Washington Nationals: Window of contention remains open

The Washington Nationals’ 2018 season is essentially over, but trading Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams doesn’t mean the team’s window of contention is closed.

Let’s face it: the Washington Nationals‘ postseason hopes all but ended when the team failed to win a pre-trade deadline series in Miami. If there was any remaining doubt, Sunday’s 12-1 thrashing and the series loss to those same Marlins sealed the 2018 season’s fate.

Earlier this week, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made the difficult but correct decisions to trade pending free agents Matt Adams and Daniel Murphy to the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, respectively.

The moves led several observers, including a former Nats beat writer, to declare Washington’s window of contention closed.

With all due respect to James Wagner, he is wrong. While the 2018 season has been a major disappointment that could lead to the firing of rookie manager Davey Martinez, it’s foolish to count out the Nationals in 2019 and beyond.

In the outfield they have Juan Soto, who is in a tight race for NL Rookie of the Year, as well as consensus elite prospect Victor Robles on the verge of the big leagues. Anthony Rendon is quietly having another stellar season, while Trea Turner leads baseball in steals. Sean Doolittle was also the NL’s best closer before hurting his toe.

The rotation has Max Scherzer, who could three-peat as NL Cy Young Award winner, and will be half of the league’s strongest one-two rotation punch when Stephen Strasburg is healthy.

Barring a stunning trade, all those players will be in a Nats uniform next season, along with the resurgent Tanner Roark and Ryan Zimmerman. While it won’t be easy to replace Murphy and Gio Gonzalez, who probably won’t be re-signed, there should be plenty of second basemen and number three-type starters available on the free agent market.

The elephant in the room, of course, is whether Bryce Harper will return or not.

Should the Nats re-sign Harper, the middle of the order will be solidified for years to come. If he goes elsewhere, an outfield of Soto, Robles and Adam Eaton would still be solid. Other than replacing Murphy and possibly Harper and Gonzalez, middle relief should be the only other major question mark heading into 2019.

Only twice in the past six years have the Nats not emerged as NL East champions. After both the 2013 and 2015 seasons, the Nats changed managers and went on to dominate the division the following year.

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The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves surely represent tough competition, but would it really surprise anyone if the Washington Nationals return to the NL East’s top spot in 2019? It shouldn’t.