CARLSBAD, Calif. — For all the Bryce Harper talk at baseball’s general managers' meetings this week — all of which is warranted — the Washington Nationals do have another star-level talent with a not-so-certain future.
Unlike Harper, Anthony Rendon is not a free agent. But like Harper, the star third baseman is a player worth building a roster around, and he could become a free agent after next season if the Nationals do not extend his contract. It would seem that Harper and Rendon are linked, that the Nationals could not consider extending Rendon’s deal until Harper’s situation settles one way or another. But Washington General Manager Mike Rizzo does not see it that way.
Rizzo told The Washington Post on Tuesday that the Nationals have “made efforts” to extend Rendon’s contract in the past year. The Nationals also offered Harper $300 million for 10 years at the tail end of September, according to multiple people with knowledge of the terms. That included no opt-outs and would have been the biggest free agent deal in the history of U.S. sports, but Harper did not accept, and a leaguewide bidding for his services has begun.
“I don’t think they’re contingent on each other, no. I do not,” Rizzo said Tuesday of the status of Harper and Rendon. “When you’re talking about an extension, it’s got to be the right extension.”
Rendon is in his final year of arbitration eligibility, and MLB Trade Rumors projects he is worth $17.6 million for 2019. The 28-year-old had another standout year in 2018, finishing with 24 home runs, 92 RBI, 88 runs and a career-high .308 batting average in 136 games. He has established himself as one of baseball’s more valuable players — judging by analytics, traditional metrics or otherwise — and he has the majors' seventh-most wins above replacement across the past three seasons, according to FanGraphs. Harper ranks 34th in WAR in that same time frame, one spot ahead of Nationals shortstop Trea Turner, so it can be argued that Rendon is an even more critical element of the Nationals' plans.
People familiar with the Harper negotiations indicated that the Nationals' late-September offer is now off the table; there was an expiration date to allow the organization to assess its offseason options accordingly. That could make extending Rendon’s contract an even higher priority than it was before. But even if Harper re-signs — and it has been suggested that the Nationals could make another offer — Rizzo is confident he could still solidify Rendon’s future. The general manager does not think Rendon’s salary for 2019, which would probably be settled before going to arbitration, would be that much different from the average annual value of a potential long-term deal. That means he believes Harper and Rendon could exist on the same payroll if the contract terms are in the range he is picturing.
Harper and Rendon are represented by agent Scott Boras, who is known to hold off on negotiating long-term contracts until his players are free agents. That allows multiple teams to bid on a player, as they are about to do for Harper, and only drives up the price. But there is precedent for a Boras client signing a big contract before hitting the open market: In 2016, Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg signed a seven-year, $175 million extension about six months before he would have become a free agent. Rendon has not indicated how he wants to handle the situation, but he is certainly not one to follow the pack. He is the rare all-star-caliber athlete who hides from the spotlight. He is a light presence in the clubhouse, often joking with teammates before and after games, but he would rather play baseball than talk about it with reporters.
But he does seem happy in Washington, with the success he has had, with the routines he has built, with the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy kids who have grown close to his heart. It all looks like the makings of a future with the Nationals. The franchise is surely hoping so.
“He’s one of the guys we’d love to have here long-term. We’re certainly going to make an effort to do that,” Rizzo said, and it seems those conversations have already begun.
Chelsea Janes contributed reporting.