Washington Nationals: The Future of Bryce Harper

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Bryce Harper becomes a free agent in two years. How will the Washington Nationals address that this offseason and his arbitration seasons?

The Washington Nationals face a difficult decision soon with their superstar Bryce Harper.

With two years left before the slugger hits free agency, the Nats have to think how he fits into their long-term plans. While that may sound easy—as in he does—the reality is different.

Whether it is with Washington, or on the open market, Harper’s payday will be record setting. If allowed to hit free agency at the tender age of 26, the winning bid could exceed $350 million over 10 years. Given the right environment and a chance to DH, he could be as productive at the end of that deal as the beginning.

Although the Nationals will attempt to keep Harper, if his demands become too much, they need to think of the whole team and the aim of winning the first championship in franchise history.

The situation is not dire. The team and Harper enjoy a healthy relationship. After such a lofty 2015 season, his crash back to earth in 2016 may temper what goes on this offseason. With Scott Boras as the agent, the price extracted to have Harper commit to Washington will be high.

How does this play out over the winter? Will they go for year-to-year contracts until Harper hits the open market? Can they get him to sign a huge deal as they did with Stephen Strasburg?

Here are all the possibilities to watch for as the hot stove league cranks up for the winter of 2017.

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ARBITRATION

This is the worst-case scenario.

If the Nationals and Harper cannot agree on a salary for next season, they will make their respective cases in front of an arbiter. A process that pits players against teams and causes a mountain of mistrust for the future.

Although there is no reason to think they cannot find common ground, he played on a $5 million deal last year after a monster 2015, Harper and Boras might test the Nationals resolve and ask for a number that cannot be bridged easily.

Having his 2017 contract decided by a third-party will not bode well for Harper remaining over his prime years. You do not go to court to demand a salary from your employer without hard feelings. Same case here. Arbitration happens when the two sides fail to agree.

As bad as arbitration would be, this the least likely event to happen. Even with Boras using his considerable leverage, the public relationship between Harper and the Nats suggests a showdown is not in the cards.

It is rare now for teams to take a case all the way to arbitration. Although after a weak season, Harper’s talent is known. The chances Washington would win are slim.

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TRADE

Again, we are not suggesting there is a rift between Harper and the Nationals, but they may find his overall demands are too high of a burden on their long-term plans.

Yes, the Nationals are not a low payroll team. But, with a poor television deal with MASN—a channel they have a low ownership stake in with the Baltimore Orioles—they do not have the unlimited resources the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees do.

Trading the popular Harper will not sit well with the fans. As he hits his age 24 season, the haul Washington would get borders on historic. Whether it is a bounty of prospects, a centerfielder and catcher they need or a Mike Trout, Harper is one of the most valuable commodities in all of baseball.

If Boras and Harper ask for the moon, stars and Saturn for a huge deal, Mike Rizzo and company will evaluate whether a move is in their best interests or continue with negotiations on a new deal.

Chances of Harper leaving via trade now is low, but Washington has the most leverage this offseason. It would be a stunner, for sure. So was Cleveland making the World Series.

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SHORT-TERM DEAL

If you were to go to Las Vegas and wager what will happen, this would be the safest bet.

If Harper is looking to double his haul for 2017 to $10 million, the Nationals are silly not to accept. Of all the scenarios that can happen, a one-year deal is the safest option. Aside from protecting the franchise, it gives him the incentive to play himself into a bigger contract next year.

A one-year contract also allows Rizzo and Boras more time to work on a multi-year deal without pressure. As with Strasburg, if Harper wants to be a Washington National five years from now, having the security of a short package in place establishes trust.

The Nationals want Harper for many years. If settling on a one-year pact can build on the foundation for the future, that is a winning hand for everybody.

With an extensive off-season for Washington ahead, getting Harper signed pain-free for 2017 allows the focus to shift on their bigger needs at catcher and closer. Also, if both sides can agree with ease, the odds of a longer deal increase. A result everyone who roots for the Nats wants.

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BRIDGE DEAL

No, not a deal for the 14th Street Bridge, but something around four years to cover Harper’s last two arbitration years and first two of free agency.

If they settled on a four-year/$100 million contract, Harper would be one of the highest paid position players in baseball and still be a potential free agent at 28. He would not miss the chance of the bigger payday while raking in the big bucks now.

As Jayson Werth’s $21 million per year comes off the books after 2017, that is a deal Washington can make and not break the bank. At least $63 million over the last three years would be already be budgeted for.

A bridge deal also gives ample time for Washington to assess whether they can swing the home run contract, try to win a World Series with a happy Harper and continue to get the pieces needed to win a championship.

For Harper, it allows him to monitor if Washington can put a team around him to win without risking his best years on a mediocre team. If he is content, it gives all sides ample time to make the outfielder extremely wealthy.

Feel each other out and build together.

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LONG-TERM DEAL

The less you hear and read about what contract demands each side wants, the better. As with Strasburg, only when the deal was announced did most realize the two sides were negotiating.

The chances of Harper not testing free agency are slim. The demand for his services will be broad and pay him tens of millions per year for a decade or more. To willingly pass that up would show a level of comfort and commitment that would make any Nats fan giddy all winter.

Although unlikely, if Harper wants to stay and the right numbers exchanged, Washington can give him the millions he wants without the acrimony of an extended free agency tour.

Yes, this is more of a fantasy right now. Still, Boras has a history of doing what his clients demand. Where the Nationals stand in the future is a secret to no one. If Harper is content with it why not get it done now? Both sides know he will grab north of $30-35 million on the open market.

A deal this year, even in the five or six-year range, would pay Harper beyond his wildest dreams and score a major coup for the Nats.

One that signals Washington as a major player in the business of baseball.

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