The Washington Nationals' hegemony over the National League East finally crumbled in 2018, ahead of schedule. The putative division favorites floundered all season long and ultimately missed the playoffs, squandering Bryce Harper's final season before free agency.
Despite being objectively good at both scoring runs and preventing them - they finished fifth in the NL in run differential - the Nationals, who earned their fourth division title in six years in 2017, were curiously bad at winning baseball games. At season's end, the Nationals were 82-80, and the resurgent Atlanta Braves occupied their rivals' customary spot atop the division standings.
It wasn't unreasonable to suggest, then, that a changing of the guard had taken place, especially with Harper's free agency looming. The notion calcified when Harper - a 26-year-old with six All-Star nominations in seven big-league seasons - reportedly rejected a 10-year, $300-million extension from the Nationals, preferring the greener pastures of free agency.
Then, a few weeks later, the Braves signed veteran third baseman Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal, adding a superstar-caliber player - albeit one riddled with question marks - to a roster overflowing with young talent, both realized and unrealized.
Then the Philadelphia Phillies - another talented young team trending upward - acquired All-Star shortstop Jean Segura from the Seattle Mariners, setting the table for their own potentially transformative offseason.
And then the New York Mets, under new management, finalized a whopper of a trade with the dismantling Mariners, acquiring reliever extraordinaire Edwin Diaz and perennial All-Star Robinson Cano in an effort to reignite a talented-if-defective roster that scuffled hard over the previous two seasons.
Even with a solid core still intact sans Harper, if the Nationals were to re-assert their authority over the NL East in 2019, they'd need more than Yan Gomes, a gifted-but-volatile catcher acquired last week from the Cleveland Indians. Now, their path back to first place was not only contested but congested. An outsized move was necessary.
On Tuesday, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made such a move, reportedly inking left-hander Patrick Corbin - the most highly coveted started in this year's free-agent class - to a six-year, $140-million deal, and further complicating what may well be the most interesting division race of the 2019 campaign. With Corbin, the Nationals - who should've won 90 games last year, if you consult the Pythagorean Theorem - may be the best team in the NL East. They also might be third-best.
What is clear, however, is that the Nationals now have arguably the most enviable top three starters of any team in baseball, with Corbin poised to slot in between three-time Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer (who finished second in NL voting this year, too) and Stephen Strasburg, a three-time All-Star who's never had a bad season.
Corbin, for his part, is coming off his finest season to date by far, managing career bests in ERA (3.15), park-adjusted ERA (77 ERA-), WHIP (1.05), strikeout rate (30.8 percent), home runs per nine innings (0.68), and expected weighted on-base average (.281) over 33 starts for the Arizona Diamondbacks while tossing 200 innings for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery ahead of the 2014 campaign. Even if he reverts back to his 2017 form, when he managed an ERA merely 16 percentage points better than league average over 189 2/3 innings, Corbin - who last year relied far less on his four-seam fastball and added a curve to his repertoire - is still a stud.
Moreover, it's not completely, ridiculously, patently ludicrous to suggest the Nationals are better off with Corbin than Harper. Since becoming the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history in 2015, after all, Harper has merely been a very good player; due to inconsistency at the plate and one bad injury, Harper has averaged 3.8 WAR per season for the last three years, getting out-valued over that span by likes of Brian Dozier, Didi Gregorius, and the aforementioned Segura. Victor Robles, the 21-year-old poised to replace Harper in the Nationals' outfield, is projected to put up 2.2 WAR in 2019, according to FanGraphs' Steamer model - a perfectly adequate approximation of what Harper has been for the last three years. The difference between Corbin and, say, Erick Fedde, who had been tentatively slated as the Nationals' fifth starter for next season, may end up being far greater.
Regardless, in signing Corbin, the Nationals addressed an area of weakness (beyond Scherzer and Strasburg, after all, their starting options were pretty grim), and, perhaps just as importantly, ensured that the Phillies - reportedly one of his most aggressive suitors - you know, can't. It seems unlikely they do any more heavy lifting this offseason - between Gomes and Corbin, they've essentially spent the $30 million they had offered Harper for 2019 - but even if they don't, the Nationals appear increasingly well-positioned to throw their figurative hat into the ring for a division title once again in 2019.
For now, at least.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.