Bryce Harper is going to get paid, no matter where he plays next season. He wasn't one of the biggest stars of baseball this past season, even though it seems like only 20 minutes ago that the biggest young stars of baseball were supposed to be Mike Trout and Harper,
Bryce Harper is going to get paid, no matter where he plays next season. He wasn't one of the biggest stars of baseball this past season, even though it seems like only 20 minutes ago that the biggest young stars of baseball were supposed to be Mike Trout and Harper, and then everybody else.
But Harper, who just turned 26, fought his way back after hitting .214 in the first half of 2018. He's still going to be one of the game's leading men for a long time.
He could stay with the Nationals. Or he could go play with the Giants, who are supposed to have a great big rumored interest in him. Scott Boras, Harper's agent, was even saying the other day that he thinks his client could make the switch from the outfield to first base. It meant Boras, bless his heart, was doing everything except hire a skywriter to get the Yankees -- who don't really have a first baseman right now, but have lots and lots of outfielders -- into the Bryce Harper Sweepstakes.
But I hope Harper remains with the Nationals, for whom he has now played nearly the first 1,000 games of his career. In a sport where so many stars move the first chance they get, I hope Harper stays. This isn't because I'm a Nationals fan. I'm not. Just a baseball fan.
I honestly think the best free-agent story of this baseball offseason is if the biggest guy out there doesn't go to San Francisco or New York or the Cubs, or anywhere else, and continues to be the face of the Washington Nationals.
"He's one of our own and a guy that grew up with us. We'd love to have him," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said the other day.
It has been widely reported that the Nationals made a very rich, aggressive, long-term offer to Harper at the end of the regular season, as a way of keeping him as one of their own. Boras and Harper took a hard pass on that. Even people in outer space have been hearing for years that the price tag for Harper could be as much as $400 million, which would break records in baseball, something that has always mattered mightily to Boras, in particular.
When Alex Rodriguez hit the free-agent market after leaving the Mariners following the 2000 season, he signed with the Rangers for $252 million. It was probably one of those crazy coincidences you get in life that $252 million just happened to be twice what Kevin Garnett had received from the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves a few years before. At the time, Garnett's $126 million, six-year deal was the richest long-term contract in professional sports history. So Boras, with a predictable case of the cutes, doubled it for Rodriguez.
Three years later, of course, Rodriguez was willing to even take a pay cut to get out of Texas and go play with the Red Sox. The Rangers were desperate to get out from under their deal, so desperate that they paid the Yankees $67 million as part of a trade to New York. In this case, a world-record contract, all the money spent and all the money paid out to Rodriguez had bought no one happiness.
All this time later, it is Harper with a chance to break a record, even though whatever difference there is in the money that will eventually be offered by Team A or Team B or the Nationals -- who knows, maybe this time Boras is fixed on getting more money for Harper than Giancarlo Stanton got from the Marlins a few years ago -- won't affect a single day of the rest of Harper's life.
Harper has a wonderful talent for baseball. After a major slump in June (.675 OPS, two homers), he rode a Home Run Derby win at the Midsummer Classic in Washington to a huge second half. He hit .300/.434/.538 after the break and ended up with more than 30 home runs for the second time in his career, one that has been sidetracked by injuries more than once, and finally knocked in 100 runs for the first time in his career. We had always known how good he was, from the time he was a teenager. Last season Harper officially showed everybody how tough he was, in what turned into a pretty difficult season for the Nationals.
He remains the club's star, even as another teenager, Juan Soto, showed up at Nationals Park last season to become such an exciting baseball presence himself. Soto turned 20 nine days after Harper turned 26. Nationals fans can only wonder what it would be like to keep both of them in the outfield for the next five years, or even more.
"Nobody knows if I'm going to be back and nobody knows if I'm going to be in a different uniform," Harper said at the end of the regular season.
We still don't know, and neither does he. Harper has waited his turn, he has become a free agent, he gets to test the market now the way everybody else does. Eventually he will do what is best for him and what he thinks is best for his career.
He didn't just become the face of the franchise when Major League Baseball came back to Washington. He became the franchise. I hope he plays his whole career in Washington, the way Cal Ripken Jr. played his whole career with Baltimore, about an hour away.
Everybody waits now to see where Harper goes. I hope he isn't going anywhere. Not a Nationals fan. Just a baseball fan.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.