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Nightengale: Speculation on Bryce Harper’s Future Begins Now

Washington's Bryce Harper hits during a game against the Baltimore Orioles in 2015. Harper was the leading vote-getter for the 2017 MLB All-Star Game. Photo: Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the hot topic that will burn all season in baseball’s consciousness, but since we live in such an impatient society, no one wants to wait for the drama to unfold before knowing the ending.

We want to know where Bryce Harper will be playing next year. We want to know how many zeroes will be in his paycheck. We want to know whether he’ll be wearing Dodger or Cubbie Blue, Yankee pinstripes, or stay in his Washington Nationals’ uniform.

Bryce Harper ended the fun Monday before it could get ever started.

He announced that he is not talking about free agency.

Not now.

Not for the rest of the season.

Not until he signs his next contract.

“I will not be discussing anything relative to 2019 at all,’’ Harper told a room packed full of reporters at the Nationals’ spring-training complex. “If you guys have any questions about 2019, or anything past 2018, you can call (agent) Scott (Boras) and he’ll answer you guys.

“If you guys do ask anything, I’ll be walking right out the door.’’

So no one asked.

Harper began his press conference reading prepared remarks off his cell phone, sat there for 17 minutes, telling everyone that he’s fully healthy, the team is talented as ever, new manager Davey Martinez will be a perfect fit, he was shocked to see the Miami Marlins trade Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, and he can’t believe the players still available in this bizarre free-agent market.

He talked about everything related to baseball, except his own future.

“Honestly, that’s the best way to handle it,’’ Nats teammate Max Scherzer, who received a record seven-year, $210 million free-agent contract two years ago, told USA TODAY Sports. “You’ve got to do that because it’s very easy to mentally veer off and get into a downward spiral mentally. It really exposes your character and your motivations when you have these types of decisions and you’re staring down this type of thing. It’s very easy to get sideways.

“That’s why you’ve got to check yourself every single day. You can only be focused on winning here for this team, for this year. When you focus on winning, you do whatever it takes to help your ballclub win games and get to the postseason. That’s when you play your best.

“The rest will take care of itself.’’

Harper, who could become baseball’s first $400 million man, or even $500 million, says he’ll try to stay on script the entire season. He’s not going to talk about his dad’s love for the New York Yankees, wondering if they would dare trade Stanton in a year to make room for him, and possibly third baseman Manny Machado, too. Las Vegas homeboy Kris Bryant may be one of his best friends, but he won’t talk about sharing deep-dish pizza with him as teammates in Chicago. He lives a few hours along the highway from Los Angeles, but won’t start reminiscing about the days of Vin Scully and Tommy Lasorda. And the Phillies may be sitting on a mountain of cash, but it doesn’t mean he’ll be calling Mike Trout to get Philadelphia Eagles season tickets.

Public silence.

The Nationals, who have exclusive negotiating rights for the next eight months with Harper, say they’ll keep their talks private too, but will do everything but give the Washington Monument to keep him.

The Nationals had exploratory talks with Boras a year ago, which stalled when the Nats’ ownership believed he wanted at least a 13-year deal exceeding $500 million. They talked again early this winter, Nats GM Mike Rizzo said, but it was nothing more than preliminary negotiations.

“I look forward,’’ Rizzo said, “to many, many more years with him. He’s dear to my heart.’’

Rizzo says the Nats will continue attempts to sign Harper all year, insisting there’s no deadline, and plan to talk even after the start of the regular season.

“I never understood the logic in having a deadline like that,’’ Rizzo said. “We’ll keep talking. Hey, we did the same with (Stephen) Strasburg, and signed him in May.’’

Indeed, Strasburg signed a seven-year, $175 million contract in May, 2016, five months before he was eligible for free agency.

The Marlins may have a better chance of winning the World Series than Harper re-signing with the Nats before he tests the free agent market, but then again, with this strange market, who can possibly project what owners may do next winter?

“If I’m the organization,’’ Harper said, “I want the best players on my team. My fans deserve that. The players deserve that.’’

Harper can’t believe there’s still a Who’s Who of unemployed players remaining on the free-agent market, including 14 who are represented by his agent, Boras.

“There’s a guy like (2015 Cy Young winner) Jake Arrieta right now,’’ Harper said, “I’d put him on my staff any day of the week. I mean he’s one of the best pitchers in the game, one of the best playoff pitchers in the game.

“I’m not sure what people are thinking, but if I’m a fan base or a team, and you’re trying to lose ballgames to get the No. 1 pick, I’ll take freaking Jayson Werth over a first-round pick any day of the week.’’

Something will be dreadfully wrong next winter if a 25-year-old, five-time All-Star doesn’t have every team in baseball interested in his services, with at least a handful willing to write a check for at least $300 million, and perhaps a couple who’ll top $400 million.

“He deserves every penny he gets,’’ said Nats starter Gio Gonzalez, who’s also eligible for free agency. “He’s a superstar. Correction, make that a rock star.

“Him and Trout are phenomenal for baseball. Those guys are why kids now want to play baseball, and why baseball needs these guys, and why baseball needs to take care of these guys.

“I guarantee that whatever teams gets him, will be really happy for a long, long time.’’

The bidding will start in eight months. Baseball’s annual winter meetings, which happen to be in Harper’s hometown of Las Vegas, are in 10 months. In the meantime, we can start the speculation now, with or without Harper’s help.

But no matter how long the rumors rage, or the questioning every time he plays in a visiting city, the last guy bothered by all the drama will be Harper himself.

“He loves it, he absolutely lives for this,’’ Nats center fielder Adam Eaton says. “You know he does. He’s had pressure his whole life, and he flourishes under pressure.

“Some people can say it. Other people can live it. Well, he lives it and he’s all in.

“This won’t affect him one bit.’’

Really, it will be business as usual. The Nationals will once again win the NL East. Harper again will be an All-Star, with the game played in Washington D.C. And the Nats again will try to avoid a flop in the playoffs.

The only uncertainty question will be Harper’s future.

Your heart tells you he’ll be a Dodger, your mind tells you he may be staying in Washington, but for now, Harper is the only one who has any idea where he’s even leaning.

And he’s not talking about it.

That’s a good thing.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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