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Even if they lose Bryce Harper, the Nationals are the team to beat | Bob Brookover

The Washington Nationals have been the NL East team to beat for most of this decade and they maintained that moniker with Tuesday's signing of free-agent lefthander Patrick Corbin.

Free-agent pitcher Patrick Corbin signed with the Washington Nationals Tuesday one week after visiting the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
Free-agent pitcher Patrick Corbin signed with the Washington Nationals Tuesday one week after visiting the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.Read moreRick Scuteri / AP

A week ago, Patrick Corbin’s image was illuminated on the giant left-field board at Citizens Bank Park as the Phillies courted the lefty who posted a 3.15 ERA last season with Arizona. We learned Tuesday that Corbin’s image will not be up on that board again until at least the second week in April when the Washington Nationals visit Philadelphia for a three-game series. That meant we also learned that the Nationals, the most successful National League East team in this decade, will be the team to beat in 2019.

On the verge of potentially losing superstar Bryce Harper to free agency, Nats general manager Mike Rizzo signed Corbin to a six-year deal worth a reported $140 million. It’s a move that gave the Nationals the most imposing top three starters in the division, if not all of baseball.

“Starting pitching is king,” Rizzo told reporters in Washington over the weekend after admitting he wanted Corbin.

Corbin, a 29-year-old lefty who was also coveted by the New York Yankees and a number of other teams, joins a rotation that includes three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and righthander Stephen Strasburg, who has a career 94-52 record and a 3.14 ERA. Scherzer, 34, is signed through 2021 at $42.1 million per year and Strasburg, 30, is signed through 2023 at an average salary of $27.66 million.

Given the fragile nature of starting pitching, the Nationals could one day regret the boatload of money they have spent on the trio of Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin. Strasburg, in fact, has already given the team cause for concern. He has averaged just 24 starts and 145 innings over the last four seasons and he made just 22 starts and had a career-high 3.74 ERA last season.

But going into the 2019 season, the Nats will be the team to beat even if Harper signs elsewhere. And, who knows, maybe the Corbin move draws Harper back to the only big-league baseball home he has ever known.

That seems unlikely because the Nats would almost certainly have to be willing to go over the competitive balance payroll luxury tax of $206 million in order to sign Harper to the deal he is expected to receive. But maybe Harper tells agent Scott Boras to work out a deal that includes an opt-out after one year and takes one more crack at a World Series title with the Nats. With him, the Nats would certainly be the World Series favorites.

Without him, they remain in the conversation.

Remember, this is the team with Juan Soto, who may have just finished the best 19-year-old season in major-league history. His .923 OPS was the highest for any player age 19 with at least 400 plate appearances and his 22 home runs were tied with Harper for the second most ever by a teenager.

The Nats also have a star shortstop in Trea Turner, who is only 25, and a 28-year-old third baseman in Anthony Rendon who has been every bit as good as Harper over the last two seasons. Soto, Turner and Rendon form a great foundation to build around and, as Rizzo said, “starting pitching is king.” It does not hurt to have a closer like Sean Doolittle either.

Washington did take a step back in the starting pitching department last season, falling from sixth to 15th in team earned run average. Strasburg’s problems played a part in that and Gio Gonzalez’s long run of success with the team ended, too. The Nats traded him to Milwaukee in the middle of the season. Tanner Roark also had his second straight bad season.

But now the Nationals have a formidable rotation again and enough young talent to scare the rest of the division.

The Phillies, meanwhile, need Harper more than ever and there’s no guarantee that he will sign with them even if owner John Middleton is willing to fork over the highest amount of money. And now the Phillies need at least one more starting pitcher more than ever in order to keep up with the Nationals. The good news for them is that this market is still filled with talent.

J.A. Happ, 58-29 with a 3.48 ERA over the last four seasons, and Dallas Kuechel, 67-45 with a 3.28 ERA over the last five seasons, remain as the two best lefthanded starters. They are older than Corbin, but they also have better resumes. Perhaps the most intriguing lefty still out there is Japanese star Yusei Kikuchi, a 27-year-old with a 74-48 record and 2.81 ERA in Japan.

For now, however, the team that could be about to lose Bryce Harper remains the team to beat in the NL East.