Bryce Harper is good. Even after a year when his numbers declined considerably, attempts at a contract extension attracted national attention, especially when the Washington Nationals balked at his demands. It’s easy to understand their reluctance to engage anything in the neighborhood of 10 years and $400 million, but their refusal to continue talks past that point means that their time with Harper will run out very soon.
Washington has also made no moves to try to trade Harper, committing all available assets to the present. While it makes sense that the team would want to hang onto their star player for as long as possible, the Nationals are now in an interesting philosophical place for a baseball team. Unable to fully commit to the present or the future, Washington — despite its talent — is stuck somewhere in the middle because of Harper.
Teams in every professional sport have to deal with the question of current wins weighed against future success. The Atlanta Braves are on the tail end of a massive tanking endeavor, and chose to maximize future success at the cost of some truly miserable seasons. The Seattle Mariners are on the tail end of the spectrum: They have an aging core that has seen its best days already, but are choosing to compete with their current roster for as long as possible.
Clubs like the Washington Nationals are in the ideal position of competing for a World Series with multiple stars in their prime years of production. After easily winning the NL East last season, the Nationals are clear frontrunners to win it again in 2017. FanGraphs projects the team to finish with a record of 90-72, six games ahead of the New York Mets, and five games behind the Chicago Cubs for the best record in the National League.
The team’s ZiPS projection is favorable as well. Based on the young age of key players such as Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and Trea Turner — as well as a rotation that is both talented and deep — the ZiPS model sees a bright 2017 for Washington. Predicting playoff success is almost impossible in late December, but the Nationals seem primed to make the playoffs once again and compete for a World Series.
There are numerous models and statistics that can be deployed to track and predict past and future success for Washington, but the central point is simple: The current version of this team is very good. However, Harper’s impending free-agency places a clear expiration date for the Nationals. This throws an interesting factor into their clear “win-now” mindset.
Dealing with a closing “championship window” is hardly new or unique. The interesting part here is the specific reasons that the window will close (or become much narrower) after the 2018 season. Most teams facing a closing window, like the M's, are doing so because their core players are aging. Harper, however, isn’t aging out of his prime: He’s simply getting ready to cash in on a contract that will likely set MLB records.
Measuring present or future success is a difficult thing to do, and the Nationals find themselves squarely in the middle of this dilemma. The team is ready to commit to short-term success by fielding an impressively talented roster, but is only willing to pursue that mindset as long as it doesn’t involve signing a $400 million contract. By not even entertaining the idea of trading Harper, Washington is also ensuring that one of the best players in the league will leave in 2018, essentially for nothing. Thus, the Nationals find themselves in the weird spot of not committing fully to either short- or long-term success.
This isn’t meant as a criticism of the organization: Harper’s contract demands understandably place the team in a bind. $400 million is an amount of money that only a handful of teams would be willing to part with, and it’s also completely understandable that the Nationals wouldn’t want to trade their homegrown star while he’s in the middle of his prime. That said, though, they only have two years to maximize the value of Harper’s talent, before their best player leaves for more profitable pastures.