Rizzo: Harper 'in our plans' for future

Reflective Nats star set to enter highly anticipated free agency

September 30th, 2018

DENVER -- The situation was always going to be awkward, with so much uncertainty surrounding whether this would truly be goodbye. did his best to not treat it like a farewell, insisting at every turn that no one knew whether Sunday's 12-0 loss to the Rockies was his final game in a Nationals uniform, so he treated it like just another game.

At times, his emotions betrayed his wishes. He became more reflective the past few weeks, both about D.C. as a city and the organization as a whole. He dressed in full uniform well before game time during the Nats' home finale, because he said he wanted to experience putting on the home white jersey again. He choked back a few tears during an on-field postgame interview Sunday with the team sideline reporter.

Yet, Harper has spent the past few weeks reiterating how much he likes this organization and would like to remain with it -- if he is in the team's plans.

"Of course he's in our plans," general manager Mike Rizzo said Sunday morning. "He's a guy we would love to have. He's a part of our family. He's a big part of this roster, performance-wise. Like I've always said with these type of deals, you're not betting on the baseball player, you're betting on the person. He's a person we'd like to have with us."

This is the only organization Harper has ever known, the one that made him the first overall selection in the 2010 MLB Draft at 17 years old. He made his MLB debut with the Nats at the age of 19 and became the National League Rookie of the Year. By '15, he had blossomed into the NL MVP Award winner and cemented himself among baseball's most talented stars.

Harper has played in 927 games in his Nationals career, more than anyone except the man they call Mr. National, . The biggest question now remains where Harper, who will become a free agent this winter, will play his next game.

"Nobody knows if I'm going to be back and nobody knows if I'm going to be in a different uniform," Harper said. "For me, it was more about being home in D.C. when I was there. Today, it's just I can go into the offseason like any other offseason. I'm not thinking about it too much."

Of course, this will not be just another offseason.

Harper will try to treat it as such, spending time with his wife, Kayla, and their dog, Wrigley, this offseason at their home in Las Vegas and mixing in some travel along the way.

Harper, who turns 26 in October, will be one of the most sought-after free agents in all of baseball this offseason and his free agency has been highly anticipated for years. He could challenge for perhaps the largest contract in MLB history.

"If I'm back with D.C. or back with the Nationals, that's where I'll be," Harper said. "If I'm not, I'm not afraid of change."

The Nationals transformed into one of the league's most-successful franchises since Harper's arrival to the Majors. Each of those seven seasons has been a winning campaign, including four division titles, even if the postseason has ended in disappointment. Yet, Harper didn't suggest there was unfinished business because he gave everything he had on the field.

That included this tumultuous 2018 season, in which Harper endured one of the worst slumps of his career. But he was proud of his numbers at season's end, which included playing in a career-high 159 games with a slash line of .249/.393/.496 with 34 homers and 100 RBIs.

"Here's a kid that at 25 years old was hitting .210, as a superstar," manager Dave Martinez said. "He could have fell apart, knowing that he's going to a big free agent year."

On Sunday, Harper slotted into his usual third spot in the lineup and returned to right field as the veteran among this Nationals outfield, with 19-year-old Juan Soto in left and 21-year-old in center. Those two players represent two possible pillars for the club's next era.

And the question has remained whether they will serve as replacements for Harper or pieces to convince him the future is bright in Washington.

"There's few players I talk to more than Bryce Harper over his career with us," Rizzo said. " ... We have great communication between us. I think he's aware not only of my interest in him, his career and his life, but also ownership's and the organization's."

Martinez and coaching staff to return next season

Rizzo reiterated Sunday that he expects Martinez and his entire coaching staff to return in 2019, echoing his comments from about a month ago about Martinez's status after a disappointing season for the Nationals.

"We haven't considered anything else," Rizzo said. "We think he's got a firm grasp on the clubhouse and he's doing a good job in the dugout. We think he's getting better each and every day, each and every game. I really like the way the team has responded to him, and I think they're playing extremely hard for him."

A year ago, Rizzo made similar comments about bringing back then-manager Dusty Baker, who the team ultimately did not bring back after their losing in the National League Division Series. The difference between this year and last is that Martinez is under contract for two more seasons, and the Nats have shown no intention of parting with him.

Even as Washington faded from contending in the past month before it was mathematically eliminated from the postseason, the team remained competitive enough to seal a seventh consecutive winning season.

"Effort is a key. I think this team has a lot of pride," Rizzo said. "I've seen teams that, when you get out of the race and aren't playing well, there's a lot of finger-pointing and excuse-making, and things can go south. I haven't seen that one bit this season. I see a great leadership group in the clubhouse, and Davey has a firm hold and firm grasp of things."