LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Dave Martinez has been the Nationals manager for about six weeks, but the mere mention of superstar right fielder Bryce Harper elicits the same reactions as a kid rushing down the steps on Christmas morning and finding just the present he wanted neatly wrapped in colorful paper under the tree.
Saucer-sized eyes, unbridled excitement, a guy who can’t wait to try out his new toy. Santa delivered and he couldn’t be happier.
In his meeting with the media at the Winter Meetings on Monday, Martinez left little doubt that he wants to have Harper, a pending free agent, around for as long as possible.
“Can I lobby right now?” Martinez responded when asked if he’d consider stumping the pending free agent to stick around in D.C. past 2018, the last season the 25-year-old is contractually obligated to the Nationals.
When you’ve got one of the most talented and marketable assets in the game today, you’re not going to forget about him before the wrapping paper even makes it to the refuse pile.
“I can’t wait to work with him and I hope we get to work together for a lot of years,” Martinez said. “He’s a tremendous player. Of course anybody would want him on their team. But as of right now, he’s a Washington National, and I’m looking forward to him being at spring training and working together.”
The key is getting Harper to consent to a long-term relationship instead of chasing unimaginable dollar figures in the free agent market next offseason. The Winter Meetings in 2018 will be held in Harper’s hometown of Las Vegas, a apt location given the way baseball’s high rollers are expected to bid for his services - unless the Nationals can come to terms on a long-term extension before he hits the open market.
“I’m looking forward to working with him and everybody else,” Martinez said during his 15-minute media session in a ballroom at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort. “He’s one of the best players in the game, no doubt. So he’s really excited and all these guys want to win.”
With Scott Boras as his agent, it’s a good bet Harper tests free agency. Most of Boras’ clients eschew dipping their toes in the free agent waters for a full body dive. But if a player likes his team, his team’s chances of contending and the contract terms it offers him, a deal can be hammered out. Harper’s teammate and Boras stable mate Stephen Strasburg was heading toward free agency last winter; instead, Strasburg instructed Boras to negotiate a deal to keep him in Washington and they negotiated a seven-year, $175 million pact that runs through 2023 and creates both rotation stability for the club and protection against rising salaries (unless Strasburg exercises his opt-out option after the 2019 or 2020 seasons).
Martinez made sure Harper was one of the first players he reached out to once he was introduced as manager in late October, and the first-year skipper has been making a priority of connecting by phone and via text messages with his new charges in the interim. Martinez said he is looking forward to next weekend’s Nationals Winterfest at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center so he can meet as many players as possible in person.
“(It) is really important to build that relationship and start getting to know these guys and what makes them tick and let them know that, hey, I’m there not only to be your manager, but to help you in any way I can,” Martinez said. “And it’s good to know that they’re open-minded, they want to win and they also want somebody that can believe in them, and I’m here for them.”
Martinez’s mission to reach out and forge relationships with the members of his new team hasn’t been limited to players. He’s already convened his newly assembled coaching staff at the Nationals’ spring training facility in West Palm Beach to begin the process of planning for next season.
He said the makeup of the coaching staff - bench coach Chip Hale, pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, first base coach Tim Bogar, third base coach Bobby Henley, hitting coach Kevin Long, assistant hitting coach Joe Dillon and bullpen coach Henry Blanco - was a product of a tandem process that saw Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo whittle down a list of prospective candidates for jobs. Only Henley, who has served in the same capacity on the staffs of Matt Williams and Dusty Baker, was retained.
“I really feel like we got a great coaching staff,” Martinez said. “A lot of guys that I wanted, a lot of guys that were on our list. Mike and I put a list together and we got the guys that we really wanted, the guys that we thought would fit, not just for me but for the players and the organization and they’re really looking forward to it.”