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Even without Bryce Harper, the Nationals are favorites in the East

Their bullpen has held them back, but a team led by Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer is a force to be reckoned with.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

When Bryce Harper returned to Washington DC for the first time since signing with the Phillies, he performed a heel turn that would have made Bret Hart proud. After clubbing a ball into the upper deck, Harper flipped his bat so high into the air that it’s still up there, flipping end over end.

Physicists have calculated that it will come down around 2072 or around the same time his deferred payments would have ceased had he re-signed with the Nationals.

If the Giants had signed Harper, this would have been his homecoming. Imagine if Harper were wearing a Giants uniform when he flipped that bat into the sun. Not only would he have helped this team not be one of the worst offenses in the majors, but could have delivered just an absolutely delicious moment of pettiness. What could have been.


The Nationals are without Bryce Harper, but they’re still very good. As good as Harper is, he was probably their third best position player behind Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. Not to mention Max Scherzer who leads the three-headed monster in the Nationals rotation.

The story with the 2019 Giants so far is that they can’t hit starting pitching. Before Sunday’s game, opposing starters had held the Giants to a 2.74 ERA over 85 1/3 innings. If that’s higher than you would have thought, consider that all starters have combined for a 4.32 ERA, so opposing rotations have been a run and a half better against the Giants.

Because the Giants struggle so mightily against starting pitching, the Nationals will present a challenge. Fortunately, the Giants will miss Scherzer, and they’ll get Jeremy Hellickson instead.

That’s quite the drop-in talent from Scherzer to Hellickson. It’s unfair to compare anyone to Scherzer, but Hellickson wouldn’t have cracked the Giants’ rotation. Andrew Suárez would have gotten that spot before him, and he’s in Sacramento.

The Nationals have opted to skip Hellickson’s spot in the rotation early in the year in part because they aren’t confident in him and because they needed extra help in the bullpen.

ERA’s not the best way to evaluate relievers, but coming into Sunday, the Nationals bullpen had the worst ERA in the majors. (Meanwhile, the Giants had the best.) A lot of that is Trevor Rosenthal, but the only full-time relievers with an ERA under 5.00 are Kyle Barraclough and Sean Doolittle.

The Giants might not be able to touch the starting pitching, but they can take advantage of the relievers. The bullpen has been responsible for the Nationals’ slow start, and they’ve been ineffective enough to derail a team that figures to be the favorites in a highly competitive NL East.

Hitter to Watch

The Nationals offense should prove a much greater challenge than the Rockies. Even with Trea Turner on the IL and Bryce Harper on the Phillies, the Nationals have Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon headlining their offense. Rendon has been on a warpath. Since going 0-for-4 on Opening Day, Rendon has gone 21-for-47 with 8 doubles and 6 homers. He’s been the third best hitter in the majors behind Cody Bellinger and Mike Trout

A few weeks ago, Dan Szymborski and FanGraphs made the three-year ZiPS projections available, and the major takeaway from that was holy hell, Juan Soto is really good. Over the next three years, ZiPS projects Soto to be worth 19.3 fWAR. That’s a respectable career’s worth of WAR. A player that puts together 19 wins might even make an All-Star game or two. Soto is projected to be worth that by the time he’s 24. Here’s a short list of things that are older than Juan Soto:

Goldeneye 64

Radiohead’s OK Computer

The Big Lebowski

One of the most impressive things about Soto is his command of the strike zone. Soto’s o-swing percentage (percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that he swings at) is Vottoesque. You don’t typically expect that kind of patience from someone who probably refers to the Nintendo Gamecube as “Retro.”

Pitcher to Watch

Trevor Rosenthal finally recorded an out, so his ERA is no longer infinity. As of Sunday morning, it was a modest 72.00, but FIP says he’s been unlucky. It should only be 25.15. Now, that his outless streak is over, Rosenthal isn’t a pitcher to follow. Instead, he’s just a guy that contending teams are giving innings to when Craig Kimbrel is out there reportedly willing to take a contract worth than half his value.

I don’t know if I need to tell you to watch Stephen Strasburg or Patrick Corbin. Strasburg is a grizzled vet by now, and Corbin is a familiar foe.

Instead, pay attention to Wander Suero. He might be the only good reliever not named Sean Doolittle in the Nationals bullpen. Suero primarily relies on his cutter while mixing in a curveball and a changeup and each pitch has swing and miss potential.

His ERA is inflated at the moment, but his peripherals are solid. Suero has suddenly become their eighth inning guy, so if the Nationals carry a lead into the eighth, the Giants are probably hosed. If the Giants can’t hit the starters or the late inning relievers, that means the Giants will have to do all their damage in the seventh inning.

Prediction

While it was nice that the Giants could beat the Rockies by scoring no more than three runs in a game, I don’t think they’ll have that same sort of luck with the Nationals. They’ll take one out of the three games.