When Bryce Harper was chosen as the first overall pick of the 2010 Washington Nationals, he joined a team that had failed to find their feet after moving to Washington D.C. from Montreal in 2005, bottoming out in 2009 with a record of 59-103. When he broke into the team in 2012, he became one of the faces of a team that had finally gotten it together, picking up the National League Rookie of the Year and an All-Star appearance for a Nationals team that finished with the best record in Major League Baseball. While they were eliminated in the divisional round by the St. Louis Cardinals, the Nationals had built a team led by a young star capable of competing for the World Series for years to come. However, despite qualifying for the playoffs in four of the following seasons and regularly being touted as a championship contender, the Nationals never improved upon their 2012 divisional appearance and were resigned to also-ran status year after year.
Little of the blame could be put on Harper, who grew into one of the faces of baseball while hitting 184 home runs during his Nationals career, according to Baseball Reference. This peaked in 2015 when, at 23, Harper became the youngest National League MVP to ever play. Still, the Nationals never took the next step and after a disappointing 82-80 record in 2018, Harper left the team and joined the Philadelphia Phillies, as reported by The Inquisitr.
While they lost one of the most recognizable players in baseball, the Nationals still boasted one of the strongest pitching rotations in the league, with ESPN still ranking the team 9th in their preseason power rankings. The Nationals have gone on to surpass those high expectations, knocking out a 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers team and finally progressing to the National League Championship Series. So how did the Nationals survive the loss of Harper and somehow emerge improved? There are several reasons.
While Harper’s departure would leave a hole in any team’s batting lineup, it didn’t leave one in the Nationals’ outfield as they already had Juan Soto, Adam Eaton, and rookie Victor Robles on their roster, according to CBS Sports. Of those three, it was Soto who emerged as Harper’s heir apparent, hitting 34 home runs with 110 RBIs, and at only 20-years-old giving Nationals fans reminders of the talented prospect with superstar potential that Harper once was. Soto’s season peaked in the eighth inning of Game 5, as he hit a game-tying homer off of the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, setting up the Nationals eventual victory after extra innings.
Eaton was also able to finally remain healthy in his third season with the Nationals, playing in 150 games after combining to play 116 in his previous two. Robles also put his injury-plagued 2018 behind him as the Nationals outfield ranked 7th in production in the MLB.
Another factor in the Nationals’ improvement was their decision to use the money they could have paid Harper and expand their payroll, expanding it to $197 million from $180 million in 2018. Their major acquisition was left-handed pitcher Patrick Corbin, a two-time All-Star formerly of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Corbin joined Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg to create one of the strongest rotations in baseball, ranking 2nd in ERA and 3rd in Fielding Independent Pitching during the regular season.
The Nationals also benefited from the lack of improvement in the National League East, in particular with the obvious example of Harper’s Phillies, whose record only improved by one game as they finished with an 81-81 record. While it’s an easy narrative to say that the loss of Harper was an addition by subtraction situation, the improvement is more due to shrewd decision-making by the Nationals’ management and an outfield that remained healthy with production to match.