Quick Links

Nationals' biggest offseason questions begin with Bryce Harper's free agency

Nationals' biggest offseason questions begin with Bryce Harper's free agency

Following a disappointing 2018, this winter figures to be one of the more fascinating offseasons in Nationals history.

They have loads of money coming off the books, many holes on their roster and a huge decision to make with Bryce Harper's free agency. 

The Nationals have a lot of questions they need to answer.

Nationals Biggest Offseason Questions

1. What happens with Harper?

For years baseball fans all over have debated Harper's future, whether he will get the most lucrative free agent contract in league history and whether that will be in D.C., or elsewhere like New York or Chicago. In a matter of months, we will finally get that answer.

Throughout this year, there has been very little news about the negotiations between Harper and the team, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Talks between his agent Scott Boras and the Nats before deals were struck with Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer were kept completely out of the press. Even Jayson Werth's contract, also negotiated by Boras, came out of nowhere.

Still, it's anyone's guess and Harper himself insists he doesn't know what his future beholds. He may not figure it out until he does a full wine-and-dine free agency tour and actually goes to visit organizations like the Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers.

The Nats, however, do have plenty working in their favor. Harper seems to want a lot of money and the Lerners are among the richest owners in baseball. He wants to win and the Nats have proven they can put him in the playoffs more often than not. Juan Soto and Victor Robles are yet two more reminders that general manager Mike Rizzo is always restocking the cupboard with young talent.

Harper is also quite clearly a sentimental guy and truly appreciates the city of Washington and Nationals fans. That was evident at the 2018 Home Run Derby and certainly down the stretch of the season as he gave introspective and heartfelt interviews.

The Nats also have plenty of reasons to want Harper back. For all the gripes about his game, he has proven to be one of the best left-handed hitters in baseball and is only 25.

Harper is also nearly second-to-none from a marketing perspective. If he leaves, they could see a hit in ticket sales, merchandise sales and overall interest from fans. The Nats' rise in popularity has coincided with his career arc and D.C.-area kids love the guy.

Remove Harper and all of a sudden the Nats have a lot less star power. And it can be very difficult for fans to see their team let star players go in their prime, just ask the Wizards (Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, etc.) and the Redskins (Champ Bailey, Kirk Cousins, etc.).

Ultimately, it's all up to Harper and he will probably take his time. At least we know the long saga has an end in sight.

2. Do they retain Martinez as manager?

By now it should be clear to all that the Nationals made a mistake by letting Dusty Baker go and handing a team with championship expectations to a rookie skipper, but that doesn't mean the way to correct that error is to fire Davey Martinez after one season. The Nats took the longview with Martinez, hoping to find a lasting solution in the dugout. Just because he stumbled in his first year, doesn't mean he can't get better over time.

The Nats have indicated Martinez and his staff will be back, but they likely won't truly know until the dust settles and they have some time to think. What they could do is bring him back, but give him a short leash early in the 2019 season. If things go south quickly, let him go and promote Chip Hale from bench coach to manager. Hale has two years of experience as skipper of the Diamondbacks in 2015 and 2016.

3. Can they rebuild their rotation?

Though there were many reasons the Nationals fell short in 2018, the most baffling one had to be the ineptitude of their starting rotation. Outside of Scherzer, who was brilliant, they did not get the production they were used to from Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez before he was traded. Tanner Roark had another rough year, making his two seasons as a sub-3.00 ERA starter look more and more like outliers.

The Nats' recent era of success has been mostly attributed to strong starting pitching and they just didn't have it this season. Also uncharacteristic was that the Nats didn't have a stable of young pitchers ready to fill in the gaps. 

We've come to expect Rizzo to always have a backup plan and this time he didn't. Their lack of starting depth was exposed and as a result they finished 13th in MLB in starters ERA (4.04). That's very pedestrian and the number is skewed heavily by Scherzer. 

The Nationals clearly need some upgrades in their rotation and probably won't find them in their farm system. The good news is that it's a deep free agent class with guys like Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel likely available. Both are lefties, which the Nats need. There is also Clayton Kershaw, who could opt out of his contract. Word has it he's a pretty decent southpaw.

4. Can they fix the bullpen?

Rizzo has earned his reputation as one of the best GMs in the game, but he has two consistent blindspots. One is hiring managers, as evidenced by the variety of mistakes the team has made over the years. The other is building a bullpen.

Under Rizzo, the Nats have had some excellent bullpens at times. The 2012 season, though ultimately undone by their bullpen, featured a versatile and balanced mix of relievers. The Nats' bullpen was solid in both 2014 and 2016, but required midseason trades to get there.

Rizzo has had trouble building sound bullpens in the offseason. He has been able to patch them up midseason, but it would be nice to see the Nats count on their relief staff as a strength from start to finish. If free agency is the optimal route, there are some strong options between Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino and others.

5. Who plays catcher and second base?

The Nationals have two significant holes in their starting lineup next season at second base and catcher. Based on Rizzo and the Nationals' history, expect them to be very aggressive in shoring up those spots. 

There are some decent options in free agency for catchers in Wilson Ramos, Yasmani Grandal and Jonathan Lucroy, though all are on the wrong side of 30 at a demanding position. They can also try to trade for J.T. Realmuto.

As for second base, the free agent class is a bit more intriguing with Rockies star D.J. LeMahieu on the market. There are also some capable, but older options like Jed Lowrie and Asdrubal Cabrera.


