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As Bryce Harper prepares for possible final home game with Nats, take a moment to appreciate the journey to get here

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USA Today

As Bryce Harper prepares for possible final home game with Nats, take a moment to appreciate the journey to get here

As Bryce Harper plays out his final homestand of the 2018 season, and as everyone ponders the potential end of his career in Washington, one aspect of his journey to this point as a member of the Nationals stands out above all when considering what Harper and those who have watched him over the years have experienced.

Though all the hair flips, towering homers and viral quotes come to mind, Harper's tenure in D.C. may most be defined and appreciated by his faults.

That's not to harp on the negative when there have been so many positives. It's to take a moment to appreciate all the steps it took for Harper to reach this point as a player and as a man, and how those in Washington watched him day after day throughout that process.

See, if Harper does leave Washington and joins another team, maybe even a really good team, that club will receive a player who is just about a finished product. He has reached his prime and is fully-formed, having cut his teeth for seven MLB seasons. That franchise and those fans would see a completely different chapter in Harper's career and, arguably, only get to know him so well, no matter how long he plays for them.

That's because Washington Nationals fans have seen Harper grow up and learn many lessons the hard way, ever since he showed up to Nationals Park in 2010, flanked by Mike Rizzo and Scott Boras and was handed a No. 34 jersey by Ryan Zimmerman. Harper was just 17 and that day wore a black suit with a black shirt and a pink tie, the combination perhaps his first regrettable move as a pro.

With the Nats, Harper had to learn not to run into walls, to not play through certain injuries, to keep his cool with umpires. He learned through public admonishment to hit the cutoff man and to hustle to first base. He realized the power of his words and his responsibility as a face of baseball.

There were mistakes and Nats fans, for the most part, loved him for them. He was the chosen one, the guy who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 years old, the No. 1 pick and the second-coming of Mickey Mantle. But he is human with flaws like the rest of us and a lot of it didn't come easy to him like most expected.

The comparisons between Harper and Mike Trout, his closest superstar contemporary, often highlighted the perceived shortcomings in Harper's game and personality. Trout never creates controversy with his words, while Harper can with remarkable ease. Trout did not draw the ire of older players and baseball lifers like Harper did in his early days.

Right or wrong, and most of the time it was uncalled for, Harper was constantly derided by people around baseball in his first few MLB seasons. But Washington fans were always there to defend him, knowing that if you watched him every night then you too would know those small transgressions - if they can even be called transgressions - do not represent the player or the man Harper actually is.

Washington fans were the first in Major League Baseball to realize Harper had the character and humility to match his transcendent on-field talents. He loves the game of baseball and, almost all of the time, plays it as hard as anyone. Harper has been criticized for playing the game too hard about as often as he has for taking off plays.

Take a step back and Harper's tenure in Washington so far has been a clear success, even matched with the expectations bestowed upon him as a teenager. He has won the National League MVP award, won an all-time classic Home Run Derby, made six All-Star teams and the Nats have won four division titles. He has helped usher in a new generation of D.C. baseball fans. The only way to top all of that would be a deep playoff run or a championship, but no one should have expected one player to make that sort of difference, given the dynamics of baseball.

Harper isn't perfect, but he is a lot closer to it than he was when he first debuted with the Nationals in 2012. The process of him getting to this point, even if it does ultimately mark the end of his tenure, should be appreciated by Nationals fans and Harper himself. No matter how much money he makes and where he plays next season, that chapter of his career is over and Washington fans should feel grateful they were there for the entire ride.

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Michael A. Taylor played winter ball to work on his hitting. Here's why the Nats are hoping it makes a difference

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Michael A. Taylor played winter ball to work on his hitting. Here's why the Nats are hoping it makes a difference

Michael A. Taylor went on an unusual hunt this offseason. He traded the serenity of fishing in Colorado or Florida, among his favorite pastimes, for the noise of the Dominican Winter League.

Taylor joined Gigantes del Cibao, a rare move for a player entering his age-28 season who has played the last four years in the major leagues. The visit to the Dominican Republic did not go well. Taylor hit .143, struck out nine times and walked once in 29 plate appearances. A small sample size, but also an indicator more work is necessary.

