There are any number of significant factors the Nationals have to consider in deciding how much they’re willing to offer Bryce Harper to stay in D.C. long term. These are huge questions that impact the franchise both on and off the field for years.
There’s a seemingly smaller question, though, that should not be forgotten: What would re-signing Harper do to the rest of the Nationals’ outfield?
It’s actually not an insignificant question, because there’s a real domino effect to it that could have major implications.
Harper spent this season shifting back and forth between right and center fields, a less-than-ideal scenario that came about out of necessity. The plan entering the season was for Harper to play right, with Adam Eaton in left and Michael A. Taylor in center. But then Eaton re-injured his surgically repaired ankle, and after several other backup outfielders got hurt, left field opened up for 19-year-old Juan Soto.
By the time Eaton was healthy again, Soto had firmly established himself as the everyday left fielder. That made Taylor the odd man out but forced manager Davey Martinez to play Harper in center field on a regular basis while the still-recovering Eaton took over right field.
Harper wound up struggling defensively at both positions. He finished with a -16 Defensive Runs Saved rating in 95 starts in right field, a -10 rating in only 59 starts in center field.
“We asked a lot of Bryce this year,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “Free agent year, we asked him to play a position that he played for the team’s benefit. We needed him to play center field on a lot of occasions, and he went to center field with absolutely no problem. It was something that I thought was an unselfish - very unselfish - act, because he could have played a more comfortable position in right field. I think it negatively impacted both positions, because he was bouncing around so much from center and right.”
If the Nationals re-sign Harper, Rizzo made it clear he’ll be staying at one position.
“He’s been a really good defensive right fielder for many, many years, and it’s something that I think bouncing him around kind of cost him in both,” the GM said. “When he settles in back into the corner outfield, he’s going to be fine.”
If Harper is entrenched in right field and Soto is entrenched in left field, that leaves center field for top prospect Victor Robles. Or, if the organization decides he’s not ready, Taylor.
“I think Victor is ready to play baseball,” Martinez said. “He’s itching to play. We’ll see how that transpires. And look, we’ve got another guy, Michael Taylor, that I think will bounce back. He’s going to work with (hitting coach Kevin Long) this winter and cut down on the strikeouts. And, hopefully, those two will fight for the job.”
What, though, would become of Eaton in this scenario? He’s signed for $8.4 million in 2019, with a pair of club options ($9.5 million in 2020, $10.5 million in 2021) included in his deal, along with a $1.5 million buyout.
Eaton obviously has struggled to stay on the field in his first two seasons in Washington, but in the 118 games he has played, he has hit .300 with a .394 on-base percentage and .816 OPS. Club officials rave about the energy and attitude he brings to the park every day, and he has established himself as an ideal leadoff hitter for this lineup.
It’s hard to imagine the Nationals spending $8.4 million on a bench player, but there wouldn’t be any place to play Eaton on a daily basis unless he or Harper is in center field. And then Robles would be blocked.
Rizzo probably would have little choice but to see what he could get in a trade for Eaton. Given how much he gave the White Sox (three top pitching prospects) to acquire the outfielder only two years ago, that would come across to many as an awfully big failure on the GM’s part. He may not have the luxury of considering that, but it would pain the man on a personal level to have to do it.
None of this is to suggest the Nationals are better off without Harper, or that this is the reason they’d choose to let him walk.
But it’s certainly one of many factors in this convoluted - and franchise-impacting - decision hovering over the Nats this winter.