The Washington Nationals have never escaped the NLDS and own the fourth-highest payroll in baseball. So what’s the point of them investing $60-plus million per year in Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy past 2018?
Next winter, both Harper and Murphy will hit the free agent market, which significantly impacts the Nationals’ future. Harper is the team’s most marketable and well-known player. He’s an MVP winner and, when healthy, one of the most intimidating players in baseball. And Murphy has been a glue guy in his two years with the Nats. Putting together back-to-back MVP-caliber seasons at the plate hitting .347 and .322 as well as driving in a career-high 104 runs in 2016, the second baseman has established himself as one of the best pure hitters in MLB. There’s no denying the duo’s worth to the Nats; they’re two of the best hitters and players at their respective positions. But the contracts they will likely demand put the Nats in a difficult position.
For starters, Harper’s asking price is going to exceed $400 million, according to the New York Post‘s Joel Sherman. While he is certainly, when healthy, one of baseball’s more potent figures, Harper is not worth a contract of that magnitude to a team like the Nationals. Yes, he has won an MVP, but durability and inconsistency have been two key liabilities over the duration of the 25-year-old’s career. He has only appeared in 150-plus games once, and his OPS+ alternates yearly between excellent and about 15 percent better than average. For what it’s worth, while he’s five years older than Harper, J.D. Martinez is coming off a four-year run with a combined 149 OPS+, and he just agreed to a $110 million deal with the Boston Red Sox. Harper is younger and clearly better on defense than Martinez, but is he really worth more than twice as much per year?
Another model to base Harper’s value on is New York Yankees outfielder/designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton. The right-fielder signed a 13-year, $325 million deal when he was with the Miami Marlins before the 2015 season. Stanton, the 2017 NL MVP, is regarded as one of the best power hitters and all-around outfielders in the game. Regardless of whether you view him as better or worse than Harper, is Stanton worth $100 million less than him?
At the same time, Harper is, undoubtedly, one of the best outfielders in MLB. He has a cannon for an arm, is capable of getting behind fly balls with ease, is decisive, and still is just 25 years old. That aspect of Harper’s game makes him a great all-around player. Based on the complete skill set, youth, and his two best seasons in the majors coming in the last three years, Harper has the potential to grow into an even bigger force down the road. Big-market and/or highly competitive teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Red Sox, and Yankees will not hesitate to pay up and bank on him garnering consistency.
On the other hand, while he may not request as much money in total, Murphy is destined to cash in on a huge contract. He has put together two captivating seasons at the plate and played his position much better than years past. However, being 32 years old, many teams will view the second baseman as a candidate to cash in a short-term deal rather than a long-term one. But he could very well be in store for contract offers in excess of $20 million a year. If the Nats are intent on keeping one of Harper or Murphy, chances are they’re going to prioritize re-signing the homegrown product because he’s seven years younger than the second baseman.
As a contender, it’s imperative to keep your core intact to remain a powerhouse ballclub, but the Nationals are MLB’s biggest pretender. They’ve won the NL East four times in the last six years, but have never won a playoff series. How does 2018 present a different result? For reasons known only to them, the Nats are unable to overcome the mental hurdle of getting out of the first round. They didn’t make a significant offseason trade or free agent signing, which is a sign that they are banking on the talent in place blossoming and getting over the hump.
The notion surrounding the Nats is that when Harper and/or Murphy leave, they will fall back into the abyss they were once in, which is a huge misconception. For starters, Max Scherzer (who’s under contract through 2021) and Stephen Strasburg (who’s under contract through 2023 with an opt-out after 2019) will be in place for the foreseeable future and the two make for one of the most formidable one-two pitching punches in MLB. The Nats also possess one of the best left sides in baseball. Last season, third baseman Anthony Rendon was an MVP candidate and continued to grow into one of the game’s best third basemen. Whether it be his long range, cannon arm, or contact bat, the third baseman is one of the best all-around players in the game. Finishing 2017 with career-highs in average (.301), home runs (25) and RBIs (100), Rendon solidified his place as one of the premier third basemen in the game. Under contract through 2020, he’ll be a focal part of whatever direction management goes in the next few years.
Rendon’s infield mate, shortstop Trea Turner, is one of the more up- and-coming stars in MLB. Despite missing over two months to injury last season, the shortstop was able to play at a high level. Hitting .284 and driving the ball, he was able to overcome adversity that was the injury bug. He also wreaks havoc on the basepaths. Stealing 79 bags over his last 171 games, Turner has showcased the ability to change the course of a game with his legs, whether it be stealing the first chance he gets or beating out groundballs.
In addition to the budding and already established MLB talent, the Nats have outfielder and top prospect Victor Robles as well as second baseman Wilmer Difo — who are both potential franchise-changing players. Robles is capable of getting behind any fly ball, has wheels, and hits for contact. The outfielder could very well find himself taking over in centerfield next season if Michael Taylor struggles even a little bit. He could also potentially take over for Harper in right if the Nats decide to part ways after this season. The same goes for Brian Goodwin, who hit .251 with 13 home runs and 30 RBIs in 74 games in 2017.
With Murphy hitting free agency next offseason, Difo will most likely be his successor. Last season, Difo appeared in 124 games and impressed. Hitting .271 and holding his own in the field, the second baseman made a good showing for himself to potentially start long-term. Difo can also play around the diamond. Whether it be shortstop, third and second base, or all three outfield positions, the 25-year-old is versatile, which makes him even more valuable. Former first-round pick Carter Kieboom is also in the team’s farm system, but with Turner manning his position for the foreseeable future, it’ll be difficult for the shortstop to crack manager Dave Martinez‘s lineup, unless they transform him into a second baseman. Then, he and Difo could battle to start at second base. Or if Martinez can’t find a role for Kieboom in the majors, perhaps management could use him to acquire Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, whom they’ve been linked to all offseason.
The Nats are plagued with playoff mediocrity. If they’re not able to reach the World Series or even make it out of the NLDS in 2018, what’s the point of committing to Harper and Murphy on mega deals? Why not commit to the youth and build around Rendon, Turner, and Robles? And extending qualifying offers to both Harper and Murphy — which they would decline — can provide Washington with draft compensation which could potentially deepen their young core down the road.
Harper has been the identity for the Nationals and Murphy was a key component to the team’s 2016 revival and made their rivalry with the New York Mets more intense. Unfortunately for Washington, the two, Harper in particular, will seek a rich payday and rightfully so; management is just in a position where they cannot facilitate those deals if the demands aren’t lowered. Letting Harper walk would be the hardest decision management has ever made. But with one of the game’s highest payrolls, a bevy of young talent, and an inability to find playoff success, the Nats may have to break their own hearts and part ways with Harper after this season.