- - Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Bryce Harper sat in a small room during spring training on Feb. 19 in West Palm Beach, Florida, and told reporters that he not would talk about his upcoming free agency during the season.

“If you guys do ask anything, I’ll be walking right out of the door,” the 25-year-old Harper said.

Exactly three months later, another outfielder, Juan Soto, was with Double-A Harrisburg in Richmond when he was told he was being sent to the majors. Soto, 19, made his debut at home the next day, May 20, for the Nationals and then had one of the best seasons ever for a teenager in the big leagues, posting numbers comparable to those put up by Harper in 2012.

On Monday, Soto was named the National League rookie of the month for September, which included a game at Atlanta when the Dominican native became the youngest player since 1900 to steal three bases in a game.

The left-handed hitter became the first Nationals player to win the rookie of the month award three times, and he ended the season hitting .292 with 22 homers, 70 RBIs and a .923 OPS.

“A bona fide, perennial All-Star and MVP candidate,” an American League scout of Soto. “He will win a batting title and possible win a Triple Crown.”

The amazing rise of Soto, who began the season at low Single-A Hagerstown, could have a ripple effect in the Washington organization. One thing is clear: the Nationals have outfield depth, with Harper, Soto, Adam Eaton, Victor Robles and Michael A. Taylor.

Harper hit .249 with 34 homers and 100 RBI and Eaton hit .301 in just 95 games. Robles batted .288 in 21 games in his second big league stint, while Taylor batted .227 with strong play in center.

Harper’s future kind of creates a domino effect with the players on hand,” Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) program host Phil Wood said. “If he stays it will be a long-term contract and obviously he would play every day. You know Soto is an everyday player. The other spot … Eaton managed to miss some time and he hit .300 with a high on-base average. And Robles came up and showed he can hit major league pitching. Taylor is almost the forgotten man.”

And what happens if Harper goes to another team?

“If you don’t sign Harper, it kind of lessens the logjam in the outfield,” Wood said.

And then, perhaps, the Nationals can focus on signing third baseman Anthony Rendon and/or shortstop Trea Turner to long-term deals.

Washington general manager Mike Rizzo told 106.7 The Fan it’s possible to sign Harper and Rendon and/or Turner to long-term deals.

“I won’t say it’s an either or scenario,” Rizzo said. “I don’t see one precluding us from doing the other.”

Rendon has one of the best WAR ratings in the majors over the past few seasons, while he hit .308 with 24 homers and 92 RBI in 2018. Turner, who led the league in steals with 43, batted .271 with 19 homers.

Soto had never played in more than 51 minor league games in a season before this year.

And after playing in 116 games as a big league rookie has a few more games to play — he told The Washington Times last week he will join a team of major league players for a tour of Japan in November.

“I will go to Japan with MLB, so I will be working out over there,” Soto said.
Soto is one of several Nationals who had strong individual seasons. He is a rookie of the year candidate while Max Scherzer is in the running for a third straight Cy Young Award.

Still, second-place Washington was 82-80 after winning the previous two division titles.

The offseason began early for the Nationals, as MASN reported Monday that the Lerner ownership group plans to meet with Harper in his native Las Vegas to talk about a possible contract extension at some point this month.

Once the World Series is over, Harper will be able to talk with every team.

There are plenty of other concerns for the Nationals besides Harper, including possible upgrades at catcher and second base.

“It is kind of back to the drawing board,” Eaton told 106.7 The Fan. “I know the future is still bright. We have a great pitching staff. We have young talent. I think 2019 is going to be much improved.”

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