2015 MVP is out to prove him­self in ’17. He’ll need to.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - THOMAS BOSWELL thomas.boswell@wash­post.com

west palm beach, fla. — Dusty Baker hugged Bryce Harper when he re­ported to spring train­ing Fri­day. But the Na­tion­als’ man­ager couldn’t re­sist teas­ing his right fielder when he saw that Harper was wear­ing a back­ward Cow­boys hat.

“You set the whole world on fire when you wear a Dal­las Cow­boys hat,” Baker said of the Wash­ing­ton foot­ball team’s most bit­ter ri­val.

“That’s what I do,” Harper said.

Oh, is it? Then it’s time for Harper to prove it — again.

Harper thinks he’s a ball of fire; that’s for sure. Re­cently, he posted shots of him­self dead­lift­ing 500 pounds. That’s good for pump­ing en­dorse­ments. He also In­sta­grammed pho­tos of the lin­ing of his wed­ding suit — a quilt-style mon­tage of pho­tos of his long re­la­tion­ship with Kayla Varner. That gets an A-plus.

Harper will get more grades soon. Af­ter a 2016 sea­son that

was so crummy, and so mys­te­ri­ous, that it con­sti­tutes a ca­reer re­gres­sion, he’s un­der the mi­cro­scope. Harper is only eight months older than Trea Turner, the Nats’ me­te­oric short­stop. But, in dif­fer­ent ways, both are in cru­cial sea­sons of self­def­i­ni­tion.

“I like that feel­ing of ‘What have you done for me lately?’ It’s al­ways been that way my whole life,” Harper said Satur­day.

What a break for the 24-yearold, be­cause he needs to do a ton — in the next two years — if he in­tends to get any­thing re­motely like the $400 mil­lion free agent con­tract that his agent, Scott Bo­ras, once ran up the flag­pole.

Few play­ers in sports, and none in base­ball, have been so aware so young of brand­ing them­selves to max­i­mize in­come, sell tick­ets and pro­mote the game. Harper loves it and ac­knowl­edges it. But when you brand your­self 24/7/365, there’s a risk: The brand may start to feel like a brand­ing iron.

In camp, Harper acts as if he and pres­sure are ut­ter strangers. “I’m go­ing to play these next two years out. Be­yond that, I re­ally don’t care. I just want to play these two years and have fun,” Harper said, sound­ing a bit exNat-ish.

“I think it’s more of an emo­tional roller coaster for you guys that it is for me,” he added. “Every­body said I was wor­ried about base­ball [in the off­sea­son]. I could care less. I ac­tu­ally en­joyed this off­sea­son more than [af­ter] my MVP year.”

Per­haps base­ball’s first law should be the old Earl Weaver quote that “Ev­ery­thing changes ev­ery­thing.” When you win the Na­tional League MVP award at 22, all grand com­par­isons be­come fair. But the sea­sons all add up. You can’t throw out the mun­dane ones like a golfer fig­ur­ing out a hand­i­cap at the club.

Af­ter five full sea­sons, the play­ers Harper most re­sem­bles sta­tis­ti­cally at the same age are now An­druw Jones, Justin Up­ton and Ruben Sierra. No, not Mickey Man­tle any­more. If he cranks out a mon­ster 2017 sea­son, and he’s bulked up to 230 pounds, then names such as Frank Robin­son will top the list again. But not yet.

In two of the past three sea­sons, ad­vanced met­rics have ranked Harper as the sixth-best ev­ery­day player on the Na­tion­als’ ros­ter; if you in­clude pitch­ers, he was 14th in 2014 and 11th last sea­son. Look back 50 years and you can’t find a player with wins above re­place­ment to­tals so low — 1.0 and 1.6 — on ei­ther side of his 9.9 in 2015. It’s not the omen you want to see.

The first five years of Harper’s ca­reer have shown him to be a fab­u­lous tal­ent, ca­pa­ble of one of the bet­ter sea­sons in his­tory but also wildly in­con­sis­tent, from month to month or sea­son to sea­son. Two sea­sons were marred by ma­jor in­juries, and last year, his sur­ro­gates leaked, im­plied and winked that he was play­ing hurt. Yet Harper had no post­sea­son surg­eries or un­usual re­hab pro­grams.

Asked whether he knew why he hit .231 with only 15 homers and 62 RBI in his last 128 games, Harper said, “Yeah, I know ex­actly why. But that’s last year. . . . I stayed in the lineup ev­ery and tried to help this team win.”

Harper may know “ex­actly why.” His team­mates cer­tainly don’t. “I have no idea, and my locker is a few feet away,” said one vet­eran Nat. “He plays hard. And he played a lot last year. Most of the time, he’s a very good team­mate.”

Every­body in base­ball gets banged up. How badly you get hurt, how of­ten and how you cope is core to your iden­tity. For ex­am­ple, Max Scherzer had a sprain that turned into a stress frac­ture of the knuckle on the ring fin­ger of his pitch­ing hand last year. He made his last seven starts de­spite sharp pain. The Nats went 7-0, Scherzer 6-0 with a 3.11 ERA in those games, and then he pitched two play­off starts, with a 3.75 ERA. And he won the Cy Young Award.

Scherzer wouldn’t have men­tioned it, ex­cept he still can’t quite grip a base­ball or take part in throw­ing drills yet this spring. “The cost of do­ing busi­ness,” he said.

Baker is a Harper fan who calls him “a cool lit­tle dude. I liked him from the be­gin­ning. He knows him­self bet­ter than most [his age]. What you see is what you get — no fak­e­ness. So he’s easy to deal with.”

Baker’s ex­pla­na­tion for 2016: A tough league gave a young player a rough time. A bushel of early-sea­son walks “cer­tainly didn’t help. There were times when peo­ple were run­ning from him. But later there were times when they were run­ning at him. They have var­i­ous Kryp­tonites. They try ’em all. You have to make counter-ad­just­ments. It’s part of grow­ing up. Every­body gets in a hole at some point.”

Most ca­reers are full of in­juries and strat­egy switches. Once the sam­ple size gets big enough, you just add the num­bers. That’s who you are. Ev­ery year changes your sta­tus some­what. On the all-time on­day base plus slug­ging per­cent­age and OPS-plus lists, Harper would be 84th (just be­hind Tim Salmon) and 94th (tied with Jack and Will Clark), re­spec­tively. A year ago, if a dis­pas­sion­ate fan had been asked whether Harper looked like a fu­ture Hall of Famer, “yes” would have been a sen­si­ble an­swer.

Now, the re­sponse is dif­fer­ent. If Harper’s next two years re­sem­ble 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 but not 2015, then he may get a deal more along the lines of Stephen Stras­burg’s $175 mil­lion ex­ten­sion last year. A fu­ture Yan­kee or Dodger? Maybe. They would cer­tainly want Mr. 2015. But Mr. 2016 isn’t go­ing to make the reg­is­ter go “ka-ching.”

Just in case, Harper might want to stock up on some Wizards or Cap­i­tals hats.

MICHAEL ARES/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Bryce Harper is en­ter­ing his sixth ma­jor league sea­son.

Thomas Boswell

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Gio Gon­za­lez and Stephen Stras­burg are throw­ing at full ca­pac­ity, but Na­tion­als ace Max Scherzer is deal­ing with a knuckle in­jury.

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