Ryan Zimmerman gets asked the question all the time. He doesn’t know any more than they do, he tells them. Just because he has been a National forever doesn’t mean he knows where Bryce Harper will sign.
Hitting coach Kevin Long said he had gone so far as to consult with Harper this offseason — about his picks for his appearance on ESPN’s “College GameDay” a week ago.
“He tends to go MIA this time of year,” Long said. “ . . . But we really haven’t talked in depth about where he’s going. I hope it’s here, but I don’t know.”
On Saturday of the team’s annual WinterFest at Nationals Park, Manager Dave Martinez counted at least 10 fans who asked him to bring Harper back.
“Obviously, I’ve got no answers,” Martinez said. “He’s got big decisions to make. Big decisions.”
General Manager Mike Rizzo didn’t have an answer about Harper, either. He said he doesn’t know when he might get one.
“They haven’t showed their hand either way as far as what their timeline is,” Rizzo said. “I think their timeline is: When they get the deal they feel comfortable with, I think they’re gonna move. I don’t think there’s anything urgency on their part.”
As the question of where Harper might go consumes the baseball world, Rizzo and his staff have not been content to let the rest of their roster take care of itself. By the time much of the Nationals' 40-man roster and coaching staff convened in D.C. this weekend, Rizzo had added late-inning relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough and catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, who will combine to fill one of the gaping holes that existed in their roster entering this winter. They have been one of the more aggressive teams in baseball this offseason, undeterred by Harper’s looming decision, which could have profound implications for their future either way.
“I think that the Bryce situation and filling some of the other things that we’re trying to do are independent of each other,” Rizzo said. “We’ve always been an organization that ownership has given us the resources to do what we need to do to build a championship-caliber club and I don’t see that changing.”
In other words, Rizzo plans to proceed independent of Harper’s decision, to the extent that such a thing is possible with questions constantly swirling.
Among the other things on his checklist: A proven starter. He and Mark Lerner took free agent left-hander Patrick Corbin out to dinner and showed him around Nationals Park earlier this week.
“We have interest in him. We had a nice discussion with him. I had a personal discussion with him. He wanted to come down and see what we had down here and visit the city and the clubhouse,” Rizzo said. “I thought that was a positive reaction by him. I’m not going to read too much into it.”
But one can read into the fact that the Nationals hosted Corbin, who is expected to make nine figures this winter. They already needed front-line starting pitching, and Rizzo admitted their rotation depth diminished further when they traded Jefry Rodriguez to the Indians in the Gomes deal Friday evening. Rizzo indicated the Nationals saw Rodriguez as a long-man-in-the-bullpen type. But they need as many potential starting candidates as they can get.
“Mike, he’ll get something done,” Martinez said. “Right now, we’ve got three, four good starting pitchers. We could add one more, maybe two, who knows.”
The Nationals still need to add to their bench. They feel good about their second-base situation, Rizzo said. They hope Howie Kendrick will be ready for regular duty after tearing his Achilles' tendon in May. If he isn’t, Wilmer Difo can spell him. And then, as Rizzo put it “we have two studs” in the minor league system who are “more than capable” of playing second base. One of those studs is Carter Kieboom, who finished last season in Class AA. The other is Luis Garcia, who is 18 years old and finished last season at Class A.
But another, less talked-about priority might be securing the future of Anthony Rendon, the perpetually underrated third baseman who has been as crucial to the success of the Nationals' lineup over the last few seasons as anyone. Rizzo said last month that the Nationals had talked about an extension with the 28-year-old, who will be a free agent after this season. Saturday, he reiterated his desire to sign Rendon long-term.
“I think we should [try to sign him to an extension]. And I think we have [tried]. And I think we will continue to do so,” Rizzo said. “He’s a guy that we drafted, signed and developed and he’s one of our own. He’s a terrific player that nobody talks about.”
Rendon is represented by Scott Boras, who also represents Harper. Rizzo deadpanned that he has done business with Boras before. But no one is talking about Rizzo’s conversations about Rendon, or even some of Boras’s other clients, like free agent starter Dallas Keuchel. Until Harper makes his decision, the Nationals will operate under his shadow, checking things off the list, seemingly unfettered by his decision, but unable to escape the one question nobody seems able to answer.
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