Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo co-hosted this week’s GM Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., with Kansas City Royals General Manager Dayton Moore, but he wasn’t one of the relatively buzz-free meetings’ high-profile decision-makers. Throngs of reporters weren’t gathering around him to ask questions about the Nationals’ offseason activity. Speculation didn’t swirl about his club’s plans. Rizzo and the Nationals, for the most part, slid into the background as Giancarlo Stanton trade talks and Shohei Ohtani speculation churned.
Rizzo left Lake Buena Vista on Wednesday afternoon, not to fly back to Washington, but to drive south to West Palm Beach for the first of three planned offseason meetings with his new coaching staff, a year away from taking center stage. A year from now those hordes of reporters will tail him. Rumors will run rampant. A year from now, Bryce Harper will headline perhaps the strongest free-agent class in baseball history — which could include Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, Josh Donaldson, and Charlie Blackmon — and Rizzo and the Nationals will face the biggest offseason in their short history in Washington.
That is if Rizzo is still the Nationals’ general manager a year from now. Rizzo is entering the final year of his contract. The deal is set to expire next Halloween, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, meaning Washington could have someone else leading the charge in retaining Harper, one of baseball’s transcendent talents and one that some in the industry reportedly believe could garner a $500 million contract. Rizzo said ownership has not approached him to discuss a contract extension.
“I will allow them to talk to me if they choose to,” Rizzo said. “I’m not worried about it. I’m not worried about my situation. As I said prior to this, my reputation and my resume is on the field and I feel comfortable with where I’m at and where this team is at and my total focus is to prepare for the 2018 season.”
Rizzo, 56, will have considerable leverage; he probably gives Washington the best chance to keep Harper. The two have formed a strong relationship since the right fielder was selected No. 1 overall in the 2010 draft. Would the Nationals risk potentially alienating Harper at the absolute worst time?
On Wednesday, Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, said he and the club haven’t discussed Harper’s future beyond 2018 and when they do talk will be up to the club. The Nationals are open to discussing an extension. There will likely be at least some dialogue this winter. Whether that produces a deal is another matter. Boras’s clients, with few exceptions including Stephen Strasburg, usually try their luck in free agency. The baseball industry expects Harper will follow that pattern.
Harper, as Rizzo emphasized, isn’t the only National whose contract will expire after next season. Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Wieters, Ryan Madson, and Shawn Kelley are also slated to become free agents. That’s an approximate total of $75 million coming off the books — significant funds that will provide the Nationals ample flexibility in the marketplace.
‘We always have that global view,” Rizzo said. “It’s not just a couple guys … There’s a lot of money that could potentially come off next year. But, obviously, we have an opportunity to utilize that money as we see fit, whether signing our own or going out onto the market.”
Harper will be the top priority. He’ll be a 26-year-old, seven-year veteran entering his prime after nearly a decade of all-star-level production. Franchises around the league — from coast to coast, contenders and rebuilders alike — will throw their hats in the sweepstakes. It’ll be something reminiscent of Kevin Durant’s NBA free agency two summers ago. Harper’s decision could change the baseball landscape and alter the course of Nationals history for the next decade.
“We’re not preparing anything other than what we always do, the one-, three-, five-year projections on payroll and player availability and that kind of stuff,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to do our due diligence and preparation. We don’t have a targeted plan to handle that 2019 free agent class.”
It will all, of course, center on Harper. A year from now, he’ll be the talk of the offseason. And the Nationals, subsequently, will be, too. For now, they’re in the background, preparing for what could be the final run with Bryce Harper in a Nationals uniform.