WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Pitchers and catchers and even a few early position players filed into the Nationals' clubhouse in West Palm Beach, Fla., throughout Wednesday morning, rain preventing them from doing much more than playing some light catch before the team's first workout on Thursday. There is excitement around the club after an active offseason spent reloading after missing the postseason a year ago, yet one notable absence created some lingering awkwardness.
Bryce Harper remains a free agent as camps begin. By now, surely there was supposed to be some sort of resolution. Either the Nationals would be ready for the beginning of the post-Harper era or perhaps he would have re-signed, the cherry on top of a productive winter. Yet, camp begins and without many answers to one of the biggest questions in all of baseball, with Harper heading a free-agent class that still includes shortstop Manny Machado, reliever Craig Kimbrel and starter Dallas Keuchel.
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"You just kind of wait for something to happen," Stephen Strasburg said. "There isn't much news to report on, it doesn't look like. There's a lot of speculation. It's unfortunate, for sure. Everybody knows those are some of the best players in the game. And here we are, pitchers and catchers are starting. I don't know why any team would not want to have their guy ready to go for the start of the season. But it seems like the clock is ticking."
The thing is, the Nationals built a roster good enough that they do not have to completely rely on Harper's return.
The Nationals turned over nearly one-third of their roster, headlined by the addition of Patrick Corbin to pair with Strasburg and Max Scherzer to form perhaps the best trio in team history. Their young position-player core still includes stars such as Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner and they hope Victor Robles, their top prospect, is ready to play every day in center field. Washington added two new catchers, a second baseman, revamped its rotation and added bullpen pieces.
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The Braves, Phillies and Mets all improved during the offseason, but the Nationals feel they should stack up well with any of those teams. Of course, the Harper question still remains, and one player directly affected by it is Adam Eaton, who for now remains the team's projected starting right fielder. If Harper ends up returning to the Nats, creating a surplus in the outfield, Eaton would almost certainly be the odd man out. Soto and Robles are virtually untouchable, and would join Harper as one of the best young outfields in the league. So, Eaton has certainly been one of the players keeping a close eye on the ongoing Harper saga.
"It affects me, for sure. Definitely affects me," Eaton said. "I train to play 162 [games]. That's all I can think about. That's all I can really control. Going to leave it at that."
The likelihood of Harper's return to the Nationals seems slim at the moment.
Washington wants to avoid extending its payroll beyond the Competitive Balance Tax threshold. The last known meeting between the Nationals and Harper came just before Christmas, when Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, met with team owner Ted Lerner.
Until Harper signs elsewhere, however, a reunion should not be completely counted out. Maybe eventually there is a scenario where Harper will walk through the clubhouse doors as he has every year since he was drafted by the Nationals first overall in the 2010 Draft. There is a mannequin on display near those doors -- sporting the new home white jerseys for Spring Training -- that Sean Doolittle joked he has mistaken for Harper already. Doolittle even toyed with the idea of dressing the mannequin up as Harper, suggesting perhaps he could join the team in spirit.
"I think a lot of us have heard so many rumors and they seem to change every few days," Doolittle said. "It's not something that we are holding our breath for ... like, is he going to walk through those doors right now? You know? I think we're excited about the group that we have here right now, I hope there is a way that he could join us because you look at what some other teams in the NL East and around the National League, what they've done, and he would still be a really welcome addition in our lineup. But I think at the end of the day more than anything, guys want to see him get what's best for himself, get a good deal."