Nats have been pre­par­ing for life af­ter Bryce Harper. But what if he stays?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - [email protected]­post.com For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/boswell.

Where is the mar­ket for Bryce Harper? Whose dog did Manny Machado kick?

And how smart-plus-lucky do the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als look right now?

The Nats’ off­sea­son Plan B — to re­build their ros­ter on the as­sump­tion free agent Harper would leave — now has a chance to be­come an amaz­ing A-plus.

This win­ter the Nats have added Pa­trick Corbin, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Trevor Rosen­thal, Ani­bal Sanchez, Kyle Bar­r­a­clough, Matt Adams and, this past week, Brian Dozier. What if Harper comes back to D.C., too?

What was un­think­able when the sea­son ended — and kissed off as ir­ra­tional by Nats prin­ci­pal owner Mark Lerner just five weeks ago — is now on the ta­ble.

Hold off on that thanks-forthe-me­mories score­board video tribute to Harper when he comes back to Na­tion­als Park this sea­son as a Dodger, Yan­kee or Cub.

All the un­ex­pected twists in this off­sea­son free agent world sud­denly have turned elec­tric — for base­ball and es­pe­cially for Wash­ing­ton.

For com­plex in­ter­lock­ing rea­sons, in­clud­ing (ap­par­ently) tepid in­ter­est from the glam­orous big-mar­ket teams, the price for Harper and Machado may be $50 mil­lion to $100 mil­lion less than seemed likely in Septem­ber when Harper turned down $300 mil­lion from the Nats.

Mr. Mar­ket, for rea­sons that seem silly or sus­pi­cious to me, has said, “Meh.”

Now, the big-dol­lar play­ers for Harper ap­pear to be the Chicago White Sox, a fran­chise for which Harper won’t want to play be­cause he’s sane. And the Phillies, who have ab­so­lutely nothing to of­fer that Wash­ing­ton can’t match or ex­ceed, ex­cept perhaps a moun­tain of money. Harper al­ready says he loves D.C. and knows he’s loved back. In Philly, they booed Santa.

On Fri­day, ev­ery Philadel­phian of dis­tinc­tion, ex­cept Ben Franklin, re­port­edly went to Harper’s home in Las Ve­gas to woo him, in­clud­ing owner John Mid­dle­ton, who has said that he’s pre­pared to pay “stupid” money to land Harper or Machado.

What if the Phillies of­fer $425 mil­lion, with opt-out years, earplugs for home games and right of first re­fusal if Philadel­phia ever de­cides to sell the Lib­erty Bell?

Well, the Nats tried. They stayed in the game and main­tained good re­la­tions. And they still can face their fu­ture with a big, fat grin with the team they now have. Their out­field would in­clude prized rookie Vic­tor Robles, a full year of Juan Soto and a fully re­cov­ered right fielder in Adam Ea­ton who has hit .300 with the Nats. And they still can add an eco­nom­i­cal fifth starter and one more de­cent re­liever.

If, how­ever, Harper looks at his old fa­mil­iar Nats team, sud­denly re­fur­bished, and de­cides that he would like to come back to D.C. for some­thing on the or­der of $325 mil­lion to $350 mil­lion for 10 years, then that’s a deal that prob­a­bly can get done.

Be­fore the ink is dry, the Nats will be look­ing to trade Ea­ton and his team-friendly con­tract, plus “oth­ers,” for one more sig­nif­i­cant pitch­ing up­grade.

Oh, brother. If all that falls in place, we can start de­sign­ing the stat­ues of Ted Lerner and Harper that prob­a­bly will be placed in front of Na­tion­als Park some­day, near Wal­ter John­son, Josh Gib­son and Frank Howard.

Oh, yeah, this would be a statue mo­ment. Right now, Nats fans face an al­ter­na­tive of two states of base­ball grace: “Wow, what a win­ter,” and flat-out OMG!

Lerner de­serves bronze al­ready for buy­ing a team for his home­town in 2005 and help­ing to cat­alyze the birth of the South­east water­front by build­ing an or­ga­ni­za­tion that, just seven years later, won the first of four NL East ti­tles.

But even more folks will nod to­ward Lerner, decades from now, if the 92-year-old busts his own wal­let — not egre­giously for a multi­bil­lion­aire but not in­signif­i­cantly either — so that Nats fans get a chance to see the first 17 years of Harper’s ca­reer. Oh, and the first 14 years of Stephen Stras­burg’s ca­reer, too.

