WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Bryce Harper didn’t even wait for the question to be asked. He wanted to make this clear before any reporters assembled for his first media session of the spring could press him on it.
“Just want to let you guys know I will not be discussing anything relative to 2019, at all,” he said. “I’m focused on this year. I’m focused on winning and playing hard, like every single year. So if you guys have any questions about anything after 2018, you can call Scott and he can answer you guys.”
Scott Boras’ phone will be ringing nonstop this year, though the most powerful agent in baseball would be fielding tons of calls about Harper whether his client addressed his pending free agency or not. Harper can try to avoid being asked about it throughout a season that includes four road trips to New York, high-profile series in Los Angeles and Chicago, the All-Star Game in Washington and every other opportunity sure to come up along the way, but the question is going to loom underneath the surface until the day he signs his next contract.
Among the toughest challenges the 25-year-old right fielder will face, then, is that of pushing the 800-pound gorilla aside and not letting it become a distraction during the most important season of his career.
And it is the most important of Harper’s seven big league seasons to date, because his performance will go a long way toward determining both the details of the massive contract he’ll be signing and the Nationals’ ultimate fate come September and October.
“We stay in the here and the now. That’s how we’re going to handle it,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He just wants to perform every day, that’s it. He’s not worried about the years to follow. He’s worried about 2018 and what he can do to help this team win.”
Harper knows the best way he can help the Nationals win is to keep himself on the field and as close to 100 percent healthy as possible. The last time he did that over an entire season (2015) he was the unanimous choice for National League MVP. He was on track for a possible second MVP last summer before he suffered a frightening knee injury on Aug. 12 that threatened to end his season but ultimately sidelined him for 6 1/2 weeks. He resumed playing just in time to return for the playoffs.
Harper insisted today his knee was healthy during the National League Division Series, but despite one towering home run in Game 2 against the Cubs he never really looked like his usual self and finished the series 4-for-19 with three RBIs. He reported to camp late last week 100 percent healthy and said there’s no lingering issue with any part of his body.
“I thought my offseason went great,” he said. “Lower half feels really good, upper body feels really good. Pretty proportional. I had no setbacks. Nothing holding me back. And I felt great.”
Harper enters his seventh big league season with a roster full of teammates who have been at his side for much of his career but yet another coaching staff makeover. Martinez is his fourth different manager. Kevin Long is his third different hitting coach.
Harper raved today about both Martinez and Long and what they can do to help him, but also made a point to credit those who came before for helping him become the player he is now.
“Davey Johnson, I mean he had all the faith in the world in a 19-year-old,” he said. “And I couldn’t appreciate him enough for allowing me the opportunity to be in the big leagues. And then, of course, Matt Williams helping with my approach and how I thought up there (at the plate) and everything like that, helped me a lot. And then Dusty (Baker) taught me how to have fun and enjoy the game more than anybody.”
There is one particularly notable absence in the clubhouse, with Jayson Werth unemployed and still looking for a contract but having ended his seven-year tenure with the Nationals. “One of the best teammates I’ve had throughout my whole life,” Harper said of Werth. The two spoke on the phone as recently as Sunday.
Werth’s departure and Harper’s growing stature - only Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez have continuously been on the Nationals’ major league roster longer - put him in something of an unusual situation within the clubhouse. He’s still one of the youngest players on the team, but he’s unquestionably a veteran, one who others now seek for advice.
“I feel like I’ve been through a lot the past seven years,” he said. “I think learning from guys like J-Dub or (Ian Desmond), (Rick) Ankiel my first year, Xavier Nady ... talking to all these guys, it’s a lot of fun. I was able to learn from some of the best guys in the game, and guys who went through ruts or went through things that many people didn’t go through. I’m excited to be able to answer questions or teach guys or anything like that. I’m just trying to go out there and do the things I can to help this team win.”
Harper has done nothing but win since joining the Nationals. He’s been a part of all six winning seasons (and all four postseason appearances) this franchise has produced since arriving in town in 2005. But he knows, like everyone else, that his time in Washington (whether it ends this winter or many years down the road) will be judged not on personal achievements as much as team success.
“I think I’ve been lucky enough to play for a great team,” he said. “We’ve gotten to the playoffs numerous times. You look at a young guy like (Dan Marino) that gets there their first year and never gets back. It’s tough. You always want to get there and get there and get there, because you might never get back. Every single year you come in here and try to win ballgames and do the things you can to help this team win.
“We all want to come together and pull on the same rope. We do it every single year. We’re expected to win. That’s how it is. We’re expected to win the East. We’re expected to possibly win a pennant, and we’re expected to possibly win a World Series. As a team, I think we’re going to try to do the best we can and do everything possible to win ballgames.”