WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Let this serve as a reminder: It is February 2017, still more than five weeks before the upcoming season begins. Between now and Bryce Harper’s potential free agency, late in the fall of 2018, the Washington Nationals will play 324 regular season baseball games. They will aim to win at least one playoff series, and maybe more. They will send representatives to two All-Star Games — including the 2018 version, held right at Nationals Park, where Harper has pledged to participate in the Home Run Derby.
Yet we’re preparing for Harper’s Washington swan song? Two seasons before it happens?
“I get it,” Harper said Thursday, sitting at a table on a patio outside the Nats’ cafeteria here, workout behind him, season still ahead. He ticked off the names in that epic free agent class: Manny Machado and Matt Harvey, not to mention Josh Donaldson and Andrew McCutchen and potentially Clayton Kershaw, with Mike Trout to follow a year later.
“It’s so many guys people see develop, and develop with one team, and it’s like, ‘Man, where’s he going?’ ” Harper said. “ ‘Where’s that guy going? Can they both go there? Could they both go here? Does he want to stay there?’
“It’s part of the process. For me — and I’ve always said this, and I’m so true to this — I don’t look ahead. I can’t. It’s not fair to myself. I’ve really got to sit down and look at right now. That’s two years down the road. I have two whole seasons to worry about. I have to take care of those two seasons. That’s what’s important.”
So let’s breathe a little bit, and enjoy what could be about to happen. February games mean next to nothing for established players, but darned if all of MLB didn’t take note when Harper launched a mammoth homer with his first swing of the spring, then followed with an opposite-field single on his next cut. This all happened, by the way, for the Nats against the Mets.
If you have landed here to discover likely destinations for Harper in 2019 and beyond, stop reading now. There will be a time and a place for palace intrigue. But let’s put the tea leaves back in the cupboard for a while and instead read what Harper said in a wide-ranging interview after his workout Thursday.
This was open-up-the-spigot-and-let-it-flow Harper, the best version. We know, long before free agency, that he is capable of producing the Bonds-like on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.109 that led to the MVP award in 2015. We know, too, that he is capable of producing the more pedestrian .814 OPS (along with a .243 batting average) that defined a difficult 2016.
How can we figure out terms of a contract — years and dollars — before we know which of those two players is headed to free agency?
Also: How does the same guy produce such disparate numbers in consecutive years?
“There were certain times when I hit a ball to the track last year, and I think back and I’m like, ‘That should have been like three rows deep,’ ” Harper said. He remembered a ball he hit to dead center in Milwaukee. In his head: Gone. In reality: Caught.
“I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ ” Harper said. “I’m walking back, and I’m like, ‘Maybe if I had about 10 more pounds on me, or had worked out another day in the offseason, that might have been a homer.’ And it might not have been. But the thought was there for me.”
What emerged over the course of Thursday’s conversation was something Nationals fans might find encouraging for the 162 games ahead. Harper said that he ran himself ragged in the offseason after he won the National League MVP : a trip here, a sponsor’s appearance there, Jimmy Kimmel and the Super Bowl and whatever else he could experience. He was a kid. The candy store was expansive.
“I mean, that’s my choice,” he said. “And it’s on me. There’s certain things, it’s like, ‘Man, that’d be cool. I can’t pass that up. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.’ But this offseason, I really sat down and was like, ‘You know, that’s probably not a good idea.’ ”
His body is, he said, “definitely” more rested and prepared than it was a year ago at this time. But what about his mind? One reason he could seem more mature: his offseason marriage to his longtime girlfriend, Kayla Varner. But Harper, 24, said that’s simplistic analysis.
“It’s not like I’m going to come into the clubhouse like, ‘Oh, I’m a grown-up now,’ ” he said. Rather, any newfound maturity — and it’s not a quality that’s been publicly established yet, just a possibility — would come in Harper’s other offseason choices. He skipped the Super Bowl and instead watched with his family from the couch. The next day, rather than a flight, he had a workout. He could have gone to the Grammys but decided against it.
When you’re Bryce Harper, opportunities and gifts fall in your lap. (Wednesday, he opened a box of free Washington-centric baseball hats and tossed them around the room to teammates. He has been warming up in the on-deck circle with a bat encased in heavy barbed wire, sent to him from the makers of the TV series “The Walking Dead,” which he gave up on a while ago.) His representatives at Scott Boras’s agency deal with a constant influx of pulls on his time — companies whose products he endorses, MLB, the players’ association, media, charities, government organizations, the Nats, on and on. Harper’s lesson: “You have to learn to say no.”
Now, Harper has to learn how to play more like he did two years ago, not like he did last year. When he was hitting .330 with 42 home runs in 2015, he seemed to enjoy simply being at the ballpark more than he did hitting .243 with 24 bombs in 2016.
“When you’re hitting .240 and you think you should be hitting .340, that goes through your mind,” Harper said.
But could Harper be happy in 2015 when the clubhouse imploded and the team fizzled? Could he be miserable in 2016 when they led the division for all but four days and went to the postseason?
“I can’t tell you I was happy with hitting .240,” Harper said. “Was I happy for us winning? Absolutely. Was I happy for [Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner, who had breakout years]? Absolutely. But me personally, I can’t be happy with hitting that amount.”
Whatever he hits, for the next two years at least, he will do it in Washington, for Washington. Harper the baseball historian has long admired players who spent their entire careers in one uniform, the Derek Jeter trajectory. For him, that can happen in only one place. I asked him what he finds appealing about that path.
“I mean, the fans there, they watch you grow,” he said. “You grow up in that city. . . . My first standing ‘O’ in my whole life was at Nats Park. You don’t forget that.”
And then, he was off, an ode to his professional home town. Yes, he wore a Dallas Cowboys hat when he attended a pro wrestling event in Las Vegas, where he lives. But somehow, I can never get him to stop talking about D.C.
“I’ve always said: I love the city of D.C.,” Harper said. “That’s no BS. That’s me opening my heart.”
He talked about driving in on 395, looking at the Jefferson Memorial on his left, the Washington Monument beyond that. He talked about walking through the Department of Transportation farmers market on his way to the ballpark, of going out to eat, of mingling with fans.
“Knowing that the freaking White House is right there, the Capitol building, you have it all,” Harper said. “It’s such a monumental town. And then your home stadium’s right there. I’m sitting here getting chills.”
It was a warm, pleasant day in South Florida. Chills? Really?
“For me, I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true,” he said. “I’ve always said that. I’m not fake with that stuff. If I hated it, everybody in the world would know, ‘Bryce Harper hates this place.’ ”
What does that mean for three years from now? Chill out. It’s three years from now.
What it means: On April 3, Bryce Harper will wear the home white of the Nationals when they open the season against Miami. What it means: For 161 more games beyond that, his hat will sport a Curly W. What it means: Washington has him now. Might as well enjoy it.