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Harper, Zim leading Nats' offensive surge


Harper, Zim leading Nats' offensive surge

MIAMI -- Don't look now, but the Nationals are actually scoring runs in bunches. A lineup that not long ago featured more black holes than a Carl Sagan novel is starting to produce in a manner more befitting a first-place club.

Over the season's first 40 games, the Nationals averaged a scant 3.6 runs. Over their last eight games, they've raised that average to 5.2 runs.

So, what's been the biggest difference? It's not necessarily what you might expect. The Nationals aren't producing that many more hits (8.6 per game during this stretch vs. 8.2 during the season's first quarter). And they're actually reaching base with less frequency (posting a .314 on-base percentage during this stretch vs. a .315 mark prior to it).

No, the reason the Nationals are scoring more runs these days is that they're hitting for more power.

Through games 1-40, they averaged only 2.8 extra-base hits, a pretty paltry total. Since then, they're averaging 3.9 extra-base hits. That equates to nearly a 100-point increase in the team's slugging percentage and OPS.

Where's this sudden surge of power coming from? A lot of it is coming from the longest-tenured player on the roster and the least-tenured player on the roster.

Let's start with Ryan Zimmerman, whose first season since signing a 100 million contract extension hasn't exactly gone according to plan. Sidelined for two weeks with shoulder inflammation, Zimmerman was slow to get back on track. But he's been heating up over the last week-plus: In his last 10 games, he's hitting .318 with five extra-base hits and nine RBI.

"I'm starting to have better at-bats," Zimmerman said. "I'm hitting the ball harder; I'm not just slapping it around. I'm starting to feel good. And I think if I can continue to work and doing the things I've done for the last week and getting this thing (the shoulder) stronger, I think I can kind of take off from there."

Zimmerman admitted he's still getting his shoulder back to 100 percent. He's not in any kind of significant pain, but he continues to get daily treatment on it while trying to build the strength back up.

"Just like anyone, when you hurt something in the middle of the season, you can't give it the maximum time to get it to a point where you're able to play and you know you're not going to injure it by playing," he said. "So you just let it progress and then you continue to work and work and work. It's felt better week by week. As long as I continue to treat it and do the things that I've been doing to get it stronger, I think it's just going to get better and better."

Zimmerman isn't the only one producing more power at the plate. Bryce Harper has chimed in as well, especially since manager Davey Johnson moved him back to the No. 2 spot in his lineup.

Over his last eight games, Harper is batting a hefty .419 while slugging .742 thanks to a pair of triples and a pair of homers. He's recorded at least one hit in all eight of those games (two hits in five of them) and has scored 10 times during the span.

Guess who's been hitting behind Harper in the lineup and taking advantage of those RBI opportunities? Yes, the Face of the Franchise.

Obviously, this is only an eight-game stretch, and that's far too small a sample size to suggest we're seeing a long-term shift here.

But it's clear that the production of both Harper and Zimmerman, bolstered by the fact they're hitting back-to-back near the top of the lineup, has helped ignite what had been a sluggish Nationals lineup.

And with Harper gaining valuable experience by the day, Zimmerman strengthening his shoulder and seeing the ball better each day and Michael Morse drawing ever closer to his return from the disabled list, the Nationals have to feel encouraged about the promise of even more offense to come.

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Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Majestic’s reign as the maker of MLB jerseys are about to come to an end. 

In 2020, Fanatics and Under Armour will be teaming to make on-field jerseys and apparel for all MLB teams, according to a Sports Business Journal report. 

The news outlet also reports that the deal means the MLB’s licensing relations with Nike will be over as well. 

Under Armour will produce the jerseys starting in Spring Training of the 2020 season, and “broad apparel rights” will go to Fanatics. 

New Era will continue to be the maker of MLB hats. 

Given that Maryland native Kevin Plank founded Under Armour, and that the business' headquarters are in Baltimore, it’s sure to be a splash with baseball fans in the DMV.

You can read the full Sports Business journal report here. 

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Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Here is an early look at the biggest questions facing the Washington Nationals as they embark on another offseason in their quest to build a championship team...

What to do with Wilson Ramos and the catcher position?

The Nationals' biggest question entering this offseason is without a doubt at catcher with All-Star Wilson Ramos on the mend after having the ACL in his right knee repaired on Friday. Not only is the recovery a long one - he could be out until well into the 2017 season - it is the second time he's had the ligament fixed. At 29, his viability as a primary catcher moving forward is a real question. Even Ramos admitted he may have to transition to the American League with his next contract.

