Ryan Sullivan: Nationals could face a painful choice this offseason

The last few games of this past week’s homestand put a spotlight on the main storyline of the Nationals’ offseason and one of the biggest in all of baseball: Which team will upcoming free agent Bryce Harper sign with this winter?

The almost 26-year-old Harper will have, for the first time in his professional career, the opportunity to choose which team he plays for and he can potentially decide this for the duration of his career. Critics knock his mediocre defensive skills, but by any measure, Harper is one of the most dangerous and feared hitters in baseball, as his career.278/.387/.512 batting line and 184 home runs suggest. Rumors strongly suggest Harper will likely be seeking a 10-year contract at upwards of $30 million annually. He is one of the best players to reach free agency in recent memory and, in theory, has yet to reach his prime.

In pure baseball terms, the Nationals are a better team with Harper in their lineup than without him. Unfortunately, this is not the only factor in whether or not to re-sign Harper, as the decision has a significant trickle-down effect on the organization and the shape of their roster for the next few seasons.

Assuming the Nationals keep team payroll in the $180-$200 million range for the next couple of years, Harper would be accounting for 15 percent of the entire budget. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are both under contract for several years, earning more than $25 million annually, so they already account for about 25 percent of the team’s annual payroll. In addition, third baseman Anthony Rendon becomes a free agent after next season and will command $20 million per year. Math has never been my best subject (just ask my freshman year algebra teacher Mr. MacKinnon), but it seems nearly impossible to have all four under contract and still put 21 quality players around them.

So the Nationals have a difficult decision this offseason. Do they keep Harper in Washington at the near-certain detriment of keeping Rendon long-term, or do they attempt to sign Rendon to an extension this offseason while saying goodbye to Harper? This would set up Washington to rebuild its lineup around a young corps of Rendon, Adam Eaton, Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Trea Turner, with Scherzer and Strasburg leading the pitching staff.

The 2019 team would be best served if Washington re-signed Harper, then traded Eaton or Robles for much-needed starting pitching. However, much like borrowing money from your 401(k), the short-term benefits the Nationals could see in 2019 in keeping both Harper and Rendon might not pay off long term for the franchise.

Personally, I am quite conflicted on this decision, as the scout in me is loath to part with a potentially Hall of Fame-caliber talent in Harper, who has yet to reach his peak. Yet, the general manager in me knows the wise decision is to let Harper leave, as painful as that is, and sign Rendon to a lengthy extension this offseason.

Ryan Sullivan blogs about the Nationals at The Nats GM and runs The Nats GM Show podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @TheNatsGM. 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 roster of writers.

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