Bryce Harper is done in D.C. after next year. Or maybe he’s not.
At this point, the only person who knows for sure is, well, nobody. Set to become a free agent following the 2018 season, Harper might sign with the New York Yankees. Or the Los Angeles Dodgers. Or the Chicago Cubs or the Philadelphia Phillies or any other team willing to open up its wallet for the former MVP’s services. Or he could re-sign with the Washington Nationals, the only franchise he has known since being taken first overall in the 2010 draft.
There’s always a chance Harper and the Nationals could agree to a long-term extension sometime between now and 11 months from now, when his current deal is slated to expire. But given that he is represented by agent Scott Boras, who’s known for carrying his clients to full term when it comes to free agency, the odds aren’t good.
Speaking of odds, assuming Harper does hit the open market next year, the Yankees are the current favorite to sign him. That’s according to oddsmaker Geoff Johnson of mytopsportsbooks.com, who puts New York’s odds at 7-3, slightly ahead of Washington (5-2) and also better than Chicago (8-1) and Philly (10-1).
That’s not to say Harper’s days in The District are numbered. Given his history with the Nationals, and given the club’s relationship with Boras (five of Washington’s seven highest-paid players are Boras clients), it wouldn’t be a shock if the 25-year-old slugger ends up staying in D.C. Still, with the winter meetings set to kick off next week in Orlando, Florida, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo needs to start planning for the very real possibility that the face of the franchise will bolt — which is to say, he needs to figure out how to make the most of what might be Harper’s final year in the nation’s capital.
Here are five things Rizzo needs to accomplish this offseason in order to make the most out of Harper’s walk year:
1. Add another arm to the rebuilt bullpen. Last winter, the Nats’ bullpen needed a complete makeover. A year later, a little touch-up should do the trick. Closer Sean Doolittle, the trade-deadline acquisition who helped Washington’s woeful pen pull off a 180, is still under contract. Ditto for setup man Ryan Madson, who came over from Oakland in the same deal that netted Doolittle. But the next three most important relievers from last year’s division champs — Matt Albers, Brandon Kintzler and Oliver Perez — are all free agents. Albers had a career year, Kintzler had 29 saves and Perez has 15 years of tenure, so all three figure to be relatively pricey for middle men. Not to mention, veteran Shawn Kelley — who battled injury and ineffectiveness last year — will earn $5.5 million next season. So Rizzo will need to be a shrewd shopper when it comes to adding an arm or two to flesh out the rest of Washington’s pen.
2. Find a fifth starter. Led by ace Max Scherzer, the Nats’ top three starters are as good as any in baseball. In fact, Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez all finished among the top six in the National League Cy Young voting, with Scherzer winning the award for a second straight season. Despite a down year, No. 4 man Tanner Roark is only one season removed from a top 10 Cy Young finish of his own. So yeah, the rotation is pretty good. But that doesn’t mean there’s not work to be done. Two years ago as a rookie, Joe Ross looked like the next great Nationals pitcher. But he has had trouble staying healthy since then, which has turned the No. 5 slot into a question mark. Prospect A.J. Cole, who started eight games and posted a sub-4.00 ERA last season, could be the answer. So could former first-rounder Erick Fedde. But Rizzo — who threw $210 million at Scherzer a couple of years ago, even though the rotation seemed solid already — doesn’t like leaving things to chance when it comes to his precious starting five. So look for Washington to be a player in the pitching market.
3. Replace the lost bats on the bench. The bench was a huge factor in helping the Nationals to their fourth division title in six years. But pinch hitter supreme Adam Lind, whose mutual option was declined, is a free agent. So too is deadline pickup Howie Kendrick and infielder Stephen Drew, both of whom helped Washington survive injuries to key players. Wilmer Difo, who subbed in admirably at shortstop after Trea Turner suffered a broken wrist, is still around, but he might find himself starting at second base if Daniel Murphy (knee) isn’t ready to go in April. In other words, the Nats could use some reserve reinforcements.
4. Extend the other superstar. Anthony Rendon isn’t a household name like Harper. He doesn’t love the spotlight like Harper. But he’s arguably just as valuable as Harper. The 27-year-old third baseman finished sixth in the MVP voting last year, and his 6.9 fWAR led all National League players. Even though Rendon, like Harper, is repped by Boras, his low-key, attention-phobic personality is a lot like that of Strasburg, a fellow Boras client who agreed to a long-term extension in May 2016. With Rendon two years away from becoming a free agent, now is the time for Rizzo to try to lock him up. If he succeeds, it would go a long way toward ensuring Washington remains a perennial contender beyond next season — with or without Harper.
5. Win the World Series. Obviously, this can’t happen for another 300 days or so. But that doesn’t mean Rizzo and the Nats can’t start thinking about the one thing that will make it seem OK if and when Harper chooses to fly the coop. They’ve been to the playoffs four times with Harper, and all four times, they’ve gotten bounced in the National League Division Series despite being the higher seed. If they make it 0-for-5, losing Harper on top of that would be a gut punch. If, however, they can win four against the American League champs next year, then losing Harper won’t seem nearly as painful. And it might help convince him to come back for more.