Bryce Harper doesn’t want to talk about his future beyond 2018, which makes sense for a player on a team with World Series aspirations in a contract year, who just wants to focus on what he can control and the task at hand.
There will be no bigger (baseball) story in the nation’s capital over the next six months, however, unless the 2018 Washington Nationals can bring the World Series back to D.C. for the first time since 1933.
Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo told MLB Network Radio hosts Eduardo Perez and Steve Phillips last weekend he thinks Harper will be able to handle the drama and avoid having all of it become a distraction for his teammates.
“He’s not going to let it be a distraction,” Rizzo explained. “He’s nipped all those questions in the bud, and obviously, during the season it will get louder ... but I think he’s equipped for it, I mean, this guy has been in the limelight his whole life and he knows how to handle it, and I think that as we get deeper into this season that it’s going to take care of itself.”
Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, and a number of relievers are set to hit free agency next winter, as is Rizzo (though rumors of an extension for the General Manager are out there) and it’s not hyperbole to say that the franchise is at a crossroads and headed for some significant changes after the 2018 campaign.
Will the Nationals’ 2010 No. 1 overall pick sign on long-term in Washington or decide to take his talents to a new home? If they let Harper leave via free agency, do the Nationals slot Victor Robles in for Harper in right, wait for Juan Soto to develop and join the big league outfield, and then spend the money coming off the books, and what they would have committed to Harper, in what’s thought of as one of the best free agent classes in baseball history next winter?
Washington’s starting the 2017 season slightly over the competitive balance tax threshold, for the second year in a row, and they will have to pay a 30% tax on every dollar over $197M this time, and 50% if they go over again in 2019, when the line increases to $206M.
Having gone over the threshold last season, and having paid a 20% tax, the Nats were also limited in what they could do in terms of signing high-end free agents this winter.
They would have had to give up their second and fifth-highest picks in the 2018 draft if they did, and would, additionally, have had to surrender $1M in international signing bonus pool money if they were to sign any of the free agents who received a qualifying offer from their 2017 team this winter, with rumors tying them to both Jake Arrieta (who eventually signed on in Philadelphia) and Greg Holland, as the starter and reliever, both clients of Scott Boras, looked for the right deals in a slow market.
The Nationals apparently decided against spending big on a starting pitcher who could have slotted into the rotation behind NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg (who finished third in the 2017 Cy Young race), and pushed Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark back.
Will they stick with the younger, more reasonably-priced A.J. Cole as their fifth starter?
It looks like it, at least at the start this season.
Top pitching prospect Erick Fedde appears likely to start the season in Triple-A, in spite of his success this Spring, and the Nationals have veterans Edwin Jackson, Tommy Milone, and Jeremy Hellickson as depth now. Is it enough?
With all the history between the Nats and Boras, there were multiple reports out there this winter speculating that the defending NL East champs would end up signing yet another Boras’ client, right up to the point Arrieta signed with the Phillies.
Rizzo and Co. in the front office in D.C. would have had to go further over the competitive balance threshold to do so, but knowing that regardless of what happens with Harper there will be significant contracts coming off the books next winter, it could have made sense.
With a number of teams clearing payroll to reset the penalty level after going over the luxury tax threshold last season, setting themselves up to spend big next offseason, the Nationals’ GM was asked earlier this winter about how his team is planning for what lies ahead after the 2018 campaign.
“I think that everyone positions themselves,” Rizzo explained. “Everyone’s got their long-term plans. We’re no different. We try to focus in on ourselves, we’ve got a strategy in place, we’ve got a game plan and a blueprint to be good for a long period of time, and that continues.”
A number of players on the 2018 roster could sign elsewhere next winter, and the Nats do have players like Anthony Rendon, another homegrown star, and potentially Strasburg, if he opts out of his 7-year/$175M extension, potentially headed for free agency after 2019, so it’s not just Harper, and not just next winter they have to be thinking about as they try to win it all this season.
“We have a long-term strategy for his organization,” Rizzo said this week.
“We always have a one, three, and five-year snapshot of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to get done.”
Will Rizzo be around to negotiate with Harper next winter if the outfielder does reach the free agent market? Will Harper be in D.C. beyond 2018?
If Harper leaves, will the Nationals try to sign Rendon long-term, or bring Murphy back?
Will they add to the top of the rotation next winter to replace Gonzalez, if he does leave?
There are big questions for the Nationals to answer now, in the near future, and for the next few years, and it’s all coming to a head as they try for their third straight NL East title, their first NLDS win, and the first World Series championship by a D.C.-based team in 85 years.
Rizzo thinks he’s built an organization that can keep the Nationals contenders year after year, but the makeup of the roster could change significantly over the next few seasons, so will they go all in on 2018 to try to win it all with this team? How will that affect their decision-making going forward this season?