- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2017

It’s here, finally, the year talked about, well, for years.

Bryce Harper is going into the final season of his contract. He, most likely, will be an unrestricted free agent at this time next year. The price for his services will be astronomical, talked about ad nauseam, and one of the lead headlines of the offseason. But, for now, he’s still in Washington.

Which makes Harper the starting point when looking at the Nationals‘ outfield next season, a place suddenly populated with several usable parts.

Harper was again in the MVP discussion this season before his flying August fall at first base. The Nationals were pleased the damage to Harper only consisted of an hyperextended knee and strained calf. He returned before the regular season ended, then hit a meager .211 in the postseason, which also matches his career batting average in the most important games. Harper has been to the playoffs four times. He’s excelled once. That was in 2014, when he hit three home runs in the National League Division Series. He’s hit .186 in the other three series combined.

“Just got to take that next step, try to do the best we can to put our trust in Mike Rizzo this offseason and get ready for spring training 2018,” Harper said after the Nationals lost Game 5 of the National League Division Series at home to the Chicago Cubs.

Postseason problems aside, Harper is the lone certainty, at least by position, in the Washington outfield next season. The other two spots will bring interesting decisions.

They would appear to belong to Michael A. Taylor and Adam Eaton.

Taylor’s postseason work confirmed his regular season and has solidified his status in the league. He finished the season with an .806 OPS and 2.6 WAR — the latter strongly helped by his superior defense in center field — before producing a 1.178 OPS in the NLDS. However, his strikeout-to-walk ratio remains obscene, suggesting a significant dip in average from last season’s .271 is possible. Backing those numbers suggesting a reduction in batting average is Taylor’s robust .363 batting average on balls in play last season. Expect him to hit overall more in the .250 range.

But, that doesn’t deplete his power and speed value, particularly as a hitter in the lower third of the lineup. Also, moving him to left field cuts down his fielding value. So, that’s where Eaton comes in.

Eaton walked around the Nationals clubhouse at the end of the season looking like an athlete who had nothing physically wrong. The general timeline for recovery following anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus tears — which happened to Eaton April 30, again the result of losing a battle with rigid first base at Nationals Park — is 6-8 months. By the end of October, Eaton will be six months out from his injury.

He has spent most of his career as a center fielder. It’s part of the reason the Nationals were willing to trade two pitching prospects, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, to acquire him last offseason. His second-most frequented position is right field. Last, is left field, which is where he could end up for the Nationals next season. Eaton has played 382 games in center field, 118 in right and 36 in left. If he takes Jayson Werth’s place in the outfield, and is paired with Taylor and Harper, Washington will have one of the best defensive outfields in baseball.

Behind that group is Brian Goodwin, who filled in well when Werth and Taylor were injured this season. The wild-card is Victor Robles.

Washington’s top prospect was called up in September. He did enough in a short time to make the postseason roster. Robles’ speed and attitude are major-league ready. The question is if his bat will be and what the value of having him in the major leagues instead of Triple A, which he skipped last season, would be.

Since Goodwin appears to be a viable fourth outfielder, Robles’ path next season is likely to start with an invite to major-league camp in the spring, then an assignment to Triple-A Syracuse.

This all also indicates the end in Washington for Werth. After seven seasons, few shaves and many victories, Werth’s return would be a massive surprise. Though, he’s convinced he will still play baseball in the future.

“I’m still going to play a lot more baseball after this,” Werth, 38, said before the playoffs began. “Whether it’s here or somewhere else, who knows?”

His options appear limited. Werth’s defensive ability has receded. He hit just .233 combined the last three seasons, two of which were slowed by injuries out of his control. If he moves to the American League, his role would appear to be at first base or as a designated hitter. Trouble is, his bat doesn’t make that situation inviting.

Without him, the Nationals are in a good spot, at least until the 2018 offseason.

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