Everyone involved with trying to unmask Taylor’s clear talent knew change was necessary. Taylor is quiet, supremely athletic and has delivered eye-popping glimpses of what he can do on the baseball field. Whether that is running down a fly ball in the gap or driving an opposite field postseason home run in a chilled Wrigley Field, he has performed at a level which displays a high ceiling. Taylor has also regularly entered disturbing droughts where he looks overmatched and uncorrectable. Fixing him at the plate, to any degree, gives the Nationals options. They could deploy him or find a future trade partner.

Initially, he was reluctant to go to the Winter League. He previously planned to work with hitting coach Kevin Long in Florida. All parties knew that would happen. The idea to fly south took further development and convincing. Eventually, Taylor agreed. Among the driving forces for the visit -- from the team’s perspective -- was Taylor’s truncated playing time in the second half of the 2018 season.

“Because of the lack of at-bats he had toward the end of the season, it’s always important to see live pitching,” President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo said in December. “We thought it was important to get him one-on-one work with Kevin and really break down his swing and kind of give Michael a fresh start going into spring training.”

Reworking Taylor’s swing began when his appearances on the field all but stopped. Juan Soto’s emergence paired with Adam Eaton’s healthy return to jettison Taylor to the bench. The timing was difficult. Taylor hit poorly in April and May when Eaton was out and an opportunity was available. His .626 OPS and 65 strikeouts in 210 plate appearances showed what happens when things are dismal for him at the plate. His .864 OPS -- despite 15 more strikeouts in just 68 plate appearances -- in June was yet another pop of what could be. Taylor stole 10 bases in 10 tries during the month, meaning he stole a base 39 percent of the time he reached safely.

Then his playing time shriveled: 48 plate appearances, 43 plate appearances, 16 plate appearances in the final three months. His OPS declined each month, too. Taylor quietly walked around the Nationals clubhouse as the season dissolved.

Long started working with him once he was off the field. They tried to shorten everything Taylor did at the plate. The priority is contact. If Rizzo is to be believed, and Taylor’s past performances have shown this to be true to an extent, Taylor is a modest dose of consistency from being a versatile weapon in the major leagues.

“I believe, seeing him as much as I have, you’re talking about a dynamic player,” Rizzo said. “With adjustments, he could be a special type of big-league player. Gold Glove-caliber defender. He’s got a plus-plus arm that’s accurate. He throws a lot of guys out. He’s a terrific base runner, he’s a great base stealer, he’s got big power. If he figures out the contact portion of it a little bit better, you’re talking about a guy who could have five tools. He’s had flashes of it in the past and he just needs to be more consistent in his approach at the plate.”

Where he fits now is unclear. Taylor, presumably, is the fourth outfielder to be deployed as a base stealing and defensive replacement late in games. Perhaps he splits time with Victor Robles in center field. If Bryce Harper returns, Taylor’s future becomes even more clouded.

What he does have is another chance and big backer in manager Davey Martinez. The Nationals made an around-the-calendar investment in Taylor in pursuit of unlocking what they believe still has a chance to exist.

What Taylor doesn’t have is much more time. He’s entering his age-28 season, fifth full year in the major leagues and closing in on the end of low-cost team control. A warm winter trip doesn’t change those facts.

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Philadelphia and DC are both likely to get a dose of Harper - the winter storm - this weekend

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Philadelphia and DC are both likely to get a dose of Harper - the winter storm - this weekend

At least one Harper is on its way to Philly. 

But despite the hopes of Phillies fans, it's not the baseball player - at least yet.

For the second time in less than two weeks, parts of the Midwest and the Northeast is set to get hit with a major winter storm - which thanks to someone with a great sense of humor or baseball knowledge or just pure coincidence - is named Winter Storm Harper.

While this storm is no way related to Bryce Harper' s free agency (officially, at least), it does have some impeccable timing. And, it is set to hit a few of the places he's reportedly considering - including Philadelphia and DC (though it may just miss Chicago according to forecasts).

On Twitter, fans - and even Harper himself - took note:

 

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