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National Emergency: Harper Decision One of Several Dilemmas In D.C.

Harper’s impending free agency complicates issues for Nationals, who are struggling to stay alive in the National League East

Bryce Harper

Harper’s impending free agency complicates issues for Nationals, who are struggling to stay alive in the National League East

Congratulations! For the next few minutes, you have the chance to think like Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. You have a great parking spot and dental plan, but don’t slap yourself on the back just yet. There are sleepless nights in your future.

On Wednesday, Washington’s players had one of those player’s-only meetings management dreads. Behind closed doors, fingers point, expletives are uttered, clichés are tossed and egos are bruised. And then everyone checks their email.

But there was good reason for it. The Nationals had just been shut out by the Boston Red Sox for their fifth straight defeat and 18th in their last 24 games.

The loss dropped the team, the preseason favorite to win the National League East, to 42-43, buried in third place behind the upstart Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies.

Bryce Harper

Scott Taetsch / Getty

Not as bad as the New York Mets or Miami Marlins, of course, but utterly distressing, nonetheless.

Then on Thursday, after falling behind 9-0 in the first game of a four-game series at home against the rebuilding, revolting and repelling Marlins, the Nats put together the biggest rally in their history and won 14-12.

Just imagine what things would be like if that hadn’t happened. A presidential tweet may have been in store.

But now comes the difficult part, at least in the theoretical sense, when you think about the future of the franchise.

What are the Nationals going to do with Bryce Harper, soon to be the most coveted free agent in the game?

There was a story the late Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner loved to tell about Branch Rickey, the executive who brought Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn. Rickey was the general manager of the Pirates in 1953 when Kiner, one the great sluggers in team history, asked Rickey for a raise.

Kiner had hit an NL-leading 37 homers with 87 RBIs in 1952, but the Pirates finished last in the National League with a 42-112 record and Rickey wanted to cut Kiner’s salary.

“Ralph, If I can finish last with you, I can finish last without you,” Rickey told him.

Then he traded Kiner to the Cubs. So keep that in mind.

Let’s take a quick look at the payroll Rizzo much manage: Max Scherzer ($22.1 million) and Harper ($21.6) alone account for 23 percent of it. Then you have Daniel Murphy ($17.5), Anthony Rendon ($12.3) and Gio Gonzalez ($12.0) right behind.

The team is currently paying players on its disabled list, like Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Wieters, another $43 million with $13.5 also set aside for deferred payments to players no longer with them, such as Jayson Werth ($10 million).

Let’s look down the line. The team is deep into long-term deals with Scherzer (seven years, $210 million), Strasburg (seven years, $175 million) and Zimmerman (six years, $100 million that won’t begin to expire until 2021, when Zimmerman is done.)

And what have the Nationals gotten in return for their investment? Only four postseason appearances and not a single series win.

After this season, Gonzalez and Murphy will also be free agents, and it seems unlikely either will be high on Washington’s retention list.

But what about Harper?

Harper was hitting .215 before Thursday’s game after going 0-for-4 against Boston pitching on Wednesday. He is having a terrible season. His average has dipped 53 points since May 3.

On Thursday, his agent, Scott Boras, told the Washington Post that he believed the exaggerated defensive shifts being deployed are not only hurting Harper, but destroying the game.

Bryce Harper

Win McNamee / Getty

Here is Washington’s basic decision: If they decide they are still in the pennant race, and why wouldn’t they at such an early stage, they obviously will stick with Harper and let the season and his contract play out.

What if the Nats think they don’t have a shot? Wouldn’t it be a better idea to move Harper to a contender before the trade deadline and harvest a gaggle of top-flight prospects instead of running the risk of losing him for nothing?

It’s what the Tigers did last season with Justin Verlander. It’s what the Athletics did last season with Sonny Gray. It’s what the Mets did last season with Jay Bruce. It’s what the Orioles will do this season with Manny Machado.

Harper does have 21 homers and 50 RBIs with a .363 on-base percentage. He has also walked 70 times, 18.5 percent of his at-bats, confirming Boras’ suspicion that pitchers are working around him.

But what are the chances, given  their current contractual obligations, that the Nationals will even be in play for Harper, who likely will be looking for Chris Paul money ($40 million a year) in his next contract.

Are you sure you still want to be Mike Rizzo?

 

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