Using prepared notes on his phone as reference, the 25-year-old franchise cornerstone made a statement before opening the floor to questions. He greeted his audience and declared he was excited about the upcoming season, that he couldn’t wait to get back to Washington and get started. He complimented his organization’s offseason roster acquisitions and coaching staff hires. He insisted his sole focus will be on helping the club win, to be the best player he can be every day.
Then he completed his two-minute monologue by directly addressing the $400 million elephant that will accompany him for the entire 2018 season, the final iteration before he’s slated to become one of the most sought-after free agents in professional sports history.
“Just want to let you guys know I will not be discussing anything relative to 2019, at all,” Harper said. “I’m focused on this year. I’m focused on winning and playing hard, like every single year. So if you guys have any questions about anything after 2018, you can call [agent Scott Boras] and he can answer you guys. So I’m not going to answer any questions. So if you guys do [ask] anything or talk about anything about that, then I’ll be walking right out the door.”
And with that warning, Harper, who will make $21.625 million this season, swatted away one of baseball’s biggest story lines for at least one day, though the subject was already broached in a meeting with Manager Dave Martinez.
“We worry about today,” Martinez said. “We really do, and he’s excited about getting going and having a good 2018 season. That’s his concern and that’s all we can ask. Do I wish he could be here? Yeah, of course. Who wouldn’t? But he understands.”
So instead of addressing free agency, he answered questions about other assorted topics less likely to break the internet in what has become his typical measured manner that has painted his mid-20s.
He said the bone bruise he suffered in his left knee last August, which put him on the disabled list until the final week of the regular season, didn’t hinder him during the offseason. He admitted not having Jayson Werth, a mentor for his first six major league seasons, will be strange, and he doesn’t know if he’s considered a veteran in his seventh season. He said when General Manager Mike Rizzo called to talk about the team during the offseason and mentioned the possibility of hiring Kevin Long as hitting coach, he was stunned to hear they could add one of baseball’s most respected gurus.
He reflected on the first three managers he played under as a major leaguer. He was grateful to Davey Johnson for giving him an opportunity as a teenager. Matt Williams helped him make a leap as a hitter. Dusty Baker taught him how to have fun and enjoy the game. In Dave Martinez, perhaps his final Nationals skipper, he envisions a fresh act that will provide a dimension those three predecessors didn’t, following a decade as bench coach under Joe Maddon.
“I think Davey’s going to do a great job for us, I really do,” Harper said. “I think he’s going to bring an analytic side of the game that we haven’t seen before. He’s going to bring a little more of a front office/stat kind of thing to the team as well. I think baseball’s turning to that side a lot more. I’m looking forward to it.”
He vouched for his brother Bryan, a 28-year-old left-handed reliever in his first big league camp after five on the minor league side. Bryce has envisioned him coming out of the bullpen at Nationals Park, running by him in right field. The thought gives him chills.
He said he was shocked by the Miami Marlins’ latest fire sale and expects the New York Mets to play the Nationals tough because they always seem to. And, to finish the session off, he strongly opined on the slow-moving free agent market that has left a record number of players, including some prominent names, unemployed this late.
“For me, if I’m an organization or a team, I want the best players on my team,” Harper said. “My fans deserve that. The players deserve that.
“There’s a guy like Jake Arrieta out there right now. I’d put him on my staff any day of the week. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game, one of the best playoff pitchers in the game,” he continued, also mentioning J.D. Martinez and Adam Lind by name. “I’m not sure what people are thinking, or anything like that. But if I’m a fan base or a team and you’re trying to lose ballgames to get the No. 1 pick, I’ll take a frickin’ Jayson Werth over a first-round pick any day of the week.”
Harper, of course, is on the Nationals because they were that bad at just the right time to nab him. His arrival coincided with a new era, a run of success that has produced four playoff appearances over the past six seasons. Each has ended in first-round disappointment. The goal this season is to finally break through in October. Beyond that is a mystery to the public, and Harper really doesn’t want to talk about it.