Bryce Harper told his wife, Kayla, he wanted to hear the Nationals’ offer. He figured he would return to Washington, the only place he played, and anchor himself there until gray started to creep into his famous follicles.
Then, he heard it.
It was lower than the original, chock full of deferred money, a lean on what had become a stagnant market for Harper’s services. The Nationals knew Harper would reject their initial offer to enter free agency. They knew he would reject their subsequent low-ball offer. They were only in for the brief optics of the idea. They were not steadfastly trying to retain Harper. He left for Philadelphia.
That’s reality. But, we’re here to play with alternative realities during “What if?” week. In this case, what if Bryce Harper re-signed with the Nationals?
First, picture the press conference: Harper sits down in Nationals Park, every local and national outlet is there, he reiterates his love for the city. He talks about raising children while working for the Nationals. His dad threw him pitches in the park just that prior summer. He hopes to do the same with his kids one day.
He’ll never be a free agent again. Harper’s time in Washington started when he was 19 years old. It will end when he is twice that age. Managing principal owner Mark Lerner will speak of Harper in paternal terms. Mike Rizzo will, as well. Scott Boras will pontificate. The media swath following the team will receive its typical jolt from Harper’s presence.
The Nationals now have the best outfield in baseball. And, it’s probably not close. They combine for 86 home runs and 13 WAR in 2019. Harper is engaged on defense, making them the best defensive outfield, too. Between his arm, Victor Robles’ arm and Juan Soto’s growth, few want to run on them.
And the lineup is devastating. Harper replaces Adam Eaton as the No. 2 hitter. Trea Turner still leads off, Anthony Rendon follows Harper, and Soto follows him. Instead of having the best 3-4 combination in baseball -- like they did with Rendon and Soto -- the Nationals have the best 2-3-4 mix, and, when Turner is healthy, possibly the best 1-4. On the days Howie Kendrick hits fifth, the OPS of each player looks like this: .850, .882, 1.010, .949, .966. They crush right-handed pitching.
Eaton is gone. The cost control in his team-option-laden contract is appealing, but his recent play and health concerns undermine his value. He fetches three prospects, one of which is a catcher, the other two low-level pitchers. Washington’s farm system desperately needs an influx of both.
The math problems begin the following year. Harper’s huge contract limits the Nationals’ flexibility. They paid him and Patrick Corbin. Now, Rendon is leaving and Stephen Strasburg has opted out. Ownership decides they can’t bring on another enormous contract. Both leave.
Their departure begins to stir animus toward Harper’s contract. He wanted all the money when it was due and not in deferrals. The organization capitulated. They will have to maneuver around the cost for the next decade. Max Scherzer coming off the books in two years will help. The competitive balance tax annually creeps upward. Soto and Robles severely out-perform their low-level contracts, providing some flexibility.
Harper is a salve for Rendon’s departure. Instead of Starlin Castro hitting third, it’s Soto because Davey Martinez decides stacking lefties doesn’t matter when it is these lefties. Castro hits fifth. The first baseman du jour hits cleanup. Fewer questions about the offense follow Washington into spring training 2020.
Kids keep coming to see Harper. His voice in the game grows as he ages. He hides less from the media, lets his guard down a bit more, while also measuring his words. Jayson Werth counsels him on the side. Ryan Zimmerman and Scherzer help him navigate in the clubhouse day-to-day. Once those two depart, Harper is the top voice for the organization. When things are bad, he needs to answer, absorb blame, motivate himself and his teammates as much as the latter can occur in baseball. He’s the franchise face, for better or worse, the next decade.
Does he have a 2019 World Series title to rest on? Perhaps. The offense and defense (were he to play defense with vigor like he did in Philadelphia and did not in 2018) would both be better. The pitching staff would be the same because ownership went over the CBT this one time to take a maximum swing. It’s the following year when things become tough. And the next decade in D.C. baseball would belong to him, no matter what.
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