Harper puts 2016 struggles in rearview mirror

Slugger says he knows cause of down season, but is focused on job at hand

February 18th, 2017

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- says he knows why his production dropped during a disappointing 2016 season coming off winning the National League's Most Valuable Player Award in '15. But during his first meeting with the media this Spring Training, he did not elaborate on what was different.

"Yeah I mean I know exactly why, but I mean that's all last year," Harper said Saturday morning when asked if he knew the cause of his 2016 struggles.

Harper offered hints that he was playing through some sort of potential injury -- something the Nationals have vehemently denied. His agent, Scott Boras, has said Harper was playing with limitations, while the 24-year-old star right fielder has previously been quiet or dodged questions about it.

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"Just playing and doing everything the right way and staying in the lineup," Harper said. "You want to do that. That's what I did every single day. I stayed in the lineup, tried to play 150 games, went to [manager] Dusty [Baker] and wanted to play every single day. I was able to do that and hopefully help this team perform. That's what I'm going to do every single day this year."

Harper appeared in 147 games last season and did not spend any time on the disabled list, only missing time in mid-August for a stiff neck. A report came out shortly after that Harper had also been playing through a shoulder injury, which the Nats refuted. He did not undergo any offseason surgeries. Despite his struggles, Harper's numbers at the end of the season would be a nice year for most players. He hit .243/.373/.441 with an .814 OPS, 24 home runs and 21 stolen bases for 1.6 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference.

However, Harper is not most players. This is one of baseball's biggest stars and best players, who has been highly touted since he was in high school, the No. 1 overall Draft pick in 2010, the NL Rookie of the Year at 19 years old and the youngest unanimous MVP in MLB history in '15.

Last season was perhaps the longest period of time Harper has ever struggled in his baseball career.

"You're in the big leagues, and these guys aren't going to let you just keep beating on them," Baker said. "They're going to make adjustments. And now it's up to you to make counter adjustments."

Harper understands that this game is "what have you done for me lately," although he said he did not spend much time this winter thinking about baseball. He said he turned the page on last season the day after the Nats lost to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series. When asked about the Nationals' moves this past offseason, he responded that the biggest move he was excited about was the move to West Palm Beach, which is interesting considering he crypticly tweeted "Wow..." after the team acquired via trade in December.

Harper married his longtime girlfriend, Kayla in December, and he appears to have bulked up during his offseason workout routine. He posted a photo on Instagram earlier this week of a scale reading 230 pounds, an increase from his 2016 listed weight of 215 pounds.

"Everybody that said I was worried about baseball this offseason, I could care less," Harper said. "I think [I was] doing everything possible I could to enjoy my offseason and enjoy my family. This was definitely one of the best offseasons I've had in long time. I actually enjoyed this offseason a lot more than my MVP year."

The Nationals are counting on Harper to bounce back from whatever was hindering him last season, whether it was injury or lack of adjustments. He could transform their lineup into one of the most feared in baseball, while another down year could raise questions on the reported $400 million contract he will seek when he reaches free agency after the 2018 season.

The biggest reason Baker is not concerned about Harper rebounding in 2017 -- confidence.

"I don't think he's ever been lacking the confidence. Even when he wasn't hitting a lick, he had confidence," Baker said. "And confidence is something that will take you through areas where you've never been before.

"No I'm not worried about Bryce. I think he'll learn from it, and when he's in that situation again of getting in a hole, he'll know how to get out of that hole a lot quicker."