Though he has made it a policy this season not to discuss his forthcoming trip onto the open market, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper sat down recently for an interesting chat with Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post. With the clock ticking on the 2018 season, and perhaps also his time with the D.C. organization, Harper struck a distinctly nostalgic tone with the veteran WaPo reporter.
Harper certainly does not sound eager to set out in search of a new organization — which isn’t to say he has ruled out that possibility. “I think about other cities,” the 25-year-old tells Svrluga, “but I love it here.” (Emphasis in original.)
Over the course of a 30-minute interview, Harper talked of coming of age in the nation’s capital and left little doubt that he’d be comfortable staying in his adopted home. Credit Svluga for finding a new angle in the Harper free agency saga, highlighting Harper’s vulnerability in a way rarely seen from the usually-poker-faced slugger. Svrluga presents Harper as a “homebody,” content most evenings kicking back with his wife.
If there’s uncertainty, Harper seemed to suggest over the course of the chat, it resides less in his heart than in the Nationals organization’s roster schematics. “I would love to play next to Robles or Soto or Eaton. I’d love to,” Harper said of his current outfield mates (and collective potential replacements). “But am I in those plans? I have no idea.”
Of course, the Nationals front office hasn’t exactly been shy in its own courtship, so there’s perhaps a bit of gamesmanship afoot here as well. President of baseball operations Mike Rizzo elected not to trade Harper even as the organization moved other key veterans. Perhaps the organization recognized that, as Harper emphasized to Svrluga, D.C. is all that he knows as a ballplayer. More recently, Rizzo created some waves by (according to the interpretation of some) hinting at a possible new deal with Harper. That was and is a questionable read of his comments, but Rizzo didn’t leave much doubt as to the club’s preferences, saying: “We love Harp. I love him personally and professionally and of course we’d love to see him here long term.”
This certainly must be a bizarre time for Harper as he plays out the string of the 2018 season alongside teenage phenom Juan Soto and consensus top prospect Victor Robles, Harper may be cementing his legacy as the centerpiece of the MLB’s most enticing future outfield trio – or he may be playing alongside his eventual replacements.
This season has largely been seen as a disappointment for Harper. Even as he won the Home Run Derby in front of his home fans, talk focused on free agency and his (at the time) shockingly-low .214 batting average. The Nationals, meanwhile, were barely keeping their heads above water, hanging around the .500 mark en route to underperforming relative to their Pythagorean W-L by eight wins. The Nats never did find the next gear, missing the playoffs for just the third time in Harper’s Washington tenure.
Offensively, Harper’s overall numbers have bounced back, but it’s been a curious season for the superstar. He received semi-regular playing time in centerfield for the first time since his rookie season, but his defensive ratings cratered (-25 DRS, -13 UZR). He’ll finish near his career low in BA (.243 in 2016), but he’s played in a career-high 154 games and has more than 30 doubles and 30 home runs for just the second time in his career. He leads the league in unintentional walks, and tonight he joined Jose Ramirez as the only players in the majors with 100 walks, 100 runs, and 100 RBIs (surprisingly, his first time driving in over 100 runs). Overall, Harper has hit .245/.390/.495 with a 134 wRC+ – hardly the markers of a “disappointment,” though also not the monster platform campaign that might have been hoped for.
Though the truly astronomical salary levels some envisioned may no longer be possible, Harper will still earn a truckload of money. That, too, is an obvious factor — particularly given that the Nationals seem to be set up as well as could be hoped to deal with his possible departure. Of course, the Nats have worked out the money on big-name players in the past with Scott Boras, Harper’s high-profile agent. The remainder of the market remains unclear. Many of the highest-payroll teams don’t have an obvious need for him, while teams with limited payrolls will be hard-pressed to afford him. Of course, Harper is also a talented enough player that organizations will be willing to move other pieces to make way.
All told, these recent comments hardly tell us how things will play out, though they do offer some interesting insight into Harper’s current thinking. And they function as a worthwhile reminder that Harper’s looming decision will not only significantly alter the landscape of the league, but will also chart his own future as a player and a person.