my goal, for sure: three months of baseball. Give me enough time to get into the grind of things. I’m excited to get back.”

There was something else, though, that Eaton revealed on Wednesday. Eaton’s initial left-leg injury on April 28, 2017 was labeled as a torn ACL, torn meniscus and high-ankle sprain. Well, sure enough, Eaton said on Wednesday that he had in fact “dislocated that and shattered everything” in the ankle. So here we have, yet again, an example of Nationals injury concealment/confusion/mystery/mishandling. How many times over the years has an injury for a Nats player been called one thing and then turned out to be something more serious? Heck, it was just on May 4 that Anthony Rendon revealed to The Washington Post during a rehab assignment at High-A Potomac that his toe contusion was actually a hairline fracture. You could even argue the Matt Wieters situation – him initially being said to have a left-hamstring “strain” only to undergo potentially-season-ending surgery less than a week later – belongs in this category. It has become almost comical the extent to which Nats injuries end up being worse than we’re initially told.

 

6. Gio Gonzalez struggled on Tuesday night on Day 1 of the rain-suspended game with the Yankees. He allowed three runs (two earned) in five innings on a homer, two doubles, three singles, four walks and a wild pitch versus five strikeouts. He tossed three scoreless innings but then gave up a two-run homer to Tyler Austin in the top of the fourth. That shot came off center fielder Andrew Stevenson and left fielder Matt Adams colliding on a fly ball by Didi Gregorious, resulting in a dropped ball by Stevenson for a fielding error on which it appeared Adams never heard Stevenson calling for the ball. So you could argue, and who knows if this is true, that the homer given up by Gio was another example of him not responding well to a bad play behind him. Gio then allowed a run in the top of the fifth thanks in no small part to beginning the inning by walking Aaron Judge on five pitches, giving up a single to Giancarlo Stanton and then walking Gary Sanchez despite having had him down 1-2 in the count.

What happened with Gio on Tuesday night was a fear going into this series. Gio’s history in big spots isn’t good; see 2012 NLDS Games 1 and 5 and 2017 NLDS Game 5. Here you had maybe the best offense in the majors, as the Yankees entered the series leading the American League in OPS, on-base percentage and runs to say nothing of the team having the best record in the majors. And Gio struggled. He came into the game with a terrific 2.22 ERA over eight starts this season. But it’s one thing to do well against the Padres. This was a big test for Gio. He didn’t come through.

 

7. Boy was it interesting to see what Orioles manager Buck Showalter did during the 6-2 loss at Boston on Thursday night as the O’s suffered their franchise-record-tying 13th consecutive road loss.  Buck went out to pull Kevin Gausman from the game almost immediately after he gave up a two-out three-run homer to Xander Bogaerts in the in the Red Sox’s four-run fifth.  In fact, Buck crossed the third-base line as Bogaerts was rounding third base and before he got anywhere near home plate.  Now, part of me believes this was done in part by Buck to needle the Red Sox; Buck has loved to needle the Red Sox and the Yankees during his time as O’s manager.  But there’s no doubt that this came off as highly disrespectful to Gausman, so much so that NESN’s Dave Ryan noted this.  I get that Buck is fed up with the Orioles’ horrendous season; we all are.  But I find it funny that Buck did something like this to Gausman, who easily has been the Orioles’ best starting pitcher this season (110 ERA+ over nine starts).  Has Buck once done anything like this to Chris Tillman over the last two seasons?

 

8. The O’s made a surprising roster move earlier that day, optioning Caleb Joseph to Triple-A Norfolk.  The Orioles’ list of problems goes on for quite a while until you get to Joseph, but this is the kind of move that the O’s fan should like, as it at least shows a pulse in terms of acting on this abysmal season.  You wonder where this kind of action has been with Chris Tillman, who instead received loyalty beyond comprehension (31 games, including 26 starts, over the last two seasons despite an 8.42 ERA) prior to mercifully being placed on the 10-day disabled list on May 11 with a phony-baloney lower-back strain.

Joseph entered the season as the team’s no. 1 catcher and coming off a 1.6 bWAR in 2017 off a 2016 in which he had zero RBI and a putrid OPS+ of 13.  But he has been really bad again offensively this season, posting an OPS of just. 527.  And Joseph’s biggest strength, his defense, has lost some value because one of the Orioles’ new no. 1 catcher, Chance Sisco, is 9-for-18 on runners trying to steal this season.

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