Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is going to be a free agent this coming offseason. Thanks to his youth relative to almost any other free agent (he turns 26 in October) and MVP upside, he's going to perhaps ink the largest contract in MLB history. As for that idle talk that his uncharacteristic first half would hurt his market, Harper's erased such concerns by batting .304/.444/.560 since the break.
Harper is of course a Nats lifer -- they drafted him back in 2010 with the top overall pick and promoted him to the bigs at the age 19 years, 195 days -- and that means there's a lot of emotion tied up in the prospect of losing him to, say, the Yankees or Dodgers or Cubs or division-rival Phillies (to name just a few of the heavily rumored Harper suitors). Those emotions are surely running high in advance of what may be Harper's final homestand as a member of the Nationals.
While the Nats are alive in the mathematical sense, in truth they are playing out the string of what's been perhaps the most disappointing season in franchise history. In that sense, Harper's possible final bow in front of the D.C. fans as one of their own is the driving focus right now. Starting Thursday, the Nats will play their final seven home games of the season -- four against the Mets followed by three against the Marlins, with the last being on Wednesday, Sept. 26 -- before finishing the regular season on the road in Colorado. Via Gabe Lacques of USA Today, here's how GM Mike Rizzo crystallized his thoughts on what may be Harper's final bow:
"He's a player I've scouted since he was 15 years old. We drafted, signed, developed and watched him turn into a superstar before our very eyes. He's part of our family. And we'd love to have him long-term.
"I think the fan base loves him, and the Lerner family loves him, and I love him, so it would be less of a place without Harp than it is with him."
As Rizzo himself says, the Nationals want to keep Harper. Whether they're willing to pay the going rates -- Harper's probably going to fetch a contract worth more than $400 million -- and whether Harper is willing to forego a fresh start elsewhere are the more pertinent issues.
As for Harper himself, here's what he said about the potential farewell that's in the offing (via Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post):
"I haven't really thought about it. I think it'll really hit that last game I guess, running off the field or something like that. I'm just trying to enjoy it and see what happens."
It's hazardous to read too much into a somewhat offhand and otherwise pat response, but the use of the phrase "that last game" suggests Harper's default mindset is one of moving on. And moving on is of course the expectation for the player who's already gathered 184 career home runs, six All-Star appearances, and an MVP award.
Perhaps the pull of his Las Vegas roots will make the Dodgers the preferred destination. Maybe the idea of playing for a win-now powerhouse in Chicago -- and alongside fellow Vegas native and old friend Kris Bryant -- will make for the winning allure. Maybe the Phillies and their rare combo of resources and payroll flexibility will allow them to make the strongest offer. Or maybe the timeliness of his grooming habits is the great, big tell. Whatever the case, the next seven games at Nationals Park are going to feel like a farewell, even if three months from now we come to find out it wasn't.