For two years now, I have consciously and intentionally kicked the Washington Nationals’ buzziest and most significant can down the road. The seasons were too important. The teams had too much potential. Why leap ahead to the questions about Bryce Harper’s future when Bryce Harper’s present could yield division championships — and maybe even more?
Now, though, there are 30 games remaining in a 2018 season gone awry. We can put energy and angst into whether Max Scherzer will win his third straight Cy Young Award and wonder whether Dave Martinez is the right man to lead another capable team for 2019. But really, Harper’s whereabouts next season and beyond trumps all story lines and it’s not close.
About that: The Nationals should be discussing that story line. With Harper. Right now.
Only one team can talk to Harper about his 2019 destination, and that’s Washington. Yes, we know Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, typically prefers to take his clients all the way to free agency so he can engage 30 potential bidders, not just one. But two quick reminders: Boras works for Harper, not the other way around. And the Nationals already did a prior-to-free agency extension with one Boras client, right-hander Stephen Strasburg, so they have navigated territory that’s uncharted by most front offices and ownership groups.
To be clear, this isn’t a no-brainer from the team’s perspective. There are front-office executives and scouts for other clubs who believe the Nationals could roll out a 2019 outfield of Juan Soto in left, Victor Robles in center and Adam Eaton in right — with Michael A. Taylor around should uber-prospect Robles stumble — and compete for a division title. It’s a viable — and incredibly cheap — outfield, and that would allow the Nationals flexibility to pursue their other obvious 2019 needs: a catcher, a second baseman, starting pitching and bullpen help.
That’s reasonable, and it might even be the most likely approach. But it’s also ignoring what’s right in front of them: an iconic player. That’s what Harper is. Pick him apart, and concentrate on what he hasn’t done rather than what he has. Whatever. When we look back at this decade, the 2010s, Harper will be a point of discussion, for sure.
Dismiss that assessment if you like, but it matters in giving the Nationals an identity going forward. Scherzer is a Hall of Famer in his prime — but, at 34, the back end of that prime. Harper is 25, just entering what would traditionally be his best years as an offensive player. He is attractive not just for what he has accomplished but for what he could accomplish. Not just next year, but for the entirety of the deal he signs — even if that deal is as long as 10 years.
In considering what Harper might do, don’t shrug off what he is already doing. He bears the burden of being the overall No. 1 pick in the draft, of being on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a teenager. His 2018 season, by his own admission, isn’t what he expects of himself — even as most of the league would kill for it, because he already has 30 homers, he leads the National League in walks, and he is on pace to drive in 104 runs. Some slump.
Look, too, not just at this season, but at the body of work. Since 2012, when Harper came up as a 19-year-old, he has a .900 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, a figure that encompasses an MVP season and some swoons. But as a whole, here are the active players in that time with at least 2,000 plate appearances who outpace him: Mike Trout (.998), Joey Votto (.961), Miguel Cabrera (.940), Paul Goldschmidt (.938), Giancarlo Stanton (.923) and Kris Bryant (.906). Every single one of those players is older than Harper.
The point is this: There’s a statistical case to keep him — a strong one. More than that, there’s reason to believe he is still ascendant. And keeping him means the Nats could use, say, Robles as part of a package to fill another hole. Washington has engaged Miami on J.T. Realmuto, who is far and away the best offensive catcher in the game. He is under club control through 2020, during which time Derek Jeter’s Marlins can’t possibly contend. Why would Miami keep him?
Back to Harper. This is a two-way street. Not only do the Nats have to want to keep their homegrown talent, but he has to want to stay. I believe he would be thrilled to do just that.
There are misgivings, for sure. But for all the roiling road he has had here — the hair-on-fire rookie season, the injuries, the playoff disappointments, the team-wide flameout this summer — this is what he knows. There is comfort here. It’s comfort that mattered to Strasburg, who has about as much in common with Harper as a tabby has with a yellow lab.
But here’s betting there is common ground with that comfort. What Harper wants more than anything else: to win. Don’t doubt that. Just don’t. And for all the frustration of those playoff series and seasons like this one, he knows that this franchise has won and is set up to win. Since 2012, only one team — the Los Angeles Dodgers — has won more regular season games than the Nationals. Yes, people will focus on the fact that Harper’s Nats haven’t won a single playoff series. That’s undeniable. But can’t we mention in the same breath that the undisputed best player in baseball, Trout, hasn’t even won a playoff game.
There’s no way Harper hasn’t considered all of the potential landing places. Scouts and executives from other clubs believe the Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs — in no particular order — have the financial clout and, depending on what happens in the postseason, the drive to play for a Manny Machado or Harper.
There are potential advantages and problems with each of those scenarios — including a high level of skepticism that the Yankees, who employ both Aaron Judge and Stanton, will even be a factor. They’re worth delving into as the offseason approaches.
But what if the Nationals didn’t let it get that far?
The richest contract in the history of American sports is Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million deal signed with Miami, then traded to the Yankees. It’s quite a number. Is it important to Harper (ahem, sorry, to Boras) to trump that total sum?
There’s a way to appeal to Harper right now, and it’s this: We need you and we want you, Bryce. We’re going to win a World Series right here. Here’s a 10-year deal worth $280 million. That trails only Stanton in total sum, but it trumps him in average annual value. We’ll include a no-trade clause so you know you can raise your family here, but we’ll also throw in opt-outs — after, say, years four and five — so you could reenter free agency if money continues to flow into the sport and you perform as we believe you will. And that’s MVP-caliber, Bryce. We think you’re a Hall of Famer, and you’ll go in wearing that Curly W.
Heady stuff. There are people within the Nationals organization who are pessimistic about Washington’s ability, and even desire, to get this done. But why be pessimistic into November and December? The Nationals already have drafted and developed the player who could define them for the decade to come. Why wait to see how the market plays out? This season is dead. Negotiations won’t distract from anything meaningful. Make an offer, and see who blinks.