The Washington Nationals face a critical inflection point in the history of their franchise this winter. Bryce Harper is, without hyperbole, the best position player in the short history of the team (at least since they moved from Montreal).
Harper is the best player they’ve had over that time. Only Ryan Zimmerman leads him in Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs (Stephen Strasburg trails him by 0.2) and Zimmerman has another 500 or so games played under his belt. Career-wise Harper holds a 23 point lead in wRC+, owns an MVP, and even in his “worst” season in 2018 would be one of Zimmerman’s best in a wide range of rate stats, not to mention home runs.
But this isn’t about Bryce Harper. You might have guessed that by the title. Everyone knows Harper is the face of the Nationals franchise. He’s supposed to be. He was the first round pick, the photogenic and charismatic young star that was at the center of their rise to prominence.
The Nationals should do literally all they can to hold on to him. But if he does leave, the Nats do find themselves in a very interesting situation. For the last two years, and by several metrics, Anthony Rendon has been just as good as—if not better than—his higher profile teammate. Our own Luis Torres wrote about Rendon yestderday, and across baseballdom since 2017 he’s been the focus of just this kind of article. This is what the “other” superstar looks like.
Rendon isn’t the only one to be as overshadowed by perception as he is by Harper. The Cleveland Indians might have not only a young face of a franchise, but a face of all of baseball in Francisco Lindor. Everyone loves Lindor. You’d be a fool not to. he’s dazzling in the field, has an electric personality, and with a 7.6 WAR, 130 wRC+, 38 home run season as a shortstop he’s every bit a superstar. He’s also the second best position player on Cleveland. Heck, he was the second best infielder on the Indians last year.
As incredible as he was, Jose Ramrez was better. Ramirez was the MVP finalist, he was the one with the best single season in 30 years for the Indians by WAR, and he’s the one who showed the versatility to play All-Star caliber third base and second base defense while being the center of the lineup.
He’s also the one who signed a very, very, VERY team-friendly extension. Ramirez is making just over $19 million combined the next three years, plus a pair of club options that are sure to keep him as an Indian through 2023. Lindor, meanwhile, has reportedly turned down a $100 million-plus deal before the 2017 season and with each passing year the specter grows more clear that he could leave after his three arbitration years. The Indians would no doubt be worse off in that deal, though not on the field and in the fandom’s heart. But they wouldn’t be without a star. Ramirez—assuming the last three years are no ruse—is still quite excellent.
In fact, if the Indians had to choose—or the Nationals or the Astros in some bizarre way between Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman—it’s actually, on paper, a better choice to go with the less heralded (in Bregman’s case maybe a just a bit less heralded with his World Series heroics) than the more famous, charismatic player:
2018 dual superstar stats
There are caveats to this chart of course. It’s a bit unfair to Correa—he was hurt all year in some way or other. And last year in 109 games he posted a 5.2 fWAR, 152 wRC+ season with 24 home runs, so we know he’s capable of more (if healthy, anyway). That’s the mark against him at this point—even if I personally discount the idea of injury-prone being an attribute players can have, some guys just have the bad luck. Two years in a row he’s lost a third of the season.
Bregman has been a bull in the meantime, not missing more than a game or two for rest since his call-up in 2016. I don’t necessarily think Bregman is better than Correa. But as he showed this year with an MVP-caliber season, he’s at least neck-and-neck.
These less known players (comparatively) aren’t better than the stars of these teams. That’s the point. You’d be hard-pressed to find a face of a franchise who has a better, less known player on his team. Maybe Matt Chapman and Khris Davis, but that’s just because with a name like Matt Chapman you just aren’t sure he’s actually real and not some filler name made up to be changed later. But they’re not worse.
They do raise the question of how it happens though. Baseball is just hard that way. Albert Pujols is a famous example of that—drafted in the 13th round and became the best player of the 2000’s seemingly out of nowhere. Players like him or Ramirez, even to an extent first rounders like Rendon and Bregman, they’re a nice testament to scouting and development along with sheer talent. A team can’t make their bones hoping they get the next Pujols out of the chaff, but you can certainly give better chances to yourself with a strong structure around young players.
The A’s seem to do it time and again with a player like Chapman or Josh Donaldson before him, allowing the best in players shine and negating their negatives. The secret is still a mystery to us laypeople, but when it’s cracked it sure is dazzling.
It would be nice if stars that people loved stuck with their teams. It would be nicer if owners would pay for it, but somehow “financial constraints” can strike at just the wrong times. These players aren’t the ones you root for quite as hard, but they’re there, and while they’re often billed as the Robin to another guy’s Batman, sometimes they’re just as good if not better.
Sometimes you learn to love them a different way, and it makes it all the better. I’ll never forget Bregman’s amazing postseasons the last two years, whether hitting lasers or working walks. Same with Ramirez’s bombs and near 40/40 season. These players take a back seat to nobody, and deserve their due. Legends can be born quite easily in the media. But even when the narrative isn’t working, the work on the field can force a hand or two. That’s when the other guy turns into The Guy.
Merritt Rohlfing writes about baseball a lot, whether at Beyond the Box Score or Let’s Go Tribe or in other, secret places. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want.