Bryce Harper Credit: KEITH ALLISON/FLICKR

The Nationals’ offseason began about five games earlier than expected. Mike Rizzo’s team never found that extra gear, and it bounced around a .500-winning percentage all season long. The Nats were, as a hack might say, unable to get over the hump.

A disappointment? Well, you’re not viewing it the same way as manager Davey Martinez, who told reporters that this season was important for building a team-first culture. Sure, they lost ten more games than you thought. But they lost them the right way. 

And so the Nats enter an offseason of uncertainty. The first decision being the apparent return of Martinez. Rizzo told reporters that he expects Davey and his coaches to all be back next season.

But that’s just one of many decisions Rizzo’s going to have to make to get the team back to the playoffs.

The big one, of course, is what to do with free agent outfielder Bryce Harper, and that’s a doozy of a problem. How much money will he get? How long will his contract be? Can you devote that much payroll to one player? How good is he really? How healthy is he? He’s only 25!? 

The answer to those and other innumerable questions works out to a staggering amount of money, hundreds of millions of dollars for the former (and probably future) Most Valuable Player. It results in a contract so larded with opt-outs, deferred money, options, and other baubles that you’d have needed to ace a 400-level accounting class to comprehend. Good luck, Mike!

Whatever answer Rizzo and his accountants come up with, one thing is a necessity: they’ll need to act fast. If assuming Harper’s contract, whatever it ends up being, will be around $30 million a year or so over ten years, they can find a way to make that work for their roster. But if he goes elsewhere, there are a lot of other holes that money could fix. They’ll need to know early in the winter whether Bryce is coming back so they’re not left with a giant wad of cash in their pockets on the eve of spring training and with a bunch of useful players having already signed with other teams.

Unfortunately, that’s not usually how Harper’s agent Scott Boras works. He likes to work slow. He draws things out. And, in the end, he usually gets his clients their money. That won’t work for what the Nats need to do. Harper isn’t the missing piece. He’s one of several and they can’t base an entire offseason around chasing down just one part.

But this is where the Nats need to increase the pressure. During the Nats’ final homestand, Harper made a big media push emphasizing how much he loves D.C. and how badly he wants to play here for the rest of his career. The unspoken, of course, is the “if they’ll pay me what I want” caveat. If that’s how he really feels, then he needs to remind Boras that he drives the process and that it moves on his timeline—something another Boras client, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, did when he demanded he immediately cut a deal with the Nats in the middle of a season.

If Harper is sincere, he can tell Boras to make a deal. The team owners are making a show of meeting with Harper in his Las Vegas home to make their case. A deal is there if everyone puts away their egos.

And if it’s not? Well, thanks for all those memories, buddy.

The Nats simply have too many other offseason priorities. They need a starting pitcher—or three. They need another back-end bullpen arm—or three. They need a catcher. (Oh, how they need a catcher!). They need a second baseman. They need, simply, to get better, and to find another ten wins or so.

The unfortunate thing for Harper’s leverage is that they can find those ten wins without Harper. The emergence of Juan Soto and Victor Robles give the Nats two potential generational-type outfielders. With Adam Eaton manning the other spot, ask yourself if they really need Bryce.

What would that $30 million add to the starting pitching rotation where, at this point, someone like Erik Fedde is fourth on the depth chart?

Framed like that, the temptation to just walk away from the Bryce Harper era is there. But he’s an MVP! Even in what most thought was a down year he knocked 34 over the wall and got on base nearly 40 percent of the time. That’s the kind of production that a good team will find a spot for—even if it’s at, say, first.

Aside from the on-field reasons, re-signing Harper is probably doubly important to the Nats for off-field reasons. If you skim fan message boards and comments, it seems like a number of fans are considering dropping their season tickets. With a disappointing season, no playoffs, and no hook of tickets for the All-Star Game, a lot of fans are wondering if spending tens of thousands of dollars is worth it.

If you’re a Nats ticket sales agent, it’s a heck of a lot easier to seal the deal if you get to talk up Harper’s return as opposed to, say, for example, hypothetically bringing in Colorado Rockies second baseman D.J. LeMahieu. I’d assume the same goes for the person selling the No. 34 jerseys at the team store. A name like “Corbin” (as in Arizona Diamondbacks’ Patrick Corbin) doesn’t have the same cachet.

So at a certain point, Harper’s value at $30 million is worth more to the team than the sum of the other parts you could get for that same amount of money.  That’s yet another complicating factor in what’s already a terribly difficult calculus.

What will the Nats do? I don’t know. What should they do? Re-sign Harper, I guess? Although that’s a lot easier for me to say, what with it not actually being my hundreds of millions of dollars. All I know is that they need to act fast.

Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.

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