WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On a blazing Presidents Day morning, the Washington Nationals encountered a moment they knew was possible for the better part of a decade – moving on from Bryce Harper.
“I think everyone can feel him,” says outfielder Adam Eaton before the Nationals’ first full-squad workout Monday. “He’s been a staple of our organization for six, seven years plus. You don’t just leave and not leave a little residue behind.
“You know that he, along with other players, built this organization to where it is today. He doesn’t just leave.”
Make no mistake: The odds of Harper’s return to the Nationals are significantly long. With various reports indicating negotiations for the 26-year-old superstar are picking up with the Philadelphia Phillies it could just be a matter of time before he’s officially an ex-Nat.
Then again, with super agent Scott Boras involved and the Nationals suddenly one of baseball’s standards for investing in premium talent, there’s always the chance for an 11th-hour circle back before any deal is signed.
And that creates a challenge for any Nationals who are more inclined to rip the Band-Aid off and roll headlong into the post-Harper era.
RULE CHANGES: Pitch clock coming this spring
ICHIRO: Legend grateful for last ride with Mariners
While closure is elusive, his (probably) former teammates also are hoping Harper and fellow unsigned All-Star Manny Machado maximize their value in a financial climate where just nine free agents agreed to deals longer than two years as spring training began.
“We’re not waiting for him to walk through those doors right now,” says closer Sean Doolittle. “But we are paying attention to what people are talking about, some of the rumors out there.
“As much as he’d be a welcome addition to our lineup, I think we just want to see he and Manny and (former Cy Young winner Dallas) Keuchel and others get compensated fairly – in terms of what they bring to a team in terms of wins and revenue.”
Harper has been the focal point of that energy deficit, and for good reason. He rolled from rolled from first overall pick in 2010 to NL Rookie of the Year in 2012 to NL MVP by 2015.
He debuted at 19 and was a free agent by 26. In an odd twist of fate, the Nationals currently have the only player in the major leagues who could be free-agent eligible by 26: Outfielder Juan Soto, who figures to never see the minor leagues after a stirring debut as a 19-year-old in 2018.
Soto and other homegrown talent such as shortstop Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon remain the building blocks of the organization. But the Nationals’ aggressive off-season – a $300 million offer to Harper, a six-year, $140 million deal for lefty Patrick Corbin and a one-year deal for All-Star second baseman Brian Dozier – paint them as the most aggressive franchise in recent years.
It makes this camp far sunnier than it could have been with the (probable?) deletion of Harper.
“I can’t tell you,” says Doolittle, “how awesome it is to be a part of one of the few teams in baseball that’s constantly looking to get better each offseason, at a time where that’s the exception, not the rule.”
Says Dozier, who signed a one-year, $9 million deal: “I love teams that are all-in on winning. And that was one of the best, motivating factors in choosing where to come. When I saw from afar what the Nationals were doing, especially early on in free agency, it’s very appealing to me. I love that.”
Reinforcements were necessary after a disappointing 82-win season broke their two-year hold on the NL East. Initially, GM Mike Rizzo worked on parallel tracks, constructing a roster that could function whether or not Harper returned.
While it’s never over until it’s over, Rizzo has moved off his “We love the kid/would love to have him back” mantra into a more pragmatic stance.
“We’re going to talk about the players that we have here, that are on the team,” he said . “We’re not going to talk about the players we don’t have on the team. We have a roster that we like, and we’re poised to start the season as is because we really like the team we have.”
Even if the rival Phillies add Harper, they still won’t have the rotation depth the Nationals enjoy with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal.
It was Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million deal signed before the 2015 season that ultimately framed the Nationals as big spenders.
“I had my first meeting with Rizzo in spring training when I first got traded over,” said Eaton, acquired from the Chicago White Sox in December 2016. “He said, ‘We’re not afraid to pay players.’ From a psychological standpoint, everybody sees that, and loves it, and loves an organization that pays players.
“In turn, you see players like Scherzer, who’s outkicking his coverage in terms of contract, I think. They want to make us happy in order to get a return on performing.”
And so Day 1, Post-Harper (probably?) was a low key affair, a reloaded squad quietly eager to reassert their divisional dominance, even as their former star awaits his destination.
“Weird,” says Doolittle, “is one way to put it.
“But the guys in here are excited that we reloaded and we’re going to compete again this year and make a run at the World Series.”
Even without Harper. (Most likely).