The Bryce Harper era is over in Washington, D.C. Finally, officially, and with no take-backs. And that's a good thing.
That's not to say Harper wasn't valuable during his seven seasons with the Nationals. But by now, you probably know the story: Despite Harper's best efforts, the Nats went 0-fer in the postseason. In four trips to the playoffs, they never won a single series. In 2015, when Harper put up video game numbers and became the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history, they didn't even make the playoffs.
We're not saying that Harper wasn't just as valuable off the field as he was on it. That upon being drafted with the top overall pick in 2010, he didn't almost singlehandedly deliver the Artist Formerly Known As The Expos from irrelevance. That he didn't donate oodles of time and money to the surrounding Delmarva community. That he didn't put fans in seats and help make the good people of Redskins country care about something other than football. Or that he won't be a royal pain for the Nats when he faces them 247 times over the next 13 years as a member of the division-rival Phillies.
It's impossible to know exactly how the Nationals would have spent their money if Harper had decided to stay in D.C. But it's hard to imagine a world in which they committed a third of a billion dollars to him, and still would've had the resources to land the top free-agent pitcher on the market (Patrick Corbin, who in December signed a six-year, $140 million deal with Washington). It's hard to imagine a scenario in which they made it rain on Harper and still would've had the flexibility to do all the other things they did this offseason (besides Corbin, the Nats also added starter Anibal Sanchez, catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, second baseman Brian Dozier, and relievers Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal). And make no mistake, following an underwhelming season that saw Washington finish 82-80 en route to running away with the MDTB award (Most Disappointing Team in Baseball), things needed to be done. Lots of things.
Perhaps the biggest and most important thing that needed to happen was to let Bryce Harper walk away. Yes, he was the face of the franchise. Yes, he had star power unlike any other player in a Nats uniform, or any other baseball uniform for that matter. But the Nationals now are completely different than they were when they drafted Harper nearly a decade ago. They have Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young winner who's arguably the best and most exciting starting pitcher in the game. They have Stephen Strasburg, who made his big league debut the day after Harper was drafted and has developed in the one of the game's premier (albeit fragile) hurlers. They have third baseman Anthony Rendon, shortstop Trea Turner and closer Sean Doolittle, all among the best at their respective positions.
In other words, with or without Harper, these Washington Nationals have plenty of sizzle. And we haven't even gotten to Harper's old position -- the outfield -- yet.
Of all the bright spots the Nationals have right now, perhaps none is more blindingly brilliant than their outfield. Left fielder Juan Soto took the league by storm last year, posting a .923 OPS and finishing second in the balloting for Rookie of the Year. Not too shabby, especially when you consider he isn't even old enough to buy beer (he turned 20 in October). "He helped me a lot last year," Soto said during the first week of spring training, when asked what it was like not having Harper around the clubhouse. "Now I take all his words for me and I'm going to keep doing it."
Besides Soto, the Nats' outfield features veteran Adam Eaton, the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade two winters ago who's an absolute pest at the top of the lineup when healthy (a state that's largely eluded him in Washington). Eaton likely slides over from center field to right field, the same position where he was one of the game's best defenders with the White Sox. That move creates an opening for Victor Robles to become the everyday center fielder. One of the top prospects in baseball, Robles is a tools goof who impressed enough in a September 2017 call-up to crack the playoff roster, but he hit a speed bump last season when he suffered a nasty elbow injury. There's even some depth, with elite defender Michael A. Taylor capable of covering left, center and right.
But wait, there's more. In 2019, Soto, Eaton and Robles will combine to earn less than $10 million. That's roughly a third of what Harper will make this season all by himself.
As bargains go, you could do a whole lot worse, especially when you consider that according to ZiPS, the trio is projected to account for a total of 10.6 WAR this year, second most among starting NL outfields (the Brewers are first at 10.9).
Speaking of projections, ZiPS has Bryce Harper penciled in for 4.8 WAR this season. Is that good? Absolutely. Is it worth the $25 million or $30 million that Harper will earn next year? Probably, based on the current conventional thinking when it comes to bang for your baseball buck. But the truth is, given the firepower they have elsewhere on their roster and especially in the outfield, the Nationals simply didn't need Harper. They didn't need him as much they needed, say, Corbin. They certainly didn't need him at a whopping $330 million over 13 years, the biggest free-agent contract in baseball history. And so now the Bryce Harper era in D.C. is over. Finally, officially, and with no take-backs.
Sure, it took an eternity and a half to arrive at that conclusion, but hey -- better late than never.