WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On the eve of the Washington Nationals’ first official spring workout, with players passing through the facility and a gray cloud hanging above them, the questions coursing through baseball made their way into the team’s clubhouse.
The Nationals’ pitchers and catchers reported Wednesday, doing no more than tossing lightly under a spitting rain and getting physicals before they take the field together Thursday. But jerseys still hung in every locker — each a clean, unwrinkled white — and none of them belonged to Bryce Harper. The Nationals still can’t say Harper won’t rejoin them soon, at least with any true certainty, making it possible that a revamped roster is not quite complete. Harper has not signed with a team as spring training begins in Florida and Arizona this week. Neither has shortstop Manny Machado, the other 26-year-old star of this free agent class, or pitcher Dallas Keuchel or reliever Craig Kimbrel and so on.
“Oh, boy. Figured that question was going to come,” said right fielder Adam Eaton when asked about Harper and Machado’s free agency. “I mean . . . It’s tough to say. I don’t want to out-kick my coverage when I speak but those guys should be playing and should be on a team, period. They need an offer that’s close to what they want and I think both sides need to be realistic with the whole situation and realize that and get these guys signed as well. As well as others.”
This all makes it hard to know how this season will look, for the Nationals, their players and the sport. The Harper and Machado signings will shift the competitive landscape in divisions and leagues. So could whatever happens with Keuchel and Kimbrel and the handful of other talented players who are still team-less. The transactions may also alter the short-term futures for a number of players, those who could have their spots taken but have to otherwise proceed as if they are safe.
Just ask Eaton. If Harper returned to the Nationals — should ownership decide to spend well above the competitive balance tax threshold — he would almost certainly play right field, with Juan Soto in left and some mix of Victor Robles and Michael A. Taylor in center. That squeezes Eaton out of the outfield equation, and would make him a logical trade piece. And he’s been around long enough to know it.
“It affects me, for sure. Definitely affects me,” said Eaton, 30, of whether Harper returns or not. “I train to pay 162 [games]. That’s all I can think about. That’s all I can really control. Going to leave it at that.”
Nationals closer Sean Doolittle has been critical of this offseason, believing that many have been hurt by the slow drip of the free agent market and widespread unwillingness to spend. That’s not just Harper and Machado, Doolittle notes, but also what he referred to as the “middle class of baseball,” the serviceable players being passed up for younger, cheaper options. But when thinking of Harper, his teammate for the last two seasons, Doolittle found room for humor on Wednesday.
The Nationals have a mannequin in their clubhouse that is modeling their new spring training uniforms. Doolittle joked that he looked up and thought the mannequin was Harper, lingering where his locker was the past two springs, ready to take the field for the only professional team for which he has ever played.
“I don’t know, I think a lot of us have heard so many rumors and they seem to change every few days that it’s not something that we are holding our breath for, like . . . ‘Is he going to walk through those doors right now?’ ” Doolittle said. “I think we’re excited about the group that we have here right now. I hope there is a way that he could join us because you look at what some other teams in the NL East and around the National League, what they’ve done, and he would still be a really welcomed addition in our lineup.
“But I think at the end of the day, more than anything, guys want to see him get what’s best for himself, get a good deal.”
For Harper, that was once thought to be a decade-long contract for $300 million or $350 million or maybe even more. But it is unclear if he can still demand that kind of deal, and the Nationals’ 10-year, $300 million offer expired when free agency began on Oct. 29. No other offers have been publicized since, and the Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, Chicago White Sox and Nationals are figured to be the teams interested in signing him. Opening Day is only 44 days away.
And so the league remains in the dark with those franchises stuck in an odd balancing act. They will prepare with the team they have now, knowing there is still a chance one of the best players in baseball may still join the mix.
“You just kind of wait for something to happen. There isn’t much news to report on, it doesn’t look like,” said Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg, who has been a franchise cornerstone with Harper since 2012. “There’s a lot of speculation. It’s unfortunate, for sure. Everybody knows those are some of the best players in the game and here we are, pitchers and catchers are starting tomorrow. I don’t know why any team would not want to have their guy ready to go for the start of the season. But it seems like the clock is ticking.”