Washington Nationals need to sign Harper and Dunn

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010; 8:12 PM

When you're climbing the mountain from being the worst team in baseball all the way up toward respectability and perhaps beyond, you can't afford to slip. The trek has been too hard, the bad memories too debilitating and the cost of a tumble too great.

The Nationals are on that slippery slope again. "We've come too far," said Ryan Zimmerman, whose team has passed eight clubs in the standings so far this season. "No steps backward."

That's why the rest of this month, not on the field, but in contract negotiations with vital players, is so important.

On Monday, the Nats must sign Bryce Harper. This is as clean a shot as any team ever has at signing a hitter, for less than Stephen Strasburg money, who has a better-than-even chance of becoming an all-star.

As soon as the Nats recover from their migraines after negotiating with agent Scott Boras, they better turn their attention - in a hurry - to a three-year extension with Adam Dunn, a deal that, according to sources close to the slugger, can be done for about $40 million, much less than has been rumored.

The first crisis comes Monday at midnight, the deadline to sign Harper. Last year, Boras and General Manager Mike Rizzo reached a deal for Strasburg with 77 seconds left. My over-under this time around: seven seconds, in honor of Harper's favorite player, No. 7, Mickey Mantle.

The contract debate will focus on finding comparables to the supposedly incomparable Harper. Is he more like Arizona all-star outfielder Justin Upton, whose $6.5-million deal in '05 is the record for a player at age 17? The Nats would like that comparison.

Or, as Boras proclaims, is the Las Vegas teenager really much more analogous to power hitters like Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez. Both of them were all-stars at 20.

"I've never seen a 17-year-old player with power like Harper, and I've seen 'em all," Boras said Thursday. "Griffey and A-Rod were not close to Bryce at that age.

"Actually, I didn't see Mickey Mantle. But I found a scout who once talked to a scout who saw Mantle at 17, and he said Harper has more opposite-field power than Mickey."

Boras practices negotiation by inundation, but at least he interrupts the flow of data to laugh at himself once every hour.

The facts on Dunn should be unquestionable. In the end, Harper's future is a projection. Dunn's is a straight-line extrapolation. The sport hasn't realized yet that Dunn has learned to expand his strike zone this season, draw a third less walks but build an N.L.-leading mountain of extra-base hits and homers. After working with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, he's actually improving at age 30 as a run-producing slugger. The Nats better wake up. This guy isn't just getting older; he's getting better. Weigh the two.

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