David Huzzard: Does Harper’s absence create an opportunity?

Bryce Harper is the most important player to the Nationals’ success, yet his absence creates an opportunity for the Nationals to find out if they really need him. Ask yourself: How good does a player have to be to be worth what Harper is going to command in free agency, and will Harper really command that much.

The second part of that question is important because if the Nationals decide to offer Harper an extension this offseason, they need to be close to what he and his agent believe he is going to command on the open market. But think about how foolish it would be for any team to commit $40 million a year to one player. It has been seen before where free agents overreach and end up sitting on the market late into February or even March.

Harper isn’t a free agent this offseason and that could turn out very well for him, as recently bias plays a big role in negotiations. If Harper were a free agent this offseason, the fact that he’s played in more than 140 games twice in his career and more than 120 three times could hurt him. He’s a great player when he’s on the field, but he hasn’t shown he can stay on the field and recurring knee injuries are good for nobody. This has nothing to do with the Nats’ current situation, however. The choice about Harper could happen as soon as this offseason, but that is still a long ways off. The team has to worry about finishing this season and getting through the playoffs.

The Nationals can do that without Harper. They have proven that going 12-7 since he went down and along the way facing one of the best teams in the American League, a resurgent Angels team fighting for the AL wild card, and a Marlins team that was suddenly hot. At times, the lineups the Nationals were putting out looked more like a spring training split squad than a major league lineup deep in the season for a division-leading club. A revamped bullpen and consistently strong starting pitching have helped, and the Nationals are going to need Trea Turner and Jayson Werth to be at their best if they hope to go deep in the playoffs without Harper.

What happens if the Nats do go deep in the playoffs without Harper? Could the Nationals’ thinking change as to who is the most important player on their team? Could they make the decision that tying up money in Harper would be foolish when they could keep Anthony Rendon? The Lerners are super rich and the Nationals’ continued success, and the theoretical deep playoff run would bring them even more money. If they want both Harper and Rendon, they could sign both and structure the contracts to make it work, but like any business, there is a budget and they simply may not want to blow it out of the water in order to keep all their great players, especially with top outfield prospects in the system ready to take over if Harper should go elsewhere.

The real question this offseason may not be Harper’s free agency. If the Nationals decide that the best course for the future is to offer Rendon a long-term extension and make every effort to keep Daniel Murphy past 2018 over Harper, then the thinking could easily become, “What could we fetch for Harper in a trade?” And once the Nationals find out the answer to that question that could be the end of Harper in a Nationals uniform. Now all of this depends on the Nationals having success in the playoffs without Harper. If they suffer another first-round exit, they are far more likely to let Harper get healthy over the offseason and take one more shot at the World Series with him in the fold before deciding their role in his future.

Harper is an extremely talented player, the most important and most talented player on the 2017 Nationals, but his injury does allow for the Nationals to find out if he is necessary. If Rendon caps off an MVP-worthy season by putting a Harper-less Nats team on his back and carrying them through the playoffs, upper management might decide here and now that Harper is not necessary to the Nationals’ future and look to move him this offseason before investing heavily in Rendon. No injury is good and the Nationals would be better off with Harper, but without him, they may find out an answer to an important question.

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.

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