That isn't exactly a hot take, what with the former National League MVP being their best player and all. There will nonetheless be an extra layer to Harper's importance to the Nationals in 2018. His looming free agency gives them a further incentive to capture an elusive World Series championship.
This is also an excuse to go get the most important player who should be on the Nationals: J.T. Realmuto.
Since he's not yet a household name, the basic need-to-know information about Realmuto is he's a 26-year-old catcher who's employed by the Miami Marlins. But as they have proved this offseason with trades of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon, they are not in a mood to employ good players. Somehow, some way, they have to go.
Realmuto reportedly wouldn't mind going next. According to Craig Mish of SiriusXM, he requested to be traded back in December. More recently, Mish reported the Nationals are staging a hot pursuit:
The big hurdle in the way of a deal is Realmuto's price tag.
He's gotten better every year he's been in the majors and is still under club control for three more seasons. Per Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, the Marlins have deemed him worthy of young outfielder Victor Robles, who ranks as Baseball America's No. 5 prospect.
A smaller yet not insignificant hurdle is the reality the Nationals and Marlins are NL East rivals. It's uncommon for a contender to shift young talent to a rebuilder within the same division lest they come back to punish them later.
Still, the fact the Nationals are serious about Realmuto indicates they know where their fatal flaw is located.
It's mostly a good thing the Nationals are moving into 2018 with basically the same roster that produced 97 wins in 2017. It comes with an offense headed by Harper, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Ryan Zimmerman. It also comes with a pitching staff led by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.
However, both units deserve a better catcher.
Matt Wieters drew 113 of 162 starts last year but did little to earn them. His .225/.288/.344 slash line qualified him as one of the worst hitters in Major League Baseball. To boot, Baseball Prospectus' fielding runs above average metric—which accounts for throwing, blocking and pitch framing—rated him as the third-worst defensive catcher in MLB.
While not the reason, Wieters was a reason the Nationals endured yet another first-round exit from the postseason. He collected just two hits in five National League Division Series games against the Chicago Cubs and, as FanGraphs' Travis Sawchik highlighted, struggled to secure oh-so-precious strikes.
Barring the possibility Wieters, who will turn 32 in May, can somehow turn the switches on these abilities from "off" to "on," his exercising of his $10.5 million option effectively doomed the Nationals to more of the same in 2018.
Unless they save themselves by pulling off a deal for Realmuto.
If nothing else, his offense would be an easy upgrade over what the Nationals got from Wieters last year. He struggled in his first full season, 2015, but he has slashed .290/.337/.440 in the two seasons since.
Those are the results of a rapidly evolving hitter. Realmuto's strikeout rate is sticking below average while his walk rate is trending up toward average. He flashed good power last year too, smacking 17 home runs to help push his slugging percentage further north of average.
Power is just one of Realmuto's athletic tools. Statcast measures him as the fastest catcher in MLB by a considerable margin. His legs also help him to control the running game on defense, as being quick out of the crouch allows for ultra-fast pop times.
That's where Realmuto's solid career caught-stealing rate of 32 percent comes from.
Where Realmuto isn't as accomplished is in his ability to frame strikes. Although Baseball Prospectus rated him as an above-average framer in 2017, StatCorner's framing metric rated him as one of the worst.
Break it down to simple percentages, however, and the first conclusion holds more water. With the help of Baseball Savant, here's how Realmuto's in-zone and out-of-zone strike calls compared to the MLB average in 2017:
|In-Zone Strike%||Out-of-Zone Strike%|
*Data courtesy of Baseball Savant.
It's almost as if the man himself knew he needed to get better at framing.
"It's extremely important," Realmuto said of framing in February 2016, according to Joe Frisaro of MLB.com. "That's a huge part of the game—stealing a strike here and there is something that really changes ballgames. Changing counts, the difference between a 1-0 and 0-1 count is huge to a hitter."
Add it all up, and Realmuto is basically an anti-Wieters who would solve the Nationals' biggest need. And given said need happens to be at the most important position on the diamond, it's one they would be wise not to ignore any longer.
Those two hurdles in the way of his acquisition? Washington must not let them be deal-breakers. Especially not if the Marlins are amenable to a prospect package headlined by somebody other than Robles or fellow outfielder Juan Soto, as Pete Kerzel of MASNsports.com hears they might be.
The idea, after all, is to finally squeeze a World Series title out of their Harper-centric run of contention. More than anyone else they could acquire, Realmuto could help with that.