- - Monday, July 9, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Bryce Harper was bound to reach the All-Star Game in the home ballpark of the franchise that drafted him. He’s one of the biggest names and most marketable stars in a sport that struggles to produce players with high Q-ratings and multiple advertising campaigns.

Harper’s whereabouts on July 17 were never in doubt. We just weren’t certain he’d participate in the Home Run Derby, since he skipped the last four. But with the All-Star Game in Washington for the first time since 1969, we thought Harper’s sense of history and duty would win out.

The face of the Nationals will be plastered over TV and cyberspace next week as the franchise welcomes everyone to town. Harper will have significant duties as an ambassador and in-demand target of corporate sponsors. It should be a lot of fun … until someone asks him about next season.

He opened his first spring-training interview with a threat to “walk out that door” if any reporter inquired about the 2019 season. When the New York Yankees visited Nationals Park for a series in May, their press corps danced around the prospect of pinstripes in Harper’s future while coming as close as possible.

His admiration of Mickey Mantle? His childhood affection for the Yankees? His knowledge about the Bronx Bombers’ current lineup and their longstanding policy on facial hair?

Reporters swung and missed more than Harper has done lately.

“I’m a National now,” he told them. “That’s the only thing on my mind.”

If that’s true, he doesn’t have much company. Nearly everyone else has attention deficit disorder, unable to focus on this season because their minds keep wandering to what lies ahead.

Harper’s “struggles” at the plate only exacerbate matters. Although he led the NL with 73 walks and was second in homers (21) entering Monday, his batting average was .218 — 67 points below his career average. He has a cringe-worthy mark of .189 over nearly three months.

His performance, coupled with the Nats’ underachievement, has created even more questions about his value. Some observers once predicted Harper would sign for $400 million or more. Now many doubt that he’s worth that much and even ponder his value to the Nats should they fall out of the playoff race.

Sports Illustrated and MLB.com are among the outlets that kicked around the idea of Washington trading Harper before he potentially leaves as a free agent. The notion would’ve been heresy in May but must at least be considered in three weeks when the deadline arrives.

Assuming the Nats find their footing and contend for the postseason as expected, Mike Rizzo won’t have to contemplate dangling Harper. But the general manager still must determine Washington’s best course once Harper hits the market.

With pressing needs for a catcher, second baseman and another starting pitcher, Rizzo can’t break the bank on Harper, especially since the outfield appears to be a position of strength. If Harper and agent Scott Boras are seeking a record contract, Rizzo can bow out gracefully.

Even if the slugger is open to accepting a hometown discount, that might be too much to pay considering the roster’s holes elsewhere. Rizzo must determine a number that makes sense but also isn’t insulting, perhaps an impossibility in the view of Harper’s camp.

Free agents last winter learned a cold, hard lesson on teams’ growing preference for younger, cheaper, controllable players, opposed to older, expensive, established veterans. Harper and Baltimore’s Manny Machado will have their share of suitors, but clubs have lost some of their appetite for megadeals since Miami signed Giancarlo Stanton for $325 million in 2014 and the Royals, Cubs and Astros used cheaper routes to win the World Series.

That doesn’t mean Harper will fall short of the benchmark. And despite Stanton and Aaron Judge sharing their outfield, the Yankees still might be the eventual landing spot.

When Harper cut off his beard June 18 — with the Yankees in town! — some folks wondered if it was a signal. Ditto when he recently took grounders at first base, a position he has never played but could be a fit in the Bronx.

A razor and a first baseman’s glove can’t foretell the future.

But we’ll take whatever clues we can get at this point.

The smart money was on Harper leaving after this season and nothing thus far has moved the betting line. The only change might be how we view the separation. Feels like seeing him in pinstripes, or whatever, will hurt less than imagined.

What’s more, going their separate ways is arguably in both parties’ best interests.

Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.


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