Heralded as one of the most top-heavy free agent classes in recent memory, both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado found new homes during the 2018 MLB offseason. The Washington Nationals lost Harper, who had played his entire career with them, as he signed with their divisional rivals, the Philadelphia Phillies, igniting that rivalry more than ever.
At the time, the loss for the Nats was seen as an insurmountable one, especially with not having traded Harper for any value and having let him walk for nothing. But in hindsight, maybe the Nationals won that deal, at least in the first year apart?
Signed to a 13 year, $330 million deal on February 28 of this year, Harper’s ascension from the first overall selection in 2010 for the struggling Nationals and franchise heartthrob all the way to the most hated MLB player by Nats fans in the league has been abrupt. While he may not have earned all of the chastising that he has received every time he faces Washington, adding that to an already budding inner-divisional rivalry is good for baseball, provided it does not get out of control.
With a reported offer on the table during the latter stages of the 2018 season that would have set Harper up for life and made good on his AARP membership, the Nationals were determined to get him to stay in the nation’s capital – and by determined, I mean that they offered him a deal full of deferred money that he would have seen from his playing days all the way through at least when he turned 50 years old.
As the Nats solemnly moved on from their franchise cornerstone and hot head, they undertook a responsibility in free agency that helped get them from playoff fodder to World Series representative for the National League all in the course of one season. Pitching, pitching, and more pitching is what provided them with the push to get to the postseason, which was seen next to impossible, as their odds of winning the NL pennant were as low as one percent as the season grew closer to its end.
Out went Harper and in came former Arizona Diamondbacks ace Patrick Corbin, who, combined with lifelong National Stephen Strasburg and incumbent ace Max Scherzer, formed the best three-headed monster in the NL in terms of a starting rotation. Harper declined his qualifying offer in November of 2018 and Corbin agreed to terms on a six-year, $140 million deal early on in December to make sure those funds went to good use.
As weird as it may seem to say that Corbin’s $140 million over six years is just a sliver of what Harper signed and will earn from Philadelphia, Corbin’s deal may ultimately become the better of two evils, which is especially hard to say with his being a high-priced deal for a player that relies on his arm to make a living. High contracts for pitchers are always hard to justify, especially with the high frequency that injuries occur in that position, so Corbin’s health will be the main determinant for if the Nats or the Phils came out ahead.
Harper’s run as a National lasted seven seasons, filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. From multi-home run games to verbally berating umpires, Harper’s legacy as a member of the Nationals will go down as one of the best, but also as one of the greatest ‘what-ifs’ in league history.
By not paying Harper, this team was able to free up a ton of money for 2019 and long term, which helped with signing Corbin. Down the road, it provides the team with a better chance to resign Strasburg if he opts out after this season, as well as make sure that young studs like Juan Soto, Victor Robles, and Carter Kieboom remain in the nation’s capital for a long time. Their bullpen would immensely benefit from an upgrade or eight this offseason, and having the money to go out and get someone like Will Smith, Will Harris, or another top-notch reliever to pair with incumbent closer Sean Doolittle would be a great way to make sure this team remains a contender and not a one-year wonder.
However, the biggest beneficiary of having Harper leave town is Anthony Rendon, who’s MVP-caliber 2019 season puts him in line for a massive amount of money this offseason – one that the Nationals should do everything that they can to pay. Rendon, similar to the Colorado Rockies’ Nolan Arenado, is a stud hot corner specialist that plays for a mid-level market franchise, and while Arenado’s extension came during this past season, Rendon’s next contract will look a ton like what the Rox’s third baseman received.
Having offered him a contract extension during the season that was deemed to be under the going market value for him (according to rumors), the team is publicly making sure that their interest in retaining him is known. While they will need to fight with other big-payroll franchises, like the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Boston Red Sox among others, his familiarity with the front office and the team, as well as their willingness to show how much they back him has got to help their chances in resigning him.
While the Nats do pale in comparison to the Houston Astros, their better matchup would be with the Bronx Bombers, as their starting pitching could help limit that strong lineup that falls off a bit after passing the big boppers. The Astros have the best lineup in the league one through seven, and their approaches at the plate would almost certainly make the Nats turn to their weakest link, their bullpen, which has been a sore spot for this team for eternity.
However the rest of the 2019 season fares for the Nationals, their future looks to be a lot brighter than it was before the season began – all thanks to Harper not being in a Nats uniform anymore.