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Praise all around for Nats All-Stars


Praise all around for Nats All-Stars

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- First came Sunday night's flight from Washington on Ted Lerner's private jet, with Stephen Strasburg's pet yorkie Bentley doing tricks on command for teammates Gio Gonzalez and Bryce Harper and members of the owner's family.

Then came the whirlwind that is All-Star Workout Day, from press conferences that featured plenty of clown questions to batting practice before a full house at Kauffman Stadium to front-row seats for the Home Run Derby.

Throw in Tuesday's actual Midsummer Classic, during which all three players could see action in a game that could wind up giving them home-field advantage for the World Series three months from now, and perhaps Strasburg summed it best.

"It's fun to be a National right now," the right-hander said.

Tough to dispute that notion, not as the Nationals' three-man All-Star crew relishes the attention and adulation that is being thrust upon the NL's best team at the season's midway point.

These are uncharted waters for the Nats, who aren't used at all to being the center of attention at a national event but are growing more comfortable with the spotlight each passing day.

It helps that there are three players here stealing attention from each other.

"It's a little different than for guys who came here when the team was in last place, being the only guy voted in," Strasburg said. "To come here with a group, it's something you can enjoy and know you've got a couple of days to just enjoy it and soak it all in."

Strasburg and Harper were among the most-sought-after players on All-Star Monday, whether during the 45-minute NL player media availability session or on the field during batting practice as fans and fellow All-Stars alike tried to get the attention of the guys with the curly W logo on their right sleeves.

What stood out perhaps more than anything else was the praise being heaped upon them from other All-Stars who have come to appreciate what this previously downtrodden franchise has accomplished and could continue to accomplish over the remainder of the season.

"They've got what it takes. They've got what it takes to make a long run," said Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan, a National during their 100-loss seasons in 2008-09. "And they've got the city excited. It's fun to watch. Now that we've already played them twice, it's fun to watch them and see the success."

Nobody in a Nationals uniform has impressed the rest of the league like Harper, who arrived in the big leagues with a reputation as a cocksure 19-year-old but who immediately won over fellow players with his talent and hustle.

"I didn't really know much about him," Hanrahan said. "The first game, he hits the double and flips his helmet off, and I'm thinking: 'That's a clown move, bro.' But I got a chance to talk to him today, and he seems like a really good kid. I don't know if he's matured a lot or the guys have helped him out, but he seems like a really good kid and he's going to be around for a long time."

Praise for Harper even came from the guy who two months ago admitted he intentionally plunked him with a pitch, then watched as the rookie stole home off him.

"The most impressive thing I've seen," Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels said. "It definitely shows you what he's all about. And it definitely taught me something about how to push harder and play harder. I can thank him for it."

Though he's making his first appearance in MLB's All-Star Game -- the youngest position player ever to do it -- Harper is no stranger to events like this. He's been appearing in various All-Star games since he first burst onto the scene as a precocious teenager from Las Vegas.

So Harper is comfortable in this setting, even if his performance on the field hasn't lived up to it. He recalled going 0-for-5 with four strikeouts in the Aflac All-American high school showcase. Same thing at an Under Armor exhibition game. And the same thing at last summer's All-Star Futures Game in Phoenix.

Given that dubious track record, Harper is setting no expectations for himself this time.

"I'm just going to try to come out here and have fun," he said. "And if I go 0-fer, I really don't care. It's just a time to enjoy myself and a time to just be around the best guys in baseball. It's my first one, so I'm going to take it all in."

Strasburg, too, was taking it all in Monday, with a companion by his side at nearly all times: Gonzalez.

The two pitchers were inseparable, the bubbly Gonzalez shaking hands with everybody in sight while the reserved Strasburg picked and chose his introductions.

They're an unlikely pair, but the Nationals' two aces have formed a strong bond since becoming teammates in February.

"He's the polar opposite of me, and I think it's worked out really well," Strasburg said. "I've learned so much from the guy already. And I think he's learned a thing or two from me."

Gonzalez, of course, loves anybody and everybody who wears a Nationals uniform.

"If it was up to me, I'd bring the whole team with us," he said. "Every single one of those guys deserves to be here."

For this year, at least, three Nats at the All-Star Game will have to be enough.

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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.

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