Pitchers and catchers descend on Spring Training; Bryce Harper does not


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Ted the rental car shuttle driver was spirited. “Welcome to this beautiful south Florida day,” he announced over a crackling speaker system Tuesday. “We hope you enjoy your stay.”

Similar greetings went out to a variety of folks who descended on West Palm Beach and various other Florida locales this week. Reporters, fans, players, all come thinking of warmth and cold: first Florida tosses in Spring Training and year-end chances for glory in October.

Nationals pitchers and catchers officially reported Wednesday morning. Most of them. Word is three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer made it to FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches back in the first week of January. Being different is an unending priority for him.

Trailing everyone in the baseball world out in the desert or next to breeze-filled palm trees is the stagnant scent of the offseason. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned, two screaming symbols of the winter’s biggest storyline, which is it didn’t really produce one.

Washington offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract in its exclusive negotiating window at the end of last season. He declined it. The Nationals removed the offer before free agency began to go about the business of building a roster without him. They roll into West Palm Beach with the belief holes are filled, the roster could produce 90-plus wins and Harper’s leverage is dissipating. 

General manager Mike Rizzo is watching the late value market like the rest of the league. Starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel and dominant closer Craig Kimbrel join Harper and Machado in unemployment. Keuchel and Kimbrel could be more fetching options for teams with aspirations and financial wiggle room below the competitive balance tax. The Nationals want to remain under the mark this season. They also have room to breathe there, at the moment. Perhaps as much as $10-20 million (a quick note about determining payroll: there’s never a precise view of it outside the organization, so everything is an estimate to some effect).


Two new players expected in the Nationals facility are catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. They were key to the Nationals offseason moves since their addition filled the team’s most glaring gap. Gomes was so ready to go, he attended Patrick Corbin’s introductory press conference at Nationals Park back on Dec. 7. After he watched Corbin’s formal hello, he walked into the home clubhouse for the first time then retrieved a video-filled iPad to begin his familiarization with the pitching staff.

Prospect intrigue is also a part of camp. Not just the upper reaches with Juan Soto following a potent rookie season and touted Victor Robles, who starts on a path to a full-time job, but the next layer as well. Infielders Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia have been summoned to the major-league side of spring training as non-roster invitees. Relief prospect Wil Crowe will be in attendance, too. 

An old head will be joining them. Reliever Aaron Barrett, 31, has been grinding through years of arm trouble in an effort to return to the big leagues. His first Tommy Johns surgery was Sept. 5, 2015. Ankle surgery followed three months later. Barrett fractured his right elbow July 23, 2016, during rehab. The Nationals signed him to a minor-league contract in 2017. Last season, he went  2-0 with a 1.74 ERA in 20 games for short-season Single-A Auburn. That he’s even back at major-league spring training as a non-roster invitee is a form of personal victory.

But this year’s stop at West Palm Beach continues to be about who is not here. A tease-filled winter has given way to a star-crossed spring which starts with Harper and Machado marooned. It’s not just them. Mid-level free agents are waiting to find a home, last-chance guys are hoping for a call. The situation continues to rankle players, making this spring not just about now, but hinting at the grumpy future of baseball. Players will demand changes. Owners are likely to shrug. 

The good news? A game that counts is just six weeks away. The bad news? No one knows where Harper will be playing it.