The Nationals’ Five Greatest Hitters
Tim Raines (1979-1990, 2001)
The petite but well-built switch-hitter who thrived on the nickname “Rock” was the best of a rich tradition of speedburners in Montreal and quickly proved that he was more than just fast legs, as the Hall of Fame would eventually recognize.
Raines sprang upon the major league scene in the strike-shortened 1981 season, stealing 71 bases in 88 games to win the first of four straight stolen base titles in the National League while finishing a very close second in Rookie of the Year voting to the media-saturated Fernando Valenzuela. The strike kept Raines from reaching 100 thefts and, quite possibly, having a crack at Lou Brock’s then-season record of 118. His career high would be established two years later when he stole 90 bags in 1983.
Although he would never lead the league in stolen bases after 1984, Raines was no less efficient when he tried. With the Expos, he successfully swiped the next base 85% of the time and finished his long, 23-year career with the highest success rate among players with 300 or more steals. (Carlos Beltran soon topped him.)
Raines’ career was nearly derailed before it peaked. In 1982, he became heavily addicted to cocaine; he was so hooked, he never slid into a bag feet first out of fear it might break the small vile of coke he had stashed in his back pocket and took between innings. With assistance from teammates, Raines cleaned up and never relapsed.
Properly rehabbed, Raines showed off his elite level of play through the 1980s for Montreal, transcending the mere threat of stealing bases. He was a constant .300 threat—.400 in the category of on-base percentage once his healthy amassment of walks was figured in; he won a NL batting title in 1986 when he hit .334 and finished sixth in the NL MVP vote. A free agent following that sterling season, Raines was stunned to field offers lower than the annual $1.5 million fee he’d been earning in Montreal. Only the Expos would match that figure, and an insulted Raines held out until May, when the two sides finally agreed to a yearly $1.67 million figure; Raines celebrated his return by tripling in his first at-bat and knocking out a game-winning, 10th-inning grand slam at New York against the Mets. It was the start of, arguably, Raines most complete and celebrated year, hitting .330, smacking a career-high 18 home runs, leading the majors with 123 runs, hitting for the cycle and being named that year’s All-Star Game MVP when he collected three hits (including a triple) with two RBIs and a stolen base. It was later revealed that major league owners colluded against Raines and many other players seeking fair monetary value, resulting in a staggering (and well-deserved) $280 million gut punch against the Lords.
A series of injuries precipitated a drop-off over Raines’ next three years, and he was traded following the 1990 season to the Chicago White Sox. At age 41, Raines briefly rejoined the Expos in 2001, counting among his teammates his son, Tim Raines Jr.—making the two the second father-son duo (after the Griffeys) to play same time, same team.
Andre Dawson (1976-86)
A five-tool prospect shouldering immense expectations, Dawson approached—but didn’t quite meet—superstar status, yet he was nonetheless an outstanding ballplayer who didn’t go unnoticed by Hall-of-Fame voters who elected him to Cooperstown, albeit after nine years of eligibility.
Tall and trim, Dawson was an aggressive hitter who crowded the plate, rarely walked and patrolled the outfield with expansive range, earning him the nickname Hawk and eight Gold Gloves—six with the Expos—before the harsh, artificial Olympic Stadium turf gave him frequent-patient status in the operating room. After winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1977, baseball experts continuously talked up Dawson as the next Willie Mays, an unfair burden on a player who was just a level below—averaging a still-respectable 25 homers, 90 homers, 30 steals and, sometimes, a .300-plus average. He marveled here and there, twice hitting two homers in an inning (a feat equaled only by Willie McCovey) and finishing second in the NL MVP race in 1981 and 1983. He was selected to three All-Star Games in a Montreal uniform.
Like Raines, Dawson became a free agent after 1986 and thus was also a victim of the owners’ collusive efforts to quell spiraling free agency contracts; unlike Raines, Dawson became so incensed at Montreal management that he refused to return, boldly opting to crash Chicago training camp and allowing the Cubs to write in whatever salary they pleased; they penned $500,000—one-third what he made with the Expos a year earlier—and Dawson proceeded to have his most prodigious season, belting 49 homers and knocking in 137 runs while winning the NL MVP for a last-place team.
Juan Soto (2018-22)
In just a few short years, the teenage Dominican completed a lightning-fast rise through the Nationals’ minor league system, and his exceptional performance with the parent club left some wondering: Is there a higher level beyond the majors he can be promoted to?
In 2018, Soto began the year in low-A ball, but within a month he had already climbed two steps of the organization ladder to Double-A; when he proved too good there—at that point, he was hitting .362 with 14 homers and 52 RBIs in 39 total minor league games—the Nationals were convinced enough to have him bypass Triple-A to Washington. It was the right move; at the major league level, the 19-year-old Soto continued to impress, hitting .292 with 22 homers and 70 RBIs while his ability to draw walks, with 79 in 116 games, was equally impressive. Soto proved to be a fast learner not just in terms of baseball, graduating in his efforts to learn and speak English with crash-course efficiency.
