While many in Cardinals Nation have joined the crowd of fans campaigning for their respective team to sign Bryce Harper this off-season, there remains a question of what does the outfielder actually want?
And what about the Washington Nationals? How likely is it that he stays put with the only professional franchise he’s even known?
“A very calculated I don’t know,” answered Chelsea Janes, who covers the Nationals for the Washington Post. “The thing that he has kept saying is ‘I want to be back, I just don’t know if I’m in their plans’. That is number one, a really good job of messaging by Scott Boras and Bryce to sort of say if ‘I leave, I’m not the villain’. Like I say I want to come back, you guys have to say I’m in your plans. But I also think it’s a little bit genuine.”
Having just turned 26 years old in October, Harper has averaged 32 HRs and 91 RBIs over the course of his seven MLB seasons. His awards include Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, a Silver Slugger, and six All-Star appearances. As such, the desire for a long term contract in the neighborhood of $300-400 million has been attached to his name.
The Nationals have spent big money on free agents before with Max Scherzer and Jayson Werth being examples, but Janes notes the team has also been “fickle” in this regard.
“If somebody told them ‘hey, you can have Bryce Harper or you can sign Anthony Rendon long-term and have some more flexibility’, they might take the flexibility. It’s just very hard to get a sense of where they stand.”
There is also an element of mischaracterization in regards to Harper and assumptions made about what decisions he will make in free agency based on the person or persona he is believed to have.
“I think there’s a part of Harper that’s put in this really sinister bin and I don’t think he has that in him,” said Janes. “He’s very respectful of the game, in a way–he’s aware of history. When he doesn’t hustle, yeah, he doesn’t always answer for it. He doesn’t always say the right thing, but he’s not going to make an obscene gesture to the crowd. He’s not going to do kind of some of the stuff we’ve seen with Machado.
“Is he a perfect baseball player? Should people have a sense he has a flawless character? I don’t think so. There are times he’s visibly kind of lackadaisical and times where gets himself kicked out of some games he shouldn’t. But, by and large, that’s genuine competitiveness and I think there’s a difference between losing your cool because you hated the call and losing your cool just because somebody yelled at you from the stands or whatever it is.”
Earlier this summer when Washington played at Busch Stadium, then Nationals first baseman Matt Adams talked about the trio of Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Max Scherzer.
“Their mindset and their work ethic behind the scenes–it’s second to none,” Adams shared. “Those three guys don’t take anything for granted. They show up, they bust their butt, and they want to get better each day. That’s one thing that I notice with those three–how much fun they have and the way they prepare on a daily basis.”
The Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants are among those rumored to be in contention for Harper’s services. And while some consider the move to a bigger market and higher profile a forgone conclusion, another reminder that perception may not be reality.
“He’s a really different guy behind the scenes than what people think he is,” Janes said. “He’s a lot quieter. He does not necessarily want everybody coming to talk to him all the time–which I think should inform people as they think about where he might land. I think he’d be happy to not be “the guy” anywhere. And I don’t think he thinks he’s bigger than baseball. I think that’s different than what people see in him. I think he’s got a real sense of ‘hey, there’s tradition here. I’m a part of it. I want to be somebody that people remember.’ And while he loses his cool every now and then, he’s generally a good guy who I think cares about doing things the right way, even if he doesn’t always.”
photo credit: Brad Mills, Jeff Curry, Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports