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Bryce Harper is gone, but the Washington Nationals planned for this

The Bryce Harper era in Washington, D.C., has officially ended. That doesn’t mean the Nationals’ window of contention is closing anytime soon.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

You can pick your jaws up off the floor, folks.

$330 million. 13 years. No opt outs. A full no-trade clause. Fully guaranteed with no money deferred. 81 home games a season in cozy Citizens Bank Park and 19 against his former team.

Bryce Harper has signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Despite the division of the Washington Nationals’ fanbase — separated by those on either side of the “Would Bryce have been worth the money?” debate — that has been at the forefront of discussion among fans for years, one thing is clear: This is going to be weird.

No. 34 will look out of place on those powder blue uniforms. It won’t be easy getting used to watching Harper’s highlights on SportsCenter overlaid by Tom McCarthy’s voice rather than Bob Carpenter’s. Fans are already split on whether or not they’ll applaud the right fielder upon his return to Nationals Park on April 2.

All of that is just to say… The Nationals saw this coming. Perhaps they hoped Harper would find sanctuary on the West Coast, closer to his hometown of Las Vegas and away from the already loaded NL East. But when Phillies owner John Middleton announced two weeks into the offseason that his ballclub would be big spenders in free agency and “maybe even be a little bit stupid about it,” Mike Rizzo and Co. had to know it was a possibility.

Yet over a month before Middleton made his emphatic proclamation that the Phillies were ready to contend, the Nationals made the first trade of the MLB offseason when they acquired Kyle Barraclough from the Miami Marlins. Two weeks later, they became the first team of the winter to sign a major-league free agent when they inked Trevor Rosenthal to a one-year deal.

Separate transactions for low-cost relievers typically aren’t all that significant, but these moves proved to be indicators of things to come. In total, the Nationals acquired nine players projected to make the Opening Day roster over the offseason, spending more money on free-agent contracts than any team not currently employing Harper or Manny Machado.

However, this planning didn’t begin the day after Washington lost Game 162. Midway through Harper’s second season with the Nationals, Rizzo began constructing his outfield of the future when he signed 16-year-old Victor Robles. Two years later, Juan Soto agreed to a $1.5 million signing bonus to enter their minor-league system. The final piece of the puzzle was Adam Eaton, whom the Nationals acquired from the Chicago White Sox in December 2016.

All of this occurred before Thursday, when Fancred’s Jon Heyman broke the news that Harper was signing with Philadelphia. The Nationals have known there was a chance Harper would test free agency since the day he hired Scott Boras as his agent and it likely came as no surprise when Harper turned down the team’s reported $300 million offer. Despite losing the face of their franchise and one of the key cogs in their lineup, the Nationals will enter next season with as good of a shot to win the NL East as any division rival — if not better.

Harper’s decision to sign with a division rival hurts; there’s no getting around that. The Phillies have been rumored to be the favorites to sign him all offseason, but it doesn’t make it any easier to see a franchise icon officially depart to join sides with the enemy.

Yet FanGraphs projects Washington to win the division with 90 wins this season, two games better than the Phillies even with Harper. The Nationals figure to be right in the thick of the playoff race in 2019 and beyond, just as the Phillies, on the cusp of completing a rebuild, believe they’re just getting started.

It’s OK if this deal came as a complete surprise, forced you to face an uncertain reality and left you wondering how you’ll be able to handle watching Harper play in Phillies pinstripes.

The Nationals were ready. None of this caught them off guard and plans were already in motion. The only question now is whether it’ll be the Nationals standing in the way of Harper making it to the players, or Harper standing in the way of the Nationals.