It was supposed to be Bryce Harper's year. The Nationals were ready to bounce back after a disappointing 2013 and their young phenom was going to lead the way. Except Harper got hurt, missed significant time, and hasn't launched right back into superstar mode since coming off the disabled list. Sure he hit a walk off home run on Thursday, but he hasn't been the team's MVP.
One could make a case that the Nationals' rotation is the reason why they're succeeding. You could also point to their well-rounded roster. But if you had to pick out their best player to date it would be Anthony Rendon. And it's probably not close.
Rendon is barely 24 and was the sixth overall pick back in 2011. We made plenty about the Nats picking Stephen Strasburg and Harper in back to back seasons, but snagging Rendon a year later was a pretty important move for the franchise as well. In his first full season, Rendon is thriving.
He looked fine in 98 games in 2013 as he posted a 100 wRC+ and a 1.5 fWAR, but he's taken a nice step forward in 2014 and is sporting a 122 wRC+ and 4.2 fWAR while playing very nice defense at third base (and second when needed). Rendon looks to be the player we read about on prospect sites during his brief rise.
It's always nice to see a young player succeed without any help from a BABIP spike and Rendon's is only two points higher than it was a year ago. He trimmed his decent strikeout rate by a point or two, but the big difference offensively is his increase in power. He's putting the ball in the air a little more often and that's leading to more extra base hits and a fifty point increase in his ISO.
Considering that this puts him right in line with expectations, there's no serious reason to be overly cautious about believing what Rendon is doing. He was a top prospect, he crushed the minors, and after some minor growing pains in 2013, he's settled in at a star level. Sure he's had some injury problems in his past, but they're not affecting him this year.
Rendon's almost certainly been the Nationals' best player in 2014 and he's creeping into the MVP conversation in the National League. He's not at the top of the list, but he would absolutely deserve to show up on most ballots if the season ended today. He's 8th in fWAR among NL position players and at least two of the players ahead of him aren't going to the playoffs so they are magically disqualified from contending for the top spot according to BBWAA lore.
Clayton Kershaw is also a contender for the award on the pitching side of things. What's interesting is that Tulowitzki is hurt and on a bad team while Andrew McCutchen may also miss significant time down the stretch. Jason Heyward isn't going to win the award because the voters favor offense over defense. Giancarlo Stanton' teammates will prevent him from earning votes.
That leaves two Dodgers (Kershaw and Yasiel Puig), two Brewers (Carlos Gomez, and Jonathan Lucroy), and Hunter Pence ahead of him. Now, of course, any number of players could come from behind and overtake him and there's no guarantee Rendon will put his foot on the gas enough to make an unassailable case, but it's not impossible to imagine Rendon performing well enough in the context of a crowded field and race starved for narrative. He could win this thing.
Which is fun because he was supposed to be Harper's support staff instead of the other way around, but it's also fun because the scouting reports failed to mention one of his assets that's been worth half a win this season:
Keith Law picked him as a breakout candidate for 2014, but made no mention of anything except his bat. In his write-up of the Top 100 prospects for 2012, Law discussed his bat and his potential to play great defense. The same was basically true in 2013. Marc Hulet focused on the bat with a discussion of his future at third ahead of 2013. John SIckels did the same.
Pretty much every prospect report I could find talked about his ability to be a great hitter and his potential for high quality defense if he could stay healthy. I'm sure I missed something, but there were almost no mentions of baserunning, and this one from Nick Faleris isn't glowing:
A formerly above-average runner, Rendon now rates as below-average on the bad side of three serious ankle injuries, and he has seen a slight dip in his first-step quickness at third.
I think you can see where this is going. Not only does Rendon have 11 steals in 13 tries, but he has a 5.1 BsR making him the fourth most valuable baserunner in the National League. He's ahead of Billy Hamilton. Let that sink in. Now his true talent probably isn't above Hamilton, but it's quite good. He's made just three outs on the bases this year and is taking the extra base 52 percent of the time.
Not only is Rendon developing into the hitter we thought he would at a pretty young age, but he's playing up to his defensive hype and has burst onto the scene as a great baserunner. He's not the best all-around player in the National League, but he's actually pretty close.
The projection systems don't buy his defense and baserunning, but they are slow to adapt and there's no real reason to think he's anything short of above average in both regards. But the more critical tool, the hitting one, is something both ZiPS and Steamer think is completely for real.
Rendon might not be the MVP, but he's the best player on a likely playoff team and one of the ten best players in the league. Harper will probably win one some day, but for now, the star of Navy Yard is Anthony Rendon.
Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, the Site Educator at FanGraphs, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow @NeilWeinberg44