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OPINION: Latest postseason defeat paints uncertain future for Bryce Harper

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The Washington Nationals failed once again to advance past the NLDS, raising further questions about where Bryce Harper will sign once he hits free agency.

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MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Following the team’s latest disappointing playoff run, the Washington Nationals have several questions to address before next season. Who replaces Jayson Werth in the outfield? Did Dusty Baker earn a new contract? Who will be the No. 5 starter while Joe Ross works his way back from Tommy John surgery? Should the front office go after another catcher with Matt Wieters having a down year and Jose Lobaton set to hit free agency?

While those are questions that will be vital to making it back to the playoffs in 2018, none loom larger than those concerning Bryce Harper’s future in D.C. The five-time All-Star has just one campaign left with the club that drafted him first overall in 2010 before his rookie contract expires.

“I think Bryce is certainly comfortable in Washington and it’s been a franchise that has been competitive,” Harper’s agent Scott Boras said on the MLB Network Radio show Inside Pitch back in June. “The ownership has made sure that the team has had the wherewithal to compete every year, and I think when a player sits down to look at clubs and free agency, they want to make sure that they enjoy the city and they have an ownership that takes the perspective that the Lerner family takes, so it’s something where he’s comfortable there.”

Several things have changed since June. The Nationals, now eliminated from the playoffs, have yet to capitalize on the four division titles they’ve won with Harper on the team. A freak accident also forced him to miss 42 games with knee and calf injuries, keeping Harper from qualifying for the batting title while likely knocking him out of the crowded NL MVP conversation.

If the Nats strike out early in the postseason yet again next year, it could be their biggest roadblock to signing Harper long term. If the injury bug bites him again and he isn’t seeing the kinds of offers he’s looking for as a free agent, he could explore signing a one-year contract to rebuild his value.

The Nats are in good shape financially to sign Harper to a long-term deal. By Spotrac’s estimation, they will owe $108 million to five different players in 2019. By 2022, however, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg will be the only players on the team with guaranteed contracts — given Strasburg doesn’t take either of his opt outs. That gives Washington plenty of flexibility to backload his deal if needed.

Whether it’s the front office’s doing or the ownership’s, the Nationals are big on deferred money. For evidence of that, look no further than the $105 million of Scherzer’s $210 million deal that will be paid after his tenure in the District. Daniel Murphy and Wieters also agreed to predetermined amounts of deferred salary when signing their respective free agency deals with Washington.

With Harper expected to demand some type of deal in the $450 million range, he will need to be willing to wait for some of that money to come rolling in if he decides to stay with the Nats. Forbes pegs Ted Lerner as the third-richest owner in baseball, so there’s plenty of money to go around if the Nats do decide to break the bank for their star. Ultimately, however, the decision lands on his shoulders.

Boras’ players almost always hit the market, leaving very little chance that Harper will sign a deal prior to next season — although it’s worth noting that Strasburg, a fellow client, signed his extension in the middle of last season despite his looming free agency. Even so, Harper has always talked about his desire to win above all else, and that’s something the Nats need to prove is possible while he’s still around.

When it’s all said and done, the 2017 season may be looked upon as the year the Nats lost Harper. He may not hit free agency for another 12 months, but for a roster stacked with star-studded talent in all facets of the game, the NLDS simply isn’t good enough. Postseason demons or not, D.C. must find a way to crack the code and make it deeper into the playoffs before it’s too late.