Quick Links

Bryce Harper's longtime friend Kris Bryant says Harper isn't headed for Cubs


Bryce Harper's longtime friend Kris Bryant says Harper isn't headed for Cubs

After weeks of twists and turns and not enough information for any Nationals fan's satisfaction, the Chicago Cubs seem to be out of the race for free agent Bryce Harper.

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant seemingly confirmed the news on Friday night from the opening ceremonies of the 2019 Cubs Convention.

"He's not signing here," Bryant said as he sat down with NBC Sports Chicago. 

Though there have been no official reports of whether or not the Cubs are completely out in the race to sign Harper, a word from one of Harper's longtime friends shouldn't be brushed aside.

Bryant and Harper took the field together in the 2016 MLB All-Star game, and faced off in the 2017 NLDS Cubs-Nats matchup. 

The pair have known each other since grade schoool, and played for rival high schools in Las Vegas. But despite their history, Bryant says that they haven't chatted much about the situation otherwise, choosing to focus on preserving their friendship.

"I never bring it up to him," Bryant admitted. "I try to be a good friend to him, and not talk about baseball when he doesn't want to talk about baseball."

"Whatever happens, I wish [him] the best."

You can see more of Bryant's interview with NBCSC below.


Quick Links

What's it like for MLB players when their big contract money hits? Some advice for Bryce Harper

What's it like for MLB players when their big contract money hits? Some advice for Bryce Harper

An old friend of Max Scherzer’s came up with an idea: The new buy-in for their longstanding and hyper-competitive fantasy football league would be 10 percent of the participant’s salary. As an assistant baseball coach at a midwest Division I university, this would be a significant risk. However, he believed the chance was worth it since Scherzer had just signed with the Washington Nationals for $210 million.

Scherzer enjoyed the humor and emphatically nixed the idea. But, the point remains. Things change when finances increase to unfathomable levels. In the case of Bryce Harper, the world is about to change for generations of Harpers once he finally signs a new contract.

The idea of signing a single contract which guarantees such gargantuan sums is a strange one. Even to those signing. The 2016 Census pegged average annual American income at $57,617. If Scherzer averages 32 starts per year during the course of his seven-year deal, he’ll earn $937,500 per start. Informed having such financial clout is inconceivable to 99.9 percent of the population, Scherzer laughed in agreement.

“I know, I know,” Scherzer told me. “It’s inconceivable to me, too.”

So, what’s it like when money of that level hits? Harper’s next contract is expected to be north of Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million extension. For this extrapolation exercise, let’s call it $350 million coming up for Harper. That should be enough to cover eight generations of Harpers at $100,000 annually for 80 years each with plenty left over. Crazy, right?

Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman were both wealthy by any standard before signing their large deals. Scherzer banked nearly $30 million worth of contracts prior to the giant haul with the Nationals. Zimmerman cashed almost $20 million ahead of his six-year, $100 million contract extension in 2012.

They share similar views on the path to the money, why it exists and what happens (or should) after it hits.

“I think a lot of us work our whole lives, sacrifice a lot of things, [but] not for that,” Zimmerman told NBC Sports Washington. “Like, when you first start doing something, you don’t do it to make $100 million. But once you get into the business and start to do what you have to do -- it doesn’t, at least for me, I think you hope it doesn’t change who the person is. I think you come to realize, or at least I was always taught, you receive that or earn that because of the person that you are or the work that you do and you should just continue being that same person. You shouldn’t change. You’re just really fortunate to get paid that much money and play a game, but you have to remember why you got to that point.

“It’s hard to comprehend what it does to your life, because you’re in it. I think you’ll understand that more when you’re done playing. But you have the ability to obviously take care of your children and their children, and that’s the life side of it. I think that’s pretty cool. When you sign that, you realize I just took care of -- not just yourself, you don’t care about yourself -- you think about generations if you correctly take care of it.”

Scherzer was in agreement.

“Look...I think a lot of us, at the end of the day, would play this game out of love,” Scherzer said. “The money’s just a bonus on top. The money aspect of it really is just a fight for what -- the game generates all this type of money and it’s a fight for who rightfully deserves it, whether it’s the owners or the players. Who actually gets the fans to come out to the games? That’s where the business side of the game gets ugly because it turns into you’re actually having to argue what you’re actually doing on the field. That’s why it’s never a fun thing to actually talk about or have to explain, but every player understands it at the end of the day.

“Free agency exposes everything in your life. All your friends, your family. Just exposes every single circle that you have. You find out more about yourself going through that process, about the people around you, about how stable your life is. So that when you do actually sign a contract that sets you up for life, you know you’ve been down a road that you’ve had to fight for and you can just compartmentalize what’s going on, that you now have money for the rest of your life. That, at the end of the day, that is not the reason you play the game of baseball. The reason you play the game of baseball is because you want to win. For me, that was something I was able to grasp onto.”

Scherzer went on to point out there are no rule changes on the field because you own an enormous contract. The ball doesn’t care, the mound doesn’t care, the parameters of the game between the lines don’t care.

He also mentioned he still has the same favorite televisions shows. He continues to root for his favorite non-baseball teams just the same. His year-old daughter, Brooklyn, is unconcerned, as is the horde of rescue animals patrolling the house.

“Money doesn’t buy happiness,” Scherzer said. “It buys comfort and convenience.”

Zimmerman had to think for a minute when asked if he made any nonsensical purchases following his large extension. He bought a Land Rover (“or something like that”) and paid off his parents’ house. He also eventually bought a new house for his family.

“That was really it,” Zimmerman said. “... I don’t do anything crazy. I don’t know. I try not to be real stupid with anything.”

He laughed at the final line. Though it seems like sound advice, no matter income level.