It’s official: Bryce Harper will not be playing for the Washington Nationals in 2019. On Thursday afternoon, ESPN‘s Jeff Passan reported that Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies agreed to a 13-year, $330 million deal. Now, it’s time for the Nationals to take care of their own business and extend star third baseman Anthony Rendon.
Rendon, a free agent after this season, has been a staple for the Nationals at the hot corner in his six-year career and has come into his own as one of the premier third basemen in Major League Baseball.
He has hit over .300 and driven in 92-plus runs in each of the last two seasons while serving as a steady line drive hitter. Totaling 41-plus doubles in each of the last two seasons and hitting for contact, Rendon has been a steady force in the Nationals lineup through his ability to put the ball in play and work the count. Meanwhile, he is just as stellar defensively.
Whether it be his cannon for an arm, or ability to corral groundballs in the hole, or off his backhand, Rendon is one of the most reliable third basemen in the sport. He’s among the Nolan Arenado, Jose Ramirez, Justin Turner, Kris Bryant, and Alex Bregman‘s of the world at the position.
Last week, Arenado agreed to an eight-year, $260 million extension with the Colorado Rockies. The high-energy third baseman is the best player at his respective position which sets the market for future free agent third basemen. Well, it appears Rendon and his agent, Scott Boras, have a number in mind. According to a January report from The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, Rendon has requested a seven-year deal in excess of $160 million. Is that a lot of money for a player who has never been regarded as a superstar? Yes, but is Arenado $100 million better than Rendon?The @Nationals took a hit when star outfielder @Bharper3407 signed with the @Phillies. Now, the team can't afford to lose third baseman Anthony Rendon, and need to extend his contract this season,Click To Tweet
The Nationals’ issue is that while Rendon’s supposed contract request is reasonable, Harper’s official departure could drive up his price tag. Rendon has never been more valuable to the Nationals than he is right now. Yes, they still have a deep roster with Harper now in Philadelphia. With Rendon, 2018 NL Rookie of the Year finalist Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Eaton, Brian Dozier, Victor Robles, and Yan Gomes in place, the Nationals have a lineup capable of backing up its pitching staff on a nightly basis. At the same time, the removal of one significant figure, such as Rendon, could potentially deflate their offense.
The best thing the Nationals have going for them is their starting rotation. With Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and free agent signees Patrick Corbin (who was on the National League All-Star Game roster last season) and Anibal Sanchez in place, the Nationals are going to have one of the most formidable starting rotations in MLB this season. While their bullpen isn’t a potent unit, they will be getting a healthy Sean Doolittle — who is one of the best closers in the sport — to lockdown the ninth inning while they added right-handed relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough. Plus, with Jeremy Hellickson, Joe Ross, and Erick Fedde battling for the fifth spot in manager Dave Martinez‘s starting rotation, the two pitchers who don’t crack the rotation could bolster the team’s bullpen.
The biggest storyline surrounding the Nationals last season was Harper’s free agency. It dominated everyone’s thinking. Would they trade him at the MLB trade deadline? Would he re-sign with the Nationals? Will his offensive inconsistency damage his free agency? The Nationals missing the playoffs, Soto’s captivating rookie season, Scherzer’s Cy Young caliber season, and Rendon’s steady play were secondary headlines. The last thing the Nationals want is for Rendon’s upcoming free agency to be a distraction that becomes the central talking point of the organization.
The Nationals are as familiar with Boras as any team in MLB. In fact, former Nationals players such as Harper, Jayson Werth, and Gio Gonzalez, as well as current ones such as Rendon, Scherzer, Strasburg, Doolittle, Rosenthal, Hellickson, and Fedde are Boras clients. If Rendon hits the open market he could potentially wait for months to make a decision, and the Nationals could be forced to make a more significant offer to keep him; Harper’s departure may have only given Boras and Rendon more leverage in contract discussions.
The Nationals have been prepping themselves for life post-Harper over the last few years and been establishing a roster that can compete for the long haul. With Soto and Robles in the fold, a succession plan was in place for if and when Harper departed. There is no succession plan for Rendon. Any such plan internally would involve a middle infielder playing out of position such as Wilmer Difo, or former first-round pick Carter Kieboom; Rendon is the Nationals most irreplaceable everyday player.
A return to the playoffs this season isn’t far-fetched for the Nationals; they certainly have the talent to, at the very least, compete for a Wild Card seeding. With that said, their competition in the NL East is going to be stiff. The Atlanta Braves won the division last season at 90-72 and have an improving, young positional core; the Phillies added Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson, and J.T. Realmuto before signing Harper; the New York Mets added Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia, Wilson Ramos, Jed Lowrie, and Justin Wilson.
The Nationals losing Harper doesn’t come as a surprise, but losing the star outfielder and Rendon in back-to-back offseasons is a pill the franchise can’t swallow; they need to pony up the money to keep the homegrown product in the nation’s capital for the entirety of his prime.