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.
And he's found a defensive position - sort of. After getting jerked around all year without any contract offer, then being named in every trade-dead-line deal and finally put on the waiver wire, it's a minor miracle he still wants to stay in D.C. But he does.
Getting both contracts done would cap a crucial credibility-building period in the stewardship of the Lerner family.
However, if Harper is fumbled away or Dunn wanders back to his hometown of Houston this winter as a free agent, then the old worries return. Do the Nats, even as Stephen Strasburg's arrival gives them entree to the town's good graces, know what it takes to win games and fans?
In the Harper case, the contract debate will probably have Rizzo and Boras screaming at each other as midnight approaches, just as they did last year over Strasburg. But this time, the argument will be over a few million, not $10 million. Besides, as such mongoose-cobra relationships go, Rizzo and Boras slither along together fairly well. Their silence so far, with no feuds, bodes well.
Harper will probably get more than Upton, who was drafted by Arizona (whose farm director then was Rizzo). Harper has proved he can hit with a wooden bat against junior college pitching. That edges Upton, who signed out of high school.
However, there's no way Harper rates as highly as the top amateur hitter ever, Mark Teixeira, who got $10 million in 2001 baseball dollars. Teixeira was 21, full grown, a model citizen at Georgia Tech and had destroyed the best college pitching, not just JUCOs. As recently as this spring, Harper was still talking in awe about the need to adjust to the first "91-mph fastballs" he had ever faced. He did. But there are no 17-year-old mortal lock hitters.
Still, the list of teenage hitters taken No. 1 overall is jam-packed with superstars. The chances of Harper being great, and staying healthy for many years, are probably better than the odds on any pitcher doing the same - even Strasburg, who's just back from the DL.
Harper has tweeted about going back to his junior college in the desert again next season. Riiiiight. To do what? Hit 31 homers, sweat bullets and win the Golden Spikes Award? He already did that.
Harper is going to sign. Why? Rizzo knows his value. The Lerners know they're getting either a bargain or a great bargain. Boras knows Harper has pointed for this day all his life and will never be worth more. They all know the Upton-to-Teixeira salary comps - adjusted for inflation. And all the adults at the table know if this deal gets screwed up, they'll all be drawn and quartered.
Getting a Dunn deal finished shouldn't even be that hard. For weeks, reports have said Dunn wanted $60 million for four years. "That's not true," said one of Dunn's best baseball friends, who talked with him recently but requested anonymity so that Dunn wouldn't hurt him when they hand-slap at home plate after his home runs. "Adam said he wants $13 to 14 million for three years. That's it. And he wants to stay in Washington.
"Isn't this a no-brainer?"
Compared to Ryan Howard's borderline-insane $125-million, five-year contract extension in Philly, it sure is.
But the clock is ticking. No 300-home run hitter has ever re-signed with the same team once he finally got his free agent freedom. The Nats have pushed the idea for weeks that Dunn can still be signed in the off-season. Nonsense. They're either deluding themselves or deceiving their customers.
For 20 months, the Lerners have been passing basic baseball tests. They're learning a new business. But the climb doesn't stop. Take a step backward, and the fall can be further than you think.