But Harper’s future likely will not be determined this week. His seems likely to be a protracted process, spurred by agent Scott Boras’s stubborn patience and willingness to manipulate the market until the right deals emerge. As rumors fly and suitors come and go, the Nationals have plenty of non-Harper business to conduct. Indeed, they are one of the few teams that have attended to such business already.
When they traded for reliever Kyle Barraclough in October, then signed reliever Trevor Rosenthal last week, the Nationals signaled aggressiveness. They upgraded their bullpen with two established relievers, diminishing the pressure to make a big-name signing to pair with all-star closer Sean Doolittle. They can now pursue further relief help without exuding desperation.
Will that aggressive approach define the rest of their offseason? Time will tell. In theory, Harper’s free agency could handcuff the Nationals' ability to pursue free agents. If they are going to be paying one player $30 million, that will affect how many players they can pay $10 million, or even less. So far, those concerns do not seem to have slowed Rizzo. He and the Nationals cannot afford to stand still.
They need starting pitching, and will almost certainly make calls on the large crop of free agent starters that includes Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, playoff hero Nathan Eovaldi and others. They need a catcher, and have been among the most dogged pursuers of Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto over the last year. Other teams will likely jump into that pursuit now, but Wilson Ramos and others are available in free agency. The Nationals received less production from their catchers than any team in baseball last season. Even without a big-name signing, they can achieve a substantial production upgrade.
They also need a second baseman. Rizzo and his staff could decide Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick are a potent enough combination to split time there. Kendrick is 35, though, and missed most of the 2018 season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon. No. 2 prospect Carter Kieboom is moving through the system quickly, and perhaps Difo and Kendrick could hold a place. But Colorado Rockies second baseman D.J. LeMahieu and Oakland Athletics infielder Jed Lowrie are available in free agency, both of whom would give the Nationals a steady presence in the middle infield.
And the Nationals will need to upgrade their bench, namely by finding a left-handed hitting backup first baseman for Ryan Zimmerman. Matt Adams is a free agent again, one of many potential fits. Rizzo has options, and none of them will require emptying the vault. But he, like his colleagues, will have to navigate what could be a complicated market.
As informal trade discussions and free agent inquiries begin this week, no one in the industry is entirely sure what to expect. Will this winter continue last year’s trend, with veteran free agents unable to find deals and a sluggish market that picked up late? Or will prior norms return, aided by the bidding wars for Harper and Manny Machado, which could be powerful dominoes that send the rest of the market into action far sooner than last year?
For the first time since the 2013-14 offseason, Rizzo will be navigating the nuance without his right-hand man, Bob Miller. The Nationals' ownership group did not renew Miller’s contract in a surprise move many inside the organization are interpreting as a signal to Rizzo about who exactly is in charge on South Capitol Street. Rizzo and Miller began their front office careers with the Arizona Diamondbacks on the same day nearly 20 years ago. Miller was one of the few members of the tiny entourage Rizzo lugs to these GM meetings every year. That entourage will look different at these general manager meetings than it has in recent years.
These meetings are brief. They officially begin Tuesday, and many GMs head out by Wednesday evening. Fates are not often decided so soon. But Rizzo and his staff will have few quiet days this winter, and the time they spend in Carlsbad this week will not qualify. Perhaps as much as they have ever been, the Nationals will be at the center of an offseason churning with possibility. The winds will begin to pick up Tuesday, and might not slow for months.