SAN DIEGO - When Bryce Harper departed 9 1/2 months ago, Nationals fans directed their ire at the star outfielder, blaming him for turning down the club’s best offer and accepting a then-record-setting deal with one of their most hated rivals. And when Harper made his return to D.C. in a Phillies uniform five weeks later ... well, those fans left no doubt about how they’ll forever feel about one of the best players in team history.
When Anthony Rendon departed Wednesday night, fans seemed to direct their ire not at the player but at the Nationals themselves, blaming them for not making the star third baseman a better offer that might’ve convinced him to stay instead of leave for Anaheim. It’ll be some time before those fans get to greet Rendon back on South Capitol Street again, because though the two teams meet in interleague play in 2020, that mid-May series will be played out west. The Angels likely won’t come to Washington until 2023 at the earliest.
It seems pretty obvious, though, that Nationals fans won’t ever boo Rendon. Or if they do, it won’t be with nearly as much gusto as they now direct at Harper. That says something about the two players’ respective personas, but also about the club’s perceived attempts to retain them.
The Nats’ final offer to Harper, you may remember, was 10 years for $300 million, with a huge chunk of that money to be deferred for many years down the road. Harper said no, became a free agent, then dragged the bidding war out until Feb. 28, at which point he finally accepted the Phillies’ 13-year, $330 million offer.
The common perception of that whole process: The Nationals tried their best and understandably didn’t go above and beyond to try to keep Harper because they knew they had Juan Soto waiting in the wings to take his place in the lineup and in the outfield. Harper, meanwhile, was greedy and only cared about signing the biggest contract in history (to that point) ... with a hated division rival that hasn’t had a winning season since 2011, no less.
This time around, there’s a sense the Nationals didn’t do everything they could to try to keep Rendon. Their last known offer for him - seven years, roughly $210 million, according to sources - was made late in the regular season and also included deferred money. They wound up watching him leave for Anaheim for $35 million more ($5 million per year) and a deal that paid all the money over the length of the contract, none deferred.
Nobody seems to be holding it against Rendon for taking that better deal and leaving, even though he’s going to an Angels club that, while big on star power, has been a major disappointment on the field over the last decade, with only one postseason appearance since Mike Trout made his debut.
Is that a fair assessment of the two situations? Maybe, but only to an extent.
Yes, the Nationals could’ve done more to try to keep Rendon. They could’ve upped their offer. They certainly could’ve gotten rid of the deferrals. They would’ve had to go over the luxury tax to make that happen, but they’ve done it before.
They might’ve been unable to address another position or two of need this winter. But they might’ve been able to retain one of the very best all-around players in baseball for another seven years, and they wouldn’t now find themselves in a dilemma in which they’re either going to have to overpay for 34-year-old Josh Donaldson or somehow find another capable third baseman somewhere else.
But Rendon could’ve helped make it happen, too. We don’t know precise details yet of their talks, but he could’ve expressed more of a willingness to defer money, just as Stephen Strasburg did earlier this week in signing his record contract for the same $245 million total. He could’ve taken less money than the Angels offered, preferring to stay in a place he had found comfortable with a team that just won the World Series and is positioned to contend for another title for several more years.
Rendon decided not to do that, and that was his right. That’s what free agency is for, to give players who have been in the majors more than six years a chance to choose where they’ll play next.
But he didn’t have to leave. He chose to leave.
Should fans hold that against him? That’s up to each individual to decide. But it seems unlikely most will. And that’s because, in part, of what Rendon did that Harper never did: hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy.
It’s not fair to blame Harper for the Nationals’ lack of postseason success during his time in D.C. Those series were lost for reasons that had nothing to do with his performance. And it’s not fair to claim this year’s team finally won in October because Harper was no longer around. These guys won because they had a more balanced roster, they were healthy and they finally did all the things right they couldn’t do right in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017.
But it will forever be true that Harper never won a title in Washington, and Rendon did. And Rendon played a huge role in making that happen. His three postseason homers all came in the seventh inning or later of elimination games (Game 5 of the National League Division Series, Games 6 and 7 of the World Series). Talk about a legacy that will stand the test of time.
Whatever happens the rest of his career can’t erase that fact. Rendon, like every member of the 2019 Nationals, will forever be beloved by fans for achieving what no previous Nationals team had ever done.
That’s why he’ll always be welcomed back to D.C. with cheers, even if his next trip back doesn’t come for years. And it’s why Harper almost certainly will never be welcomed back to D.C. with adulation, even though he’ll be making three trips a season to South Capitol Street for another 12 years.
Just remember this was a two-way street. The Nationals could’ve done more to try to keep either player. And either player could’ve done more to try to stick with the Nationals.
The organization can help itself by continuing to field competitive rosters and perhaps make another late October run. It’s pretty remarkable that’s still a very reasonable possibility after losing two of the biggest stars in baseball in back-to-back seasons.
Just don’t ever forget what Harper and Rendon did for the Nationals. Each did some remarkable things for them in their seven years playing for them. And each deserves to be remembered fondly for that.