WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Happening the first day at spring training is baseball at its most simplistic. A handful of pitchers ventured to the closest field, damp with passive rain, to throw. Stephen Strasburg mimicked coming set. Rejuvenation project Aaron Barrett played long toss with newcomer Tanner Rainey. They all tapped their spikes on the concrete before re-entering the clubhouse following the brief sessions of toss. 

The early workers passed a promotional display on the way back in. Washington unveiled new spring training hats for this spring’s work, and the wide-shouldered, chalk-white mannequin in the back of the clubhouse is there to model the lids and uniform. It caught Sean Doolittle’s eye.

“I kind of thought that was Bryce the other day,” Doolittle said with a smile when nodding toward the lifeless model. “I thought we should maybe dress him up so he's here in spirit. I saw something, forget who posted it, but they said, ‘Starting spring training without these guys having jobs, it kind of feels like it's December 23 and you don’t have a Christmas tree yet.’ We're not talking about Opening Day, we're talking about these free agents that still haven't signed yet.”

That’s where the simplicity of the day came to a close. An awkwardness is percolating throughout new spring training homes, particularly the Nationals’ residence near the Florida coast. Harper, Manny Machado, Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel and several members of baseball’s “middle class” continue to hunt for employment.


Doolittle -- thoughtful, well-schooled and open to being open -- supplemented his offseason of social media pondering with distinct answers Wednesday about the game’s hiring malaise. 

“Frustration is probably one of the first ones I would use to describe it,” Doolittle said. “Concerned... we're probably past concerned, maybe. But it does make for an interesting dynamic, keeping one eye on the way things have unfolded throughout the offseason, and hoping that we're going to see something on MLB Network that says somebody signed a free agent deal, you know? But at the same time, you are trying to get ready for the season. It does make for a kind of interesting dynamic right now during spring training."

Adam Eaton is stationed not far from the mannequin in a back pod of lockers assigned to veterans. He arrived in West Palm Beach in January. While most watched Harper’s languishing with a general curiosity, Eaton had a distinct angle to focus on: the whole thing could cost him his job in Washington.

Harper’s return to the Nationals is unlikely. They made him an offer once thought to be a baseline, but is now progressing toward high-end in the dragging climate. It no longer exists. 

Which helps Eaton’s security. For now. If the Lerner family settled on a way to bring Harper back by launching the team over the competitive balance tax, a place it does not want to be, Eaton would be the odd man out of a crowded outfield. He’s aware. 

“It affects me, for sure,” Eaton said. “Definitely affects me. I train to play 162. That's all I can think about. That's all I can really control. Going to leave it at that.”

That was simple truth, not a gripe. Eaton, like Doolittle, carries concerns about the offseason’s inactivity. He’s part of group text messages discussing what players view as a problem. Players understand Harper’s peripheral value -- something agent Scott Boras argues in person and with PowerPoint presentations at meetings -- as well as his on-field benefit. They agree with an ongoing sentiment: if not Harper or Manny Machado, then who?

“I don't want to outkick my coverage when I speak, but, those guys should be playing and should be on a team, period,” Eaton said. “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. What, is Adam Jones still not signed? There's a lot of free agents. A lot of veteran guys that have a lot of ability to produce and to make a team better and on top of that put rear ends in the seats. I think Adam Jones is one of those guys, people are coming to see him play and ownership needs to see that and sign these guys and get them on a team and get them comfortable. 


“Mentally, as well. You talk about mental health all the time and do this and do that, but getting a guy comfortable and getting him in that city before guys are reporting is something that hopefully everyone will take into account and realize they want that stability. Like I said, they need to be signed sooner rather than later. But, you know what? If you've got to take time, extra time and you get what you deserve, heck more power to you. Do it. Take them for what you're worth. Like I said, both sides need to come to an agreement with that.”

Future markets are moving in the calm of spring training. Teams would prefer to sign players to extensions well before they enter free agency. This stagnation could make that more appealing in the future. Players want to dial back team control in order to become free agents sooner. This current standoff could push such an idea into the next collective bargaining agreement. 

But neither will help Harper in the near-term. In these first days of spring training, a lifeless imposter in the back of the clubhouse will have to do.