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Buckle up: Harper set for fascinating year

MLB.com @MikeLupica

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Somehow, even in the Spring Training cluster of red jerseys on a back field on the Nationals side of The Ballpark of The Palm Beaches, with the sound of T.I. blasting out of a Sony speaker set in the green grass, the morning organizes itself around Bryce Harper, who is about to begin the most interesting potential walk year anyone has ever had in baseball. Or maybe any professional sport.

Alex Rodriguez was still just 25 when he set a record for free agents by signing a 10-year contract with the Texas Rangers for $252 million prior to the 2001 season. Now it is expected that Harper might not just break a record for himself, but become the first free agent in sports history to earn a contract of more than $400 million. Harper is 25. He will be 26 when he becomes eligible for free agency at the end of this season.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Somehow, even in the Spring Training cluster of red jerseys on a back field on the Nationals side of The Ballpark of The Palm Beaches, with the sound of T.I. blasting out of a Sony speaker set in the green grass, the morning organizes itself around Bryce Harper, who is about to begin the most interesting potential walk year anyone has ever had in baseball. Or maybe any professional sport.

Alex Rodriguez was still just 25 when he set a record for free agents by signing a 10-year contract with the Texas Rangers for $252 million prior to the 2001 season. Now it is expected that Harper might not just break a record for himself, but become the first free agent in sports history to earn a contract of more than $400 million. Harper is 25. He will be 26 when he becomes eligible for free agency at the end of this season.

They keep breaking into the big leagues younger. It just puts them on the market sooner. This isn't about Harper being the best player in the game. He's not -- even though he is sometimes discussed as if he were LeBron -- maybe because we have known about him since he was in high school. But he is a big talent and a big, good-looking, leading-man star. And as one manager who's not going to be unhappy if Harper leaves Washington after the season, said on Tuesday, "[Harper] likes the moment and that's a good thing. Because whatever club is going to pay him, what they're going to pay him is going to expect him to like the moment."

There was another moment, back when Derek Jeter was young, when he was walking through the Yankees' clubhouse one Sunday morning. I was sitting having coffee with David Cone, who watched Jeter breeze through the room and said with a smile, "It's good being Derek."

Oh, baby, is it good being Bryce Harper these days, as he is about to be the most coveted free agent since A-Rod.

Video: Outlook: Harper one of game's most feared hitters

So here Harper was on a back field in February, playing catch with Michael A. Taylor, slowly backing up toward center field until he was long-tossing with Taylor, before all the Nationals' outfielders would begin fly-ball drills. The fans hanging over the fence out here wore red No. 34 jerseys and black No. 34 jerseys, all expected to be collector's items when this season is over -- simply because the conventional wisdom is that Harper will move on to the Cubs or the Dodgers or the Yankees or the Philles when his contract ends. So there is the sense, even as the baseball season is just beginning for him and his team in the facility off Haverhill Road, at the opposite end of the complex from where the World Series champion Astros train, that this is the beginning of an ending for Harper as well.

The day before, as Harper met with the media here, he laid down his personal ground rules for the upcoming season and the general top of his free agency.

"Just want to let you guys know I will not be discussing anything relative to 2019, at all," Harper said. "I'm focused on this year. I'm focused on winning and playing hard, like every single year. So if you guys have any questions about anything after 2018, you can call [agent Scott Boras] and he can answer you guys. So I'm not going to answer any questions. So if you guys do [ask] anything or talk about anything about that, then I'll be walking right out the door."

Apparently he was under the impression that if there was a question about free agency, and he did walk out the door, that everyone in the room would have died of heartbreak in that moment. Harper is smart not to talk about 2019 in '18, because there is nothing for him in that conversation. But on a day when he had some notes for himself on his phone, he needed to be more facile with the delete key. Or he was simply one more modern athlete in desperate need of an editor.

Video: Bryce Harper not focusing on free agency

Harper is some ballplayer. But not Mike Trout. Not Jose Altuve. If all the best young players in baseball were on one field, he might not be picked ahead of Aaron Judge, either, and perhaps not before gifted shortstops like Manny Machado or Carlos Correa or even Francisco Lindor. But he is the hot, young star with the hot bat who's about to hit the market, and that is all that is going to matter -- even as Machado hits the market at the same time.

Harper has already been an MVP once, and might have been on his way to another MVP season when he sustained a bone bruise last August. He hit 42 home runs in his MVP season in 2015, the only time in his six-year career that he has hit more than 30. He has never had 100 RBIs. It won't matter, the way the injuries that have slowed him down, won't matter, when he becomes available. But it will be great sports theater to see how he does this season as he tries to make the Nationals be more than they have ever been in October and remind people, across an entire season, the way he can hit when he is at his very best.

Once, in that MVP year, Harper looked like the most interesting man in the baseball world. Now things have changed slightly. But he is still the most interesting walk year. "I got the top spot" was one of the lyrics from T.I. in the song to which they were all listening in West Palm this morning. There are always big stakes for all the top guys in sports. None bigger than the ones for Harper. You always hear the expression about them throwing the money on the table in sports. Never quite like this.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com. He also writes for the New York Daily News.

Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper