The notion that Bryce Harper, a high-profile prodigy since age 15, would someday end up with the Yankees, baseball’s highest profile team, is not new.
The idea has lingered in the shadows for years, and not without cause. Harper wears No. 34 because the sum of the parts is seven, the number Mickey Mantle wore with the Yankees. He has a healthy reverence for baseball history, and so much has been written in the Bronx. Harper always seemed destined for a game-changing contract, and the Yankees are one of the few teams that can be relied upon to give those.
But as reasonable as the speculation about Harper and the Yankees seemed, it might as well have ended Saturday morning when Giancarlo Stanton finally got the trade he wanted. He is a Yankee now, joining an outfield that already included 2017 American League Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge and is now so loaded with lumbering power hitters that it simply has no room for Harper in the foreseeable future. Stanton and Judge will both still be a part of the outfield when Harper hits free agency next winter. The Yankees, now burdened with what is the largest contract in major league history, seem unlikely to hand out the contract expected to eclipse it.
So from the Nationals’ perspective, the ramifications of the Stanton trade are twofold. One, they lose one of their most formidable in-division foes, the man who compiled a 1.001 OPS and 34 homers against them in his career. But perhaps more importantly, a potential and logical landing spot for Harper is now likely off the table.
In theory, the Yankees’ absence should help the Nationals, who will be pooling their resources to make a competitive offer for a player many teams will not be able to afford. If the Yankees are out of the picture, Harper’s choices are more limited. He has given many indications that he would prefer a big market, at least bigger than D.C., a team with a long history and high profile and all the baseball trappings. Executives around the game have indicated he will command a deal worth more than $400 million — perhaps even as high as $500 million — which is not a price many teams can afford. Pare down the list, and teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, and perhaps even the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Angels seem to fit those criteria. The Nationals will have competition for Harper’s services even if the Yankees do not bid. But they will probably have less of it now.
Whether Harper would take some kind of hometown discount for the Nationals is unclear, though his agent, Scott Boras, is not much for that kind of charity. Though Stephen Strasburg bucked the Boras trend when he signed his extension last season, Harper’s salary is set through 2018 — a move the Nationals made in the hopes of avoiding a contentious arbitration process this winter, and therefore maintaining as much goodwill as possible heading into his final season before free agency. They hired a manager, Dave Martinez, who built his baseball résumé working with Joe Maddon, who Harper has said he holds in high regard.
The Nationals are doing all they can to solidify their relationship with Harper before the free agent chase. With Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, Shawn Kelley and others coming off their payroll after the 2018 season, they should have a good chunk of money to commit to Harper if they need it — though they would have preferred to have the television revenue they feel is owed them in the MASN dispute and perhaps money from selling the naming rights to Nationals Park, to bolster their bottom line.
Still, their efforts might not matter as much as those of other teams, as much as how the market responds to Harper — particularly when stars like Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Charlie Blackmon and others, are also available in free agency. But one of the teams that seemed likely to intrigue Harper now seems unlikely to make a push for him. As the Nationals prepare to chase Harper next winter, the likely absence of the Yankees certainly can’t hurt.