Did any­one imag­ine that was pos­si­ble in June 2010, when the Nats drafted Harper a year af­ter they had got­ten Stras­burg?

Harper, who has won an MVP award, may not have to reach Coop­er­stown to get his statue, though that would ice it. Just by Be­ing Bryce, re-up­ping for an­other decade with the Nats and bringing so much fun, plus the oc­ca­sional D.C. Stran­gler attack, may be enough. In time, he may merit com­par­i­son to three-time MVP, seven-time top goal scorer and Stan­ley Cup win­ner Alex Ovechkin.

If Harper, who hasn’t lifted the Nats be­yond the first round of the play­offs, is ever part of a World Se­ries champ — and re­mem­ber, Ovechkin started off 0 for 9 — he will get to see a Penn­syl­va­nia Avenue pa­rade that may make June’s look calm.

So as you see, there’s no real rea­son to get ex­cited.

The Nats have reached a point, prob­a­bly to their own sur­prise, where all their “cases” — best, worst and in-be­tween — are cheer­ful.

If the Nats don’t re-sign Harper, there’s no way they will lose An­thony Ren­don be­cause of money af­ter this sea­son. The Nats are within a few mil­lion dol­lars of the lux­ury tax thresh­old of $206 mil­lion for 2019 right now.

No­body is as smart as the Nats now look. They have been lucky, too.

How did the Nats get here? And is this a case of too-good-tobe-true?

I still won­der whether the Dodgers, Cubs and Yan­kees — any or all of them — are play­ing pos­sum. The buzz, mean­ing the pro­pa­ganda, is that the Cubs have far too much pay­roll tied up in too many out­field­ers to be chas­ing Harper. The Yan­kees sup­pos­edly spent their out­field al­lo­ca­tion when they traded for Gian­carlo Stan­ton last sea­son. GM Brian Cash­man even says to stop spec­u­lat­ing about Harper.

The Dodgers have too many key left-handed bats to want an­other one, even Harper. Their trade of Yasiel Puig, whose re­verse splits make him, in ef­fect, a lefty hit­ter, was done to re­duce this vul­ner­a­bil­ity to south­paws, not to open an out­field spot for Harper.

Many of us have an­a­lyzed ev­ery player who has been roughly com­pa­ra­ble to Harper (and Machado) through their age 25 sea­sons and con­cluded that a 10-year deal at big dol­lars is a big risk — but also ba­si­cally sane, too.

Slice and dice it how­ever you want — I pre­fer com­par­ing ev­ery player in their age 22-through-25 sea­sons to Harper, who ranks 57th on that list — and you will reach sim­i­lar con­clu­sions. On a 10-year deal, you’re more likely to get a fu­ture Hall of Famer, maybe even a Frank Robin­son, than you are to get the age 26through-35 stats of one of Frank’s best friends, Vada Pin­son, an iden­ti­cal Harper com­pa­ra­ble (in wins above re­place­ment) at age 25 who wouldn’t have been worth the mega-money.

You can’t know you will get great Frank in­stead of good Vada — and the risk is huge — but you are more likely to be gen­er­ally right than bru­tally wrong.

The rea­son Harper and Machado are still avail­able a month be­fore spring train­ing is not be­cause the sport fears long deals for ex­tremely young stars.

The rea­son, sup­pos­edly, is that “they don’t fit” the needs of many of the top teams who would have the money for an im­mense con­tract. Af­ter last win­ter’s salary car­nage and spec­u­la­tion that the an­a­lyt­ics gen­er­a­tion of ex­ec­u­tives has rad­i­cally de­val­ued ev­ery sea­son by ev­ery player past his 30th birth­day, it’s rea­son­able to won­der whether MLB own­ers simply en­joy the new di­rec­tion in their game. There’s safety and profit in group­think.

What­ever the con­flu­ence of forces, the Nats now find them­selves, it seems, in the Harper Mar­ket of their fan­tasies: fac­ing the (oh, please) White Sox and Phillies.

There’s a limit to what any player is worth. And the Phillies or White Sox may take the price tag past that limit. It’s the Nats’ busi­ness how high they think they can go and re­main a con­tender in­def­i­nitely. Vi­sions of stat­ues in front of Na­tion­als Park will — and should — tempt them out of their com­fort zone.

Just re­mem­ber, never look a gift horse in the mouth. Es­pe­cially if it an­swers to “Bryce.”

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Nats re­tooled in the be­lief that Bryce Harper would leave, but he is still un­signed, and his de­par­ture is no longer a fore­gone con­clu­sion.

Thomas Boswell

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