When it comes to the biggest moments in Washington, D.C. sports history, it's tough to top Bryce Harper's rookie season. One of the most heralded prospects of all time, Harper cranked 22 home runs in 2012, making the NL All-Star team and winning Rookie of the Year honors at age 19.
The Nationals won 98 games that season, banking their first NL East title since their move to D.C., and signaling the start of what many believed would be a dominant run of success. The Bryce Harper Era was going to be a blast, with a ticker-tape parade by the Capitol sure to follow.
So much for all that. If Harper signs with another team this offseason, he'll depart with a trail of defeats behind him. The Nats followed that glorious 2012 campaign with three playoff misses in six years. All told, Harper's seven-year tenure will have ended without a single postseason series win. That includes the 2018 season, which saw the Nats snap a two-year streak of NL East titles, instead limping to their worst record since Harper made the Show.
- 2018 Result: 82-80, second place in NL East
- Key free agents: Bryce Harper, OF
- Needs: Catcher, second base, starting pitching, relief pitching
For a star-studded team that included arguably the best pitcher on the planet, a deep supporting cast, and a Harper 2015 season that topped every age-22 season in MLB history save for Ted Williams, the Harper-era Nats rate as one of the biggest disappointments in recent baseball history.
The question now becomes this: If Harper leaves, are the Nationals in trouble for 2019 and beyond? The answer is a resounding maybe. In large part for reasons that have nothing to do with their potentially out-the-door star.
For starters, Harper wasn't the best hitter on the team in 2018, or even the second-best hitter. In Anthony Rendon, the Nats have one of the best players in the league, someone who's twice finished in the top six in MVP voting, yet he's never made an All-Star team. Meanwhile, Juan Soto lit up the league as a 19-year rookie, crushing 22 homers in 116 games and showing off a supernaturally precocious batting eye that netted an elite .402 on-base percentage. Washington's starting eight figures to revolve around Rendon and Soto, along with toolbox shortstop Trea Turner and Victor Robles, who'll likely be the next Nats outfielder to make a run at Rookie of the Year honors. There's plenty of position player talent left even if Harper leaves, and that's before Mike Rizzo works the kind of player acquisition magic that brought in key contributors like Turner in the first place.
Even with all that hitting talent, the Nats' fortunes will likely rest on their pitching staff, with both talent and contracts playing leading roles. In three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and tough right-hander Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals boast one of the best 1-2 pitching punches in the game. But both pitchers will see a gigantic spike in their salaries in 2019, with Scherzer and Strasburg slated to make nearly $76 million(!) combined next season. With those two on the books at sky-high rates, Ryan Zimmerman slated to make $18 million as a perennial injury and performance risk, and more than $43 million in estimated arbitration awards on the way (per the excellent Cot's contracts page), the Nats could already be on the hook for more than $168 million in 2019 salaries, even sans Harper. Considering that the Nats were one of only two teams to go over the luxury-tax threshold in 2018, and that they didn't fare nearly as well as the other such club (Boston) did, the Lerner family might decide to avoid breaking the bank in free agency this winter.
Then again, even with the glorious talents of Soto, Robles and Turner under club control for years to come, you have to wonder if Washington's last, best chance to win might be right now. Rendon could be a year away from following Harper out the door to free agency. All three of the Nats' projected top three starters will be over 30 on opening day, and Strasburg's history of injuries makes you wonder how long he can remain both really good, and upright.
That latter point of view could prompt ownership to double down by pursuing a top starter like Patrick Corbin, a bullpen ace like Craig Kimbrel, a buy-low free agent like Brian Dozier, a big-ticket trade for J.T. Realmuto, or maybe even something approaching all of the above.
Given how good and how young the Braves are, and how aggressive the up-and-coming Phillies figure to be this hot stove season, the Nats probably need to push all-in to stay relevant in the NL East, or consider the drastic move of going into sell mode, so they can bring back a king's ransoms for their veteran stars and retool around Soto, Robles and Turner. Letting Harper walk and then sticking to status quo would likely be a recipe for disaster.