Soto’s sophomore season was no less impressive, bashing 34 homers with 110 RBIs and 108 walks on a .282 average, gobbling up numbers at so young an age that he was compared almost daily to the early trajectories of Hall of Famers past, most notably Mel Ott. In the Nationals’ unexpected championship run to follow, Soto provided key moments with a game-winning hit against Milwaukee in the NL Wild Card game, the game-tying homer in the eventual NLDS clincher against the favored Los Angeles Dodgers, and three home runs in the seven-game World Series conquest of Houston. A year later, in baseball’s pandemic-shortened campaign, Soto survived an early scare with COVID-19 (be missed the Nationals’ first eight games of the season with what he assuredly believed was a false positive test) to bat a NL-high .351 with 13 homers, 37 RBIs and 41 more walks in just 47 games. In 2021, even as the Nationals stripped away all the star talent surrounding him in the lineup with a midseason fire sale, Soto remained potent—batting .313 with 29 homers and a franchise-record 145 walks.
As the Nationals began tearing down their roster in 2021, it was wondered whether a new batch of talent would be built around Soto—or if he’d go, too. Alas for D.C. fans, it became the latter when Soto, who was becoming pricey even at the arbitration stage, was dealt to the San Diego Padres midway through 2022 for numerous top prospects.
Bryce Harper (2012-18)
When the Nationals, on their way to a second straight 100-loss season with a #1 pick in the next amateur draft, got wind of a 16-year-old kid out in Las Vegas who could mash 500-foot home runs, hurl fastballs near 100 MPH and run like a gazelle, they had to be pinching themselves. A year later, they picked the mega-talented, brash Harper as their top draft choice and, after a little growing up, he appeared to meet the franchise’s highest expectations.
Harper debuted early in the 2012 season at age 19 and showed that all the preliminary pomp was no exaggeration. He grabbed NL Rookie of the Year honors with a .270 average, 22 homers, 59 RBIs, 18 steals and 98 runs scored in 139 games, while being rewarded for his work at midseason by earning a spot on the NL All-Star team. Over his next two years, Harper’s career growth was stunted due to a number of injuries partially created by his all-out approach to outfield defense—best illustrated in 2013 when he ran at full speed right into the wall at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium, as if he didn’t know an outfield wall even existed. Harper was unapologetic in defense of his defense, using his Twitter account to proclaim, “I’ll play this game hard for the rest of my life even if it kills me.”
Overwhelmingly tagged in an ESPN player poll as baseball’s most overrated major leaguer on the eve of the 2015 season, Harper went out and convinced almost everyone that he’d likely never receive such a dishonor ever again. In a spectacular breakout campaign, Harper belted 42 homers, hit .330 with 124 walks and scored a NL-high 118 runs. It was a Ted Williams-like performance at age 22 that made him the first player in franchise history to win the MVP—and the youngest-ever major leaguer to be honored unanimously. But Harper couldn’t sustain the magic, embarking on a series of up-and-down results for the Nationals, hitting .243, .319 and .249 in the three years to follow—though he maintained power and patience (reflected in a major league-high 130 walks in 2018) to remain a dangerous presence at the plate.
As Harper’s game matures toward the stratosphere, his sulky attitude will hopefully mature as well. Once angered by a slump, he took to the clubhouse and smashed away with a bat—which splintered and ricocheted below his eye, causing a cut that required 10 stitches. He was once benched for failing to run out a ground ball and, more memorably at the end of his 2015 MVP campaign, was choked in the dugout by teammate Jonathan Papelbon for failing to run out a pop fly. The Nationals tolerated these moments so long as Harper played at the elite level they had long expected.
Anthony Rendon (2013-19)
The Houston native was one of baseball’s best poker faces; one could walk in cold on a game and not figure out if he had just struck out or launched a home run. And that probably helped to accentuate his relative anonymity, given his terrific output over seven seasons with the Nationals.
In his first full year (2014) with Washington, Rendon quietly emerged as one of the game’s most underappreciated players, putting up solid numbers (.287 average, 21 homers, 83 RBIs, 111 runs scored, 17 steals) while playing in the shadows of marquee stars such as Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Injuries tripped up his progress in the next couple of seasons to follow, but he soon found back his footing and strengthened it through his final three campaigns at Washington—hitting over .300 each year, leading the NL in doubles in his final two (with 44 each) and emerging as the offensive star amid the national spotlight in 2019 as the team embarked on an unlikely championship quest. If 34 homers and a major league-leading 126 RBIs in his final year at D.C. wasn’t enough to justify the big bucks awaiting him via free agency, then a sparkling 2019 postseason (.328 average, three homers and 15 RBIs over 17 games) would certainly back up the statistical boast.
Rendon’s single biggest day in a Washington uniform took place on April 30, 2017, when he went 6-for-6 with three homers, a double and two singles—also becoming just the fifth National Leaguer in history to bring home 10 runs in one game.
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