With baseball’s winter meetings right here along the shores of the Potomac River, it’s time for Washington to arrive at what could be a difficult realization: Bryce Harper will be a National in 2017, and he will be a National in 2018. After that, he won’t be.
And that provides the framework not just for what will transpire at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center this week, but for who the Nationals will be for the next two years. They have two seasons to try to win a World Series with a lineup that, for all his struggles in 2016, is still built around Harper, or at least his potential.
Let’s get to what we know, starting with General Manager Mike Rizzo’s broad assessment of the situation Monday afternoon. Rizzo would not address specific talks of an extension with Harper. He knows, however, that a GM who thinks only of the next season is a GM who will be looking for work soon thereafter.
“You better make plans,” Rizzo said. “It’s not just Bryce Harper.”
Translation: We have assessed our own organization and the prospects already in it. We understand the free agent market entering 2019 — a class that could include not only Harper but also Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Clayton Kershaw and a host of other full-on stars. And we believe in our own scouting and player development operation, which Rizzo reiterated Monday he considers “second to none.”
Further, we know that Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, has long considered Harper a generational talent. We know that when Boras has what he perceives as an outlier as a client — read: Alex Rodriguez in December 2000, when he signed a then-record $252 million deal with Texas — he believes the market doesn’t apply, and he will exceed all reasonable expectations. We know the richest contract in baseball history belongs to Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who can earn $325 million over 13 seasons.
Keep going. We know revenue continues to pour into the sport, meaning salaries not only won’t plateau but will increase. We know Boras rarely seeks extensions for his clients before they hit free agency, though there are exceptions (see: Strasburg, Stephen). And we know high-ranking members of the Nationals organization believe you can’t allot, say, $40 million annually to a single player because that affects what you can spend on your remaining 24 spots.
That’s a lot to digest. But think about one other aspect, too: Typically, two years from free agency is the last chance to talk about a long-term extension. Wait another year, and the player can smell the other 29 teams waiting for the right to bid on his services.
A lot of evidence suggests the timing isn’t right for a Harper extension. Harper would, naturally, want to negotiate on what he knows he can be: the player who hit 42 homers and rang up a 1.109 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 2015, when he was in full bloom, the National League MVP. The Nationals would, naturally, want to negotiate on what Harper has been over the entirety of his career, a player with an .883 OPS that is excellent — 13th in baseball over the course of his career — but not historic.
On Monday afternoon, USA Today cited a “high-ranking Nationals executive” as saying Harper is seeking a deal that would exceed $400 million and that the Nationals had balked. Shortly after, Boras told Yahoo Sports: “I have had no discussions with the Nationals regarding Harp and a long-term contract.”
Regardless, Harper and Boras almost certainly would seek such a record-setting deal. And the Nats might well decide they don’t want to pay it. And it’s a safe bet that someone else will.
The Yankees, of course, are the team for which Harper rooted as a kid, the team that almost always has been able to outspend any opponent for a player’s services. Now that case is emboldened by New York’s recent maneuverings. Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira have retired, saving cash. Trades of front-line relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, as well as catcher Brian McCann, returned 10 players, including top-end prospects. In 2019, CC Sabathia, Chase Headley and Brett Gardner will be off the Yankees’ books, a savings of more than $50 million from their 2017 payroll.
Maybe Harper won’t sign with the Yankees. But it’s willfully ignorant not to acknowledge the possibility.
So what we have is the here and now for the Nats, who — Harper non-talks aside — could be headed into the most momentous offseason since they arrived in Washington a dozen winters ago. Trade for Andrew McCutchen, and add him to a lineup that includes Harper and Daniel Murphy, the runner-up for this year’s MVP. Trade for lefty Chris Sale, and add him to a rotation that includes Strasburg and Max Scherzer, who won the Cy Young Award this year.
Maybe neither happens. But either — or both — could. As Harper might say, “Where’s my ring?”
“We like our chances,” Rizzo said. “We like our chances today. We like our chances long-term. And we like our chances with our scouting and player development and the farm system that they’ve built.”
One more translation: We like our chances with Bryce Harper, and we like our chances without him.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.