There are now two seasons in Washington sports — the Pay-Kirk-Cousins season and the Pay-Bryce-Harper season.
There is much overlap, of course. All season, every Redskins game was a referendum on whether or not the Washington Redskins should sign Cousins to a long-term contract.
Now come the off-season debates — will the Redskins’ front office make Cousins a legitimate long-term deal instead of the message-sending low-ball offer of last year? Will they franchise tag him again for a second season and pay him the $24 million that will come with that tag for the 2017 season? Or will they franchise Cousins and then trade him?
The Pay-Kirk-Cousins season has been far stormier because it’s right here, day after day, a daily weather check on a decision that qualifies as a warning instead of as a watch.
Like a tornado watch, the Pay-Bryce-Harper season is something troubling in the distance — 2018, the last year the Nationals have the 2015 National League Most Valuable Player under contract.
That season, though, is about to heat up — to make the change from watch to warning.
Harper will be a free agent following the 2018 season, and, if he bounces back from last year’s disappointing season, he will be the highest-priced free agent in sports history, with an agent, Scott Boras, who has shown a devotion to bringing his clients to the free agent market and squeezing every penny he can out of that market.
When that happens, the Pay-Bryce-Harper season will dwarf what has been the Pay-Kirk-Cousins season — which will be a distant memory, one way or the other, by 2018.
The Nationals, with Harper under contract (making $13.6 million this year, having recently settled before his arbitration hearing), are the only team that can talk to the young outfielder about a long-term contract until he hits the free agent market, and there have been preliminary discussions, whatever that means, about such a deal.
Don’t count on it.
Paying Harper a record $400 million or more in guaranteed money is a far riskier proposition than paying Cousins whatever he is worth in the NFL quarterback market. The owners of the Nationals, the Lerner family, are risk averse, no matter how close they are to Boras.
Tying the franchise’s future to Harper? Not going to happen.
And it it’s not in the cards, the time to trade Harper is now, two years before he becomes a free agent. No team is going to give up anything of worth in return unless they know they are going to get at least two years of Harper in uniform. A year from now, you will be hard-pressed to find bidders for one year of Bryce Harper before he becomes a free agent.
But trading Harper also isn’t going to happen.
That leaves the Nationals with this option — making the most of the final two years of Harper in the lineup. If they are not going to make the financial commitment to Harper — a reasonable position — then make the financial commitment to the team around him for these two remaining seasons.
Right now that means investing whatever they can in what is left on the free agent market to shore up the two components that former manager Davey Johnson used to preach was so important, particularly in postseason baseball — the bench and the bullpen.
Washington now stands 13th in payroll at approximately $150 million. There are still pieces out there to be bought, though. Not high-priced pieces, but important ones that would drive up the payroll but also make the most of the time remaining in the Harper era.
Backup infielder Stephen Drew, who when healthy was such a valuable contributor to the Nationals last season (eight home runs, 21 RBI and a .266 average in 143 at bats), remains a free agent. He cost them $3 million last season. He needs to be resigned.
San Francisco Giants veteran reliever Sergio Romo is still on the free agent market. He earned $9 million last year, when he had a 2.64 ERA in 40 appearances. Romo had a flexor strain and missed some time, but for the most part he has had an injury-free nine-year career. He is worth the risk and investment. Other bullpen help still out there includes Tommy Hunter and Greg Holland (a Boras client coming off Tommy John surgery).
The Nationals took a beating this winter publicly, falling short in trade talks with the Chicago White Sox for starting pitcher Chris Sale (it would have taken Trea Turner to make the deal for Sale) and then criticized for overpaying in obtaining outfielder Adam Eaton from the White Sox, giving up pitching prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. But I think Nationals fans are going to fall in love with Eaton, who, if used in the leadoff spot, followed by Turner, could give Washington the best lineup we’ve seen here. They are well positioned to defend their National League East title without adding another piece.
But they have one thing that no other team has — Bryce Harper for the next two years. They need to make the most of these two seasons and invest whatever is needed to do so. It may be the Pay-Everyone-But-Bryce-Harper season.
Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at email@example.com.
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