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Harper's decision could change MLB landscape

MLB.com @williamfleitch

The thing about Bryce Harper is that it is irresistible to imagine him on your team. What club wouldn't be improved -- and made massively more fun -- with him on it? It's exciting just to imagine him wearing your uniform, bashing home runs in your home ballpark, wrecking fools as your fans go crazy. Dodgers fans want him, Phillies fans want him, Cubs fans want him, Yankees fans want him, Cardinals fans want him. ESPN even put together a Choose Your Adventure Game to help decide where Harper should go. The Harper sweepstakes have been baseball's favorite parlor game for nearly three months. We can't stop playing it.

But so much of this offseason has revolved around where Harper might be going that we've forgotten to consider what would happen if he stays put. In light of the news that Harper has continued to meet with the Nationals about a possible deal -- despite reportedly turning down a 10-year, $300 million deal last September -- it's worth remembering that Harper really could just remain in Washington. We've gotten so caught up in Scott Boras, photoshopping new jerseys and the Dodgers moving parts around to free up right field that we've overlooked the possibility that Harper doesn't want to go anywhere at all. In fact, we've assumed for so long that Harper's leaving that we haven't considered what would happen if he stayed.

The thing about Bryce Harper is that it is irresistible to imagine him on your team. What club wouldn't be improved -- and made massively more fun -- with him on it? It's exciting just to imagine him wearing your uniform, bashing home runs in your home ballpark, wrecking fools as your fans go crazy. Dodgers fans want him, Phillies fans want him, Cubs fans want him, Yankees fans want him, Cardinals fans want him. ESPN even put together a Choose Your Adventure Game to help decide where Harper should go. The Harper sweepstakes have been baseball's favorite parlor game for nearly three months. We can't stop playing it.

But so much of this offseason has revolved around where Harper might be going that we've forgotten to consider what would happen if he stays put. In light of the news that Harper has continued to meet with the Nationals about a possible deal -- despite reportedly turning down a 10-year, $300 million deal last September -- it's worth remembering that Harper really could just remain in Washington. We've gotten so caught up in Scott Boras, photoshopping new jerseys and the Dodgers moving parts around to free up right field that we've overlooked the possibility that Harper doesn't want to go anywhere at all. In fact, we've assumed for so long that Harper's leaving that we haven't considered what would happen if he stayed.

So what would baseball look like if Harper stayed with the Nationals? Here's an incomplete list of ramifications:

1. The Nationals would immediately become the favorites in the National League East again.
If Harper stays, here's what Washington's lineup would look like next year:

SS Trea Turner
RF Harper
3B Anthony Rendon
LF Juan Soto
1B Ryan Zimmerman
CF Adam Eaton/Victor Robles
C Yan Gomes
2B Howie Kendrick/one-year stand-in before Carter Kieboom arrives

Also, you may remember that the Nationals already signed the top starting pitcher this offseason, Patrick Corbin, giving them a Top 3 of Max Scherzer, Corbin and Stephen Strasburg. Fold in the bullpen additions of Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough, and this looks like the best team in that division, even with Josh Donaldson on the Braves. Sure, the Nats supposedly had the most talent last year too, but we saw how it turned out. Seriously, that potential 2019 lineup looks terrifying.

Video: Corbin on excitement to join Nationals' rotation

2. The Nationals would have the most exciting young outfield in recent memory for the next half-decade.
Assuming Harper signs at least a five-year deal -- and allotting for opt-outs, of course -- you would be looking at an outfield of Soto (who put up a .923 OPS at age 19), Victor Robles (the No. 4 overall prospect) and Harper (a superstar on a Hall of Fame track who is still only 26). An outfield like that buys you a lot of leeway with the rest of your roster. Put it this way: In October 2022, all three of those guys would still be in their 20s and under team control.

3. Boras would remain an honorary National.
Boras' ability to get his clients signed by the Nationals is already legendary, but getting his most prized client to stay in Washington would be the most impressive achievement of all.

4. Soto's next decade would get a lot easier.
Soto looks like the next generational superstar in baseball -- if he and Ronald Acuna Jr. aren't eclipsed by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., anyway -- but that designation comes with an extra spotlight when you have to replace another generational superstar. If Harper stayed, Soto would just get to be himself while everyone was distracted and awed by Harper. It's a lot easier to be Scottie Pippen than it is to be Michael Jordan. Soto would get to be Pippen.

