Bryce Harper is one of the best talents and players in Major League Baseball. He is the face of the Washington Nationals. But re-signing him is not a no-brainer for the Nationals organization. From their perspective, it’s a battle of heart versus necessity.
Going into the 2018 season, the biggest storyline surrounding the Nationals was Harper’s looming free agency. And the Nationals falling out of the playoff picture in the summer turned all eyeballs to the 25-year-old’s financial situation. Does he want to stay with the team that helped make him the player he is today? Does he want to cash in on a big payday elsewhere for the sake of simply pursuing a change of scenery? Could the dollar signs potentially exceed $400 million?
Harper began this season strong but went through a massive slump where his average dropped as far as .209. And, for the year, he totaled a career-high 169 strikeouts. Then, once the Nationals decided to not trade him at the trade deadline, Harper came back to life. And while his .249 batting average isn’t All-Star-esque, the 25-year-old posted a .393 on-base percentage and drew a career-high 130 walks while totaling 34 home runs and a career-high 100 RBIs. He also showcased the ability to be a reliable center fielder this season — a position which he hadn’t played on a consistent basis since his rookie season (2012).
Harper is one of the best outfielders in the game. He has a great arm, can get behind any fly ball, and is versatile. His defensive skill set, age, and power bat are key components to why he appears poised to cash in on a record-setting contract — whether his production screams those figures or not.
So, this should be a slam dunk for the Nationals. They should accommodate Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, with the money they seek and not think twice. Right?
Since the day he came on the scene as a 19-year-old, the Nationals and the baseball community have thought the world of Harper, and rightfully so. Sure, it took him three years to have that breakout season at the plate, but there’s no denying Harper’s talent. In 2015, he hit .330 to go along with a .460 on-base percentage, 42 home runs and 99 RBIs — which was pivotal in him being crowned the National League Most Valuable Player.
With that said, consistency has been an issue for Harper. After his 2015 MVP-season, he hit just .243 the ensuing season. While he bounced back in 2017 and was putting together a superb season before suffering a bizarre knee injury landing on the first base bag, Harper’s puzzling 2018 season raises an important question: will the team that ultimately signs him be getting an MVP force, or a player who constantly gives off the vibe that he can be consistently great, but never is?
If the Nationals want to prioritize re-signing Harper, it would be hard to blame them. The Nationals wanting to just let him walk would be ridding themselves of a player who helped put them on the baseball map. At the same time, this is a team with several holes to fill on its roster.
For starters, the Nationals starting rotation has multiple questions marks surrounding its reliability going forward. Outside of Max Scherzer, who continues to punch his ticket to Cooperstown, there is uncertainty surrounding the starters in place. After putting together an ace-caliber season in 2017, Stephen Strasburg was hit with the injury bug once more and was limited to 22 starts this season. Will he ever return to form, or be able to start 30-plus games a season in the coming years?
Tanner Roark went through a second consecutive underwhelming season, recording a 4.34 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. Will the 31-year-old ever return to the steady force he once was? Can Joe Ross and Erick Fedde prove themselves capable of being permanent pieces in the Nationals rotation? With uncertainty surrounding everyone not named Scherzer, management will likely look to free agency or the trade market to add a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Someone along the lines of J.A. Happ or Nathan Eovaldi would fit the bill.
A once-dominant Nationals bullpen is now once again its biggest weakness. If they wish to have a stellar pitching staff from top to bottom, GM Mike Rizzo needs to add multiple reliable backend relievers. New York Yankees righty David Robertson or their own pending free agents such as the injured Kelvin Herrera and veteran Greg Holland would fit the description of need. Maybe they extend an offer to Andrew Miller?
Management has been unable to find a franchise catcher, or someone who can stay in place for a long duration since Wilson Ramos‘ 2016 free agent departure. Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom have been unable to get into any groove offensively, and Matt Wieters will be a free agent after this season. Maybe they look to bring back Ramos, or extend an offer to Oakland Athletics catcher Jonathan Lucroy in free agency?
