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Max Rosenfeld

Making Sense of the Bryce Harper Situation

Two full seasons ahead of his impending free agency, the Washington Nationals have apparently made a franchise altering decision. As reported by Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the Nationals are set to move on from Bryce Harper after his contract expires following the 2018 season. Harper is reportedly seeking a contract of approximately 10 years at $400 million.

At this moment, it’s unclear whether or not the Nationals have had formal negotiations with Harper’s camp. Still, the Nationals have made it clear that they are not planning to retain Harper by leaking the story to the media. Their offseason moves to this point reflect that sentiment.

Washington began the offseason in pursuit of star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Just as he did a year ago Cespedes spurned the Nationals in favor of the New York Mets.

As recently as this week, Washington was deeply connected to trades involving ace Chris Sale and former MVP Andrew McCutchen. The Nationals were all in on Sale and McCutchen, reportedly going as far as to offer stud prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez.

And when the Nationals fell out of contention for Sale and McCutchen, General Manager Mike Rizzo pushed all his chips to the center of the table and dealt Giolito and Lopez for outfielder Adam Eaton.

Is Eaton a very good Major League player? Yes. But is the same caliber of player of McCutchen or Sale? No. Rizzo’s aggressive move to trade Washington’s future in favor of a more fruitful present highlights the Nationals’ thinking on their window of success. Rizzo and the Nats clearly believe that they have two years to win a championship as currently constructed.

Furthermore, the Nationals’ reluctance to include Trea Turner in a potential deal showcases another thought behind Washington’s long term strategy- Turner, not Harper, is the star of the Nationals’ future.

After all, Turner just produced one of the most impressive rookie seasons in recent memory. The electric shortstop/centerfielder batted .342/.370/.576 with 13 home runs, 40 RBIs, and 33 steals in only 73 games. These eye popping numbers are akin to the statistics that Harper was supposed to produce in 2016. After a dazzling 2015 MVP campaign in which Harper batted .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs and 118 RBIs, Harper hit only .243/.373/.441 with 24 home runs this past season. Harper’s mediocre (by his standards) 2016 beg the question: why would anyone pay him $400 million?

The deal that Harper is seeking would make him the highest paid player in the history of sports. Harper, who will be 26 at the time of his free agency, aims to be the most sought after free agent in the Major Leagues since Alex Rodriguez. He obviously possesses the talent to be one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, but comes with his fair share of headaches.

Multiple reports have indicated that the Nationals have been rather unenthused by the sum of the Bryce Harper experience. Sure, Harper is bound to provide a bountiful supply of home runs and exciting plays, but with his All Star talent comes a myriad of off field headlines and a general feeling of self-absorbance.

Harper’s play exudes flash. Harper, himself, has admitted as much. All things considered, this is the same player that went on a one man “Make Baseball Fun Again” campaign that begged the game of baseball to infuse character into what he called a “tired” sport.

Harper’s popularity was met with the universal acceptance that he was to be crowned the face of baseball. Under Armor and Major League Baseball paraded Harper around as to inject excitement into the game’s jaded fan base. And for a while, it worked.

The only problem with being such a polarizing figure is that it magnifies an individual’s mistakes. So when Harper’s performance plummeted in 2016, people took notice. Eventually, it was no secret that the Nationals were flourishing despite the underwhelming play of Harper.

Harper’s poor season came at a terrible time for his brand. Coming off an MVP year and set to send his persona into another stratosphere (again, hard to ignore the comparison to A-Rod), Harper faltered. Entering the season, there was legitimate debate as to whether Harper or Mike Trout was the best player in the sport. This debate is no longer relevant. Trout is the unanimous decision.

For Harper to get the lucrative contract he so desperately desires, he needs to play better. Nobody will pay $400 million for .243/.373/.441 with 24 home runs. Not the Nationals. Not the Boston Red Sox. Not the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not the Philadelphia Phillies. Not even the New York Yankees.

This makes 2017 a crucial year for Harper. He was rumored to have been playing injured for much of the 2016 season, thus explaining his disappointing play. It was also widely accepted that Harper often chased pitches out of the strike zone and dealt with mechanical issues following a key May series in which the Chicago Cubs intentionally walked him 13 times.

Harper now has an opportunity to respond. Should Harper return to the same level as his 2015 season, he will be deserving of the premature acclaim and worth the off field headaches. He might even be worth $400 million.

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Max is a student at Saint Joseph's University where he is a Communication Studies major. He is a contributing writer for Baseknock MLB and the host of the Payoff Pitch Podcast, which airs every Tuesday morning.

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