Video: Soto on his rookie year, getting prepared for 2019

5. The Dodgers would remain a team without a superstar, which might make owner Magic Johnson a tad antsy.
Ah, yes, the Dodgers -- the team that just traded Yasiel Puig, the thought went, in large part to clear a spot for Harper. Harper has felt like a perfect fit in Los Angeles for years, and Johnson obviously has a soft spot for transcendent, multi-platform superstars -- which, no offense to Justin Turner, he does not in fact have right now. If Los Angeles missed out on Harper, it would still be a great team. The club is probably still the favorite in the NL, all told. But there isn't another star out there, save for maybe Mike Trout in a couple of years, who fits what Magic wants for his team. Until the Dodgers finally win that World Series, this will remain a storyline.

6. The Phillies would try to figure out who, exactly, will take their 'stupid' money.
The Phillies have made it clear that they are prepared to spend this offseason. If Harper doesn't take the cash, and Manny Machado doesn't take the cash, who will? This is all the more pressing because, well, it's supposed to be the Phils' moment. If they can't sign either of the big dogs, they'll have fallen behind the Braves and Nationals (who just held onto their prime target) in their division. (And the Mets are still hanging around, too.) Philadelphia receded for a few years to build up to this particular moment of contention. But this is when we remind you that the Phillies, in fact, had a losing record last year. How much patience will fans have?

7. The Cubs would immediately start working even harder on a Kris Bryant extension.
The Cubs have long said they're out of the Harper sweepstakes, though no one entirely believes them. But if they are out, they best get back to the business of nailing down Bryant -- essentially their Harper, albeit one who made the play on the final out that gave Chicago its first World Series championship in more than a century -- post-haste. There were (denied) reports that the Cubs had offered Bryant a $200 million extension back in October, but either way, they have three years left before Bryant reaches free agency. (He's older than Harper; he'll be 30 when he hits the market.) If Chicago is holding back money that it could use for Harper, presumably much of it is earmarked for Bryant. With Harper out of the way, Bryant has to be its singular priority.

Video: MLB Now: Would the Cubs trade Kris Bryant?

8. The Yankees would, briefly, become a bit less hateable.
Speaking of teams who say they're out of the Harper sweepstakes (and nobody believes them) … The window in which New York was the young, fun, exciting, even likable team of 2017 slammed shut with the trade for Giancarlo Stanton -- they're the blasted Yankees again. But adding Harper to a lineup with Stanton and Aaron Judge would be a bridge too far. It really would feel like the Yanks were just gobbling up all the sluggers. They will surely go sign someone to irritate the rest of baseball again -- Machado, probably -- but not having access to Harper would at least temporarily feel as if there is some justice in the universe.

9. The third-base market next offseason would become even more exciting.
If all the teams hoarding their free-agent cash -- or at least having access to it without being able to spend it -- don't have an opportunity to give it to Harper, who are they going to give it to? Nolan Arenado and Rendon, the top two hitting free agents on the market next year, will giddily line up to take it. If Arenado doesn't come to an agreement on an extension with the Rockies, his free agency becomes the biggest story next offseason (or maybe even at the Trade Deadline). You don't think the Phillies will be even more willing to give even stupider money to him if they miss out on Harper and Machado?

Video: Bud Black wants to see Arenado stay with Rockies

10. The Nationals would have their all-time superstar.
This should not be discounted. In an age of players constantly changing teams, the Nationals would keep one of their original superstars into the distant future. According to Baseball-Reference WAR, Harper is already the third-best Nat of all time (we are excluding the Expos from this analysis), and he's behind only teammates Zimmerman and Scherzer, both of whom he'd be sure to pass over the next decade. We've been waiting to see who will sign Harper for so long that we've never considered him a one-team superstar the way we've thought of, say, Bryant, Arenado, Clayton Kershaw or Mookie Betts. But if Harper stays in Washington, he would become as large an icon in that city as the Washington Monument, the symbol of the franchise's and the city's baseball resurgence. The question isn't why Harper would consider staying in Washington. The question is why we never considered it that strong a possibility in the first place.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.

Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper