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Harper getting 19 games a year to haunt Nats

Roller-coaster ride ends with slugger leaving for division rival
@JamalCollier
February 28, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH -- The winter-long saga known as Bryce Harper’s free agency finally reached its conclusion on Thursday afternoon when Harper agreed to a record-setting 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies, sources confirmed to MLB.com, the largest guaranteed contract in the history of American professional sports. The deal,

WEST PALM BEACH -- The winter-long saga known as Bryce Harper’s free agency finally reached its conclusion on Thursday afternoon when Harper agreed to a record-setting 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies, sources confirmed to MLB.com, the largest guaranteed contract in the history of American professional sports. The deal, which has not been confirmed by the club, will secure Harper’s future in Philadelphia through 2031 with a no-trade clause and without any opt-out clauses.

The Nationals had been preparing for the possibility of losing Harper all offseason and in some ways for years, but now they must prepare for a reality in which their former superstar and franchise player has joined one of their biggest division rivals. They will be reunited with him 19 times a year, the first coming April 2 at Nationals Park.

“Hey, we get to face him,” Max Scherzer said as the details began to emerge following his Grapefruit League start against the Red Sox. “It'll be fun."

And now the Bryce Harper era in D.C. is finally, officially over.

They were joined together for seven years, filled with exhilarating highs and dejecting failures. Harper transformed from an uber-hyped prospect as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2010 Draft into a National League Rookie of the Year in 2012 and then the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2015. With him, the Nationals rose from the bottom of the National League East into a perennial postseason contender. This was the only organization he had ever known. He was the player they had signed, drafted and developed into a superstar. Ownership called him family.

Harper erupted onto the scene as a rookie in 2012. He played like his hair was on fire, stealing home and running into walls. Hammering home runs on Opening Day became a habit. He had the memorable soundbites: "That’s a clown question, bro” in 2012; “Where’s my ring” before the 2015 season. Then, Harper’s ’15 season was one of the best in recent history, and he became the youngest unanimous MVP in NL history at the age of 22. The ending was darkened a bit by a brawl in the dugout near the end of the year with Jonathan Papelbon, who had been acquired at the non-waiver Trade Deadline and took issue with Harper’s hustle. Well, several people took issue with Harper’s flair and personality through the years -- Cole Hamels, Papelbon, Hunter Strickland, anonymous execs who called him a losing player -- but general manager Mike Rizzo defended him at virtually every turn.

Last summer, the fans roared and worked themselves into a frenzy as Harper won the Home Run Derby at Nationals Park. In retrospect, the Derby will feel like a last hurrah, one last night on a major stage where Harper and the city got to embrace one another.

With Harper, the Nationals never got over their playoff hump, winning four division crowns since Harper was promoted in 2012 but falling in the National League Division Series each time, losses that got more agonizing. Washington extended an offer at the end of the regular season to continue this roller-coaster ride, 10 years and $300 million to stay in D.C., but an offer loaded with more than $100 million in deferrals. Harper chose to test his hand in free agency.

It took four months of negotiating with Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, in numerous meetings with teams in his hometown of Las Vegas. The Phillies remained the front-runner through much of this saga, determined to flex their financial might and land one of the winter’s biggest prizes. Harper and Manny Machado ultimately both garnered record-breaking deals. Machado signed a 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres. Harper bested Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million commitment with the Marlins before the start of the 2014 season, although Harper’s average annual value will fall well short of Machado’s deal.

Meanwhile, the Nats’ front office began constructing its post-Harper team. The club signed the best free agent starter on the market in Patrick Corbin to fortify the rotation. The Nationals added another new starting pitcher, a new catcher, a second baseman and a pair of new relievers. They have two of the most talented young outfielders in MLB in Juan Soto and Victor Robles to take Harper’s place at Nationals Park. And while it may be small compensation, because Harper rejected a qualifying offer the Nationals will receive a compensation pick after the fourth round in this year’s draft (usually in the mid-100s).

Throughout the winter, the Nationals said publicly they had left the proverbial door open for a reunion, but those hopes rested on a sudden change of heart from ownership. Once the Nats signed Corbin in December, this day felt like a fait accompli.

It might be impossible to truly prepare for the impact of losing Harper, who is still one of the most feared hitters in the game and is capable of transforming a lineup just by slotting his name into the middle of it. But the Nationals have built a team that seems capable of withstanding the loss.

If not, well, they have 247 meetings with the Phillies scheduled for the next 13 seasons in what could be a painful reminder of what was once their own.

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.