This season has been a difficult one for both Bryce Harper and his Washington Nationals. The 25-year-old veteran is hitting .217 with an .847 OPS while his team sits just one game over .500 and seven in back of the Atlanta Braves in third place in the National League East.
Harper has been eyeing the 2018-19 offseason his entire baseball career, graduating high school early and breaking into the majors at 19 so that he enters free agency prior to his age-26 season. As a result of his age and potential, rumors have circulated on possible contracts reaching as high as $500 million at different points of his career.
Yet despite sharing the NL lead in home runs (21), Harper is having a particularly bad down season by his standards. All three of his slash-line numbers sit well below his career averages and his contact percentage is 79.4 percent—almost six points lower than his mark from last season.
A .220 BABIP and 41.1 hard-hit rate indicate that he should return to his normal production, but those numbers were similar prior to his .188/.333/.341 month of June.
The Nationals have already moved Harper down to fifth in the batting order to compensate for his lack of offense.
If Harper’s struggles continue, there’s a good chance other teams will shy away from approaching anywhere near $500 million—and will likely scoff at $400 million as well. It may be in the right fielder’s best interests to pursue a one-year deal to rebuild his value. After all, he’d still only be 27 the following offseason.
However, the Nats are already dealing with a logjam in the outfield. Juan Soto broke onto the scene as a 19-year-old this season and has been the team’s best hitter since making his MLB debut. Adam Eaton is finally healthy and owns a .309 average in 27 games this season. Michael Taylor leads the league in stolen bases and has an .891 OPS since May 21.
That picture is only going to get murkier next season, when top prospect Victor Robles is back on the field after hyperextending his elbow on a diving catch in the outfield earlier this year. Washington may have to trade an outfielder to clear some roster space even before considering bringing back Harper.
With Daniel Murphy, Matt Wieters, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Adams, Jeremy Hellickson, Ryan Madson, Shawn Kelly and Kelvin Herrera all set to join Harper in free agency, Washington will have plenty of needs to address this winter.
Although those respective free agents’ salaries amount to over $84 million in cleared payroll, the Nationals will be in the market for a second baseman, a catcher, a left-handed starting pitcher, at least one set-up man and the ever-important backup first baseman as injury insurance for Ryan Zimmerman. Anthony Rendon is also a primary candidate for an extension with just one more season remaining on his rookie deal.
Simply put, the money may not be available to fill a hole that isn’t there. While it may suit Harper well to return to the District on a one-year deal, the Nationals may not be able to afford to take such an expensive risk on a player hoping for a bounce-back year.
There is, of course, the good relationship between Harper’s agent Scott Boras and the Lerner family. Harper is also the face of the franchise and beloved by most of the fanbase. There are more reasons than money and a deep depth chart—Harper has asked manager Davey Martinez if he could try playing first base—but the financial implications loom.
None of this will matter if Harper finds a way to regain his form. The Nationals would gladly sign their former No. 1 overall pick to a lifetime extension and likely wouldn’t think twice about trading either Taylor or Eaton to make room in the lineup.
However, if this poor stretch of play does continue, Harper may not be returning to Washington next season—and it might not be on his own terms.