Bryce Harper still hasn’t signed anywhere, so there’s a chance — however much of a long shot it seems at this point — that he returns to D.C. in 2019. Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo and Co. in Washington’s front office aren’t waiting around, however.
Rizzo has been hard at work this winter, building the roster for next season with a number of additions, and the Nationals are ready for life without their 2010 No. 1 overall pick if that’s what it comes to, though they’ve been clear that in spite of the moves they’ve made, the door isn’t closed if Harper decides he wants to return (though the Nats would have to blow past the luxury tax threshold at this point to sign him to the sort of deal Harper and his agent Scott Boras reportedly want).
“I’m comfortable with our offense and the ability to score runs and win games,” Rizzo said in an interview with reporters in early December, when he was asked about moving on from a lineup that featured Harper and Daniel Murphy for the last few seasons. “Like I said, I like the roster that we have currently. I think that we’ll score runs in a different manner, we’ll play the game in a different manner than we did last year, probably, but I still think that the upgrade at different positions and the upgrade in up the middle defense will help us play the game a little bit different.”
With two new catchers (Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes), a couple new relievers (right-handers Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal), a new starter (Patrick Corbin), and a familiar bat on the bench (Matt Adams), the Nationals have set themselves up to field a competitive squad in 2019 and beyond (and they’re rumored to be in the market for more starting pitching, and a second baseman, and maybe another reliever).
“I think that we’ve upgraded ourselves offensively behind the plate,” Rizzo said last month.
“I think that defensively in the outfield we’ll be much much better in Runs Saved, and I think we’re going to have to win games and maybe score a little bit differently this year. Pitching, defense, athleticism is going to really come to the forefront.”
Even without Harper, the Nationals have some admirable depth in the outfield, with second-year player Juan Soto in left in 2019, Victor Robles expected to play center in a post-Harper outfield, Adam Eaton back for another season, most likely in right in this scenario, and Michael. A. Taylor in the mix competing for the starting spot in center or as a fourth outfield option off the bench.
“We’ve got Robles, Michael, Eaton, who is going to be healthy, Soto moves pretty good in left field,” manager Davey Martinez said.
“We’re trying to get more athletic and change the game.”
Harper’s teammates, who’ve been asked for years now where Harper will eventually sign, do not seem to know what will happen either, though they’re realistic about what the future will bring.
“He deserves everything that he gets, wherever it is,” Ryan Zimmerman said at Winterfest in the nation’s capital.
“If he comes back here, I think obviously there’s no secret, whatever team he’s on is a better team. I think he’s one of the better players in the game. I think a lot of us would love to have him back here. I don’t think there’s anyone that wouldn’t like to have him back, but there’s a lot of different factors that go into that, and it’s a complicated situation.”
Has Zimmerman thought about what life without Harper would be like? Will the Nationals be okay without him?
“It’s such a tough question, because you don’t want to say, ‘Yes you would be okay,’ because Bryce is a great player,” Zimmerman continued, “... but, ‘Yes, we would be okay,’ I think is the right answer. Like I said, no team is better without him on their team I guess is the best way to put it. Fortunately for us I think the outfield is a place of strength. Juan [Soto] obviously came up last year and went crazy. Is he going to do that every single year? Probably not. But I think he has a real good chance to be an above-average major league player. Victor was hurt last year but came up and towards the end started to kind get into his groove a little bit. Adam Eaton is a great player. Michael A. Taylor showed what he can do when he gets the opportunity. So there are people there that can obviously play the outfield and I think our team can be good, but you don’t want to take anything away from Bryce by saying we would be a better team without him on the team.”
“I think everybody on that team would love to have Bryce back in right field,” Matt Adams said after he signed on to return for a second season in the Nationals’ lineup.
“What [Harper] brings to the table and just how he goes out there and plays the game. He’s passionate. I got along with him great last year and I felt like he was a great teammate and I learned a lot from him. So, the opportunity is there for him to come back and if he comes back I think it’s going to be amazing.”
Nationals’ ace Max Scherzer too said he thinks the Nats have what they need to move on from Harper if that’s how it ends up.
“If that’s the direction that ultimately happens,” Scherzer said, “that Bryce signs somewhere else, obviously you lose a bat of his stature, you’re losing a bat of his stature, and it just puts more onus on our system here, from management on down to Davey [Martinez], down to the clubhouse leaders, down to everybody on the team, that if we’re going to have more young guys on the team that we’re going to have to make sure that we’re setting the right example and that they know how to play the game right.”
Are Scherzer and his teammates tired of being asked about Harper’s future?
“We’ve dealing with it for a while,” he joked.
“This isn’t a new thing. We’ve been dealing with it for a little more than two years now. That’s just the business part of the game. It’s with every player. As soon as Bryce signs, then we’re going to be talking about [Anthony] Rendon. And that’s just the way it goes. I’ve been down that road. That’s baseball at the highest level. Contracts are part of the game, and they’re also exciting too.”