After trading Daniel Murphy to the Chicago Cubs in August, the Nationals opted to roll with Wilmer Difo and Adrian Sanchez at second base, but neither one of them has broken out or proven that they’re the long-term solution at the middle infield position. Perhaps the Nationals turn to a stacked second base free agent class, which features DJ LeMahieu, Brian Dozier, Jed Lowrie, and Murphy, for help.
Signing or trading for a reliable starting pitcher, bullpen aid, a catcher, and a second baseman will involve spending a lot of money. But with Harper’s $21.6 million, Murphy’s $17.5 million, Gio Gonzalez‘ $12 million, Wieters $10.5 million, and Ryan Madson‘s $7.5 million salaries officially coming off the books, the Nationals will have the flexibility to fill the gaping holes on their roster.
Do the Nationals want to go all-in on Harper in free agency and worry about finances and needs afterwards, or make themselves a more complete team? There’s legitimacy to each argument. On one hand, they’d be keeping one of the best players in the game, will keep filling seats, insert optimism into their fanbase, and ownership wouldn’t have to worry about losing face. Plus, if Harper ends up signing with, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers or Chicago Cubs, the Nationals would have to play through his new and bolstered ballclub in the playoffs. Or, even worse, if he goes to the rival Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals would have to see Harper at least 19 times a season and be reminded of the decision they made.
Meanwhile, signing Harper would prevent the Nationals from improving to the point where their future could be anything more than competing for a Wild Card seeding. And if they keep him, and do little to improve their roster elsewhere, can you definitively say that the Nationals will even make the playoffs?
Look around the National League East. The Atlanta Braves have one of the best young cores in the game, and they will likely improve in the coming years. While the Phillies fell off a cliff in the second half of the season, they too possess a promising young core. The New York Mets have disappointed in recent memory, but they have one of the best starting rotations in the game and some intriguing position players.
The Nationals have a promising young core too. With Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Victor Robles, and Juan Soto in place, they have the bats and talent to be a force to be reckoned with in the near future. But the biggest storyline surrounding their young core is Soto.
After they were hit with a number of injuries to their outfielders, Rizzo and the Nationals decided to call up Soto from Double-A, and he was a spectacle. Hitting .292 to go along with a .406 on-base percentage, 22 home runs, and 70 RBIs in just 116 games, the 19-year-old may be the focal point of the Nationals future. Much like Harper, Soto came on the scene at 19, knocked the cover off the ball, and earned a permanent starting job. Is Soto’s success enough to convince management to let Harper walk and go with Soto, the flashy Robles (who also impressed this season and was the team’s top prospect heading into 2018), and Adam Eaton as their starting outfield? It’s not the perfect defensive grouping, as a whole, but the three outfielders have shown that they can be profound elements of an offense.
Harper has said he loves DC and the Nationals fans (which he explained in detail in an interview with Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post); he seems sincere. You can speculate what Twitter and Instagram posts mean about someone’s future. But, at the end of the day, working under the mindset that Harper wants to stay with the Nationals, it’ll be up to management to offer him a contract he can’t refuse, or at least match other teams’ offers.
Harper and the Nationals have never escaped the National League Division Series. But even in their inability to get over the playoff hump, Harper delivered some memorable moments. Whether it be him hitting three home runs in four games against the San Francisco Giants in the 2014 NLDS (one of which went into the Pacific Ocean), or his monumental blast against the Chicago Cubs in Game 2 of the 2017 NLDS, which helped get the Nationals back in the series, Harper has delivered some unforgettable moments for the Nationals.
To this day, a picture of Jayson Werth and the Nationals celebrating after his walk-off home run in Game 4 of their 2012 NLDS matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals hangs near the center field entrance in Nationals Park — despite them going on to lose Game 5 in heartbreaking fashion. Based on how they cherish Werth’s epic moment, imagine how they will recognize Harper’s efforts?
Losing Harper would be a gut punch for the Nationals. But if they sign the All-Star outfielder to the largest contract in sports history, they won’t be able to do much else to improve their ballclub. It’s a decision that this organization will be judged on for eternity.