If Ramos does leave, behind him will be a significant hole on the Nationals. They have several in-house options, but none that are anywhere close to Ramos, who emerged this season as the best offensive catcher in baseball. Pedro Severino is a nice young player, but has a career .632 OPS in the minors. The drop-off on offense from Ramos to him would be significant. The same can be said about Jose Lobaton.

It won't be easy replacing Ramos with an external option, if that's the way the Nats opt to go. Catchers who can hit and play defense like him are a rarity. Matt Wieters of the Orioles would be the best option in free agency, but he's a year older and is also a step down offensively. Unless they like Wieters - who does happen to be represented by Scott Boras - they may have to trade for a new backstop, and that won't be easy either. 

This is all not to rule out the Nationals re-signing Ramos, but right now it's difficult to project what type of contract he will garner and whether that could fit in their plans. Surely it would be tough for them to offer a long-term deal, but maybe they make sense if he decides to take a short-term contract to reset for free agency either next offseason or the one after that.

Any major upgrades needed?

The Nationals are in an interesting spot, having won 95 games and the NL East, but with yet another disappointing end to their year. General manager Mike Rizzo loves to make big splashes in the offseason. Every single winter he does something aggressive and unexpected. What will he do this year? There aren't many areas where he could potentially upgrade, but that hasn't stopped him in the past.

If Ramos leaves, catcher is obviously the biggest need. But beyond that, the two major problem areas in their lineup this season were at shortstop and first base. Danny Espinosa played solid defense and hit 24 homers, but held an unsightly .209 batting average. His .552 OPS in the second half was worst in baseball among those with at least 165 at-bats. 

Espinosa is always looking over his shoulder this time of the year and just this past winter appeared to be the odd-man out when the Nats traded for Ben Revere and signed Daniel Murphy. Espinosa managed to overcome the odds and play 157 games. He has one year left on his contract, so one way or another the Nats will need to start thinking long-term about his position.

Shortstop is an easier situation to evaluate than first base, where Ryan Zimmerman is due to make $14 million each of the next two seasons and $18 million the year after that. He had the worst season of his career with a .642 OPS through 115 games. Bringing in a first baseman to flat-out replace Zimmerman seems unrealistic, given his contract. But perhaps they can find someone who plays both first base and left field, with Jayson Werth having just one year left on his deal.

Who will be the closer?

The Nationals found success in the ninth inning with Mark Melancon after they acquired him at the trade deadline in a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But it was just a rental. Now Melancon is due for free agency and the Nats once again have questions at the position. They could opt to re-sign Melancon, or go with another free agent option. Aroldis Chapman, whom they have coveted in the past, will be available. So will Kenley Jansen, who just helped end their season with the Dodgers. It's an unusually deep crop of star closers and it would be a surprise if the Nationals didn't snag one of them. Another option would be to promote Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen, but that would be out of the Nationals' character.

Are they content with the rotation?

If one were to pick the biggest reason the Nationals lost their NL Division Series against the Dodgers it would have to be the starting rotation. It was their most glaring weakness and it wasn't even close. This is despite the Nats being built on starting pitching and boasting one of the best regular season rotations in baseball. Losing Stephen Strasburg to injury didn't help, but they still had four capable starters left over. Max Scherzer struggled in Game 1, while Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross combined to pitch just 11 1/3 innings in their respective outings. 

If you look at the year as a whole, starting pitching was not a major concern. But the Nats are always aggressive in addressing their needs, whether big or small. They have top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, but neither distinguished themselves this season. Do they sit tight and hope things improve, or do they try to make another game-changing move? With a weak free agent class, any outside upgrade would have to come through a trade. Also, Gonzalez' $12 million team option is definitely something to watch this winter.

Will extension talks with Harper heat up?

Both the Nationals and Bryce Harper, one could argue, may have incentive to back away from the negotiating table this winter, given the Nats have to be less confident in giving Harper a record-setting contract after his disappointing year, and that Harper may not be wise to sign his new deal when his stock has lowered. But if the Nats and Harper do not come to terms this winter, that sets up a lot more pressure for the following offseason. Harper has two years left on his contract. Heading into next offseason without a deal, with just one year remaining, would create a lot of uncertainty for all sides involved, including the fans who certainly want to see the 2015 MVP remain in Washington for a long time. The storyline would dominate their offseason.

This upcoming winter always seemed like the best time to broker a deal to avoid that scenario, but the timing has not worked out with Harper's production on the field. Also, would anyone be surprised if it turns out Harper was dealing with an injury this season that held him back at the plate? If it were a serious one, he wouldn't have kept playing. But any injury has to be factored in those discussions.

[RELATED: Bullpen, baserunning leads to Nats heartbreak]