- - Thursday, June 21, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It has not been the Summer of Bryce.

Bryce Harper showed up at spring training annoyed, walking into a press conference and declaring that if any reporters dared to ask him about the final year of his contract in Washington or future free agency, he would walk out the door.

It was a declaration of pressure, and he did himself no favors.

Then came his public support of his hometown town, the Vegas Golden Knights, and showing up at Capital One Arena for the Stanley Cup Finals wearing a Golden Knights jersey, setting off a wave of criticism from Washington sports fans.

Recently, there were the comments published in FanRag Sports attributed to anonymous National League front office executives calling Harper a “losing” and “selfish” player who cared more about himself than the team.

And, of course, there is the Mendoza-line approaching .209 batting average, despite the league-leading 19 home runs.

Baseball’s Minister of Fun is not having much these days.

You can see in his body language the weight that Harper is carrying these days. But what is that weight?

If we are to believe the FanRag comments, is it because he is costing himself money with his anemic hitting in his contract year? Is it because he doesn’t want to look this bad because he is selfish?

What if it is the polar opposite? What if the burden that Harper is carrying is a tremendous desire to win here in Washington — perhaps this year more than ever, as maybe the clock is ticking down on his time with the Nationals?

What if Harper is so consumed with winning that it is eating him up?

Nationals manager Dave Martinez spoke of his star player’s desire to win Tuesday night at Nationals Park. “He is the consummate professional,” Martinez said. “He wants to win, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. When I talk to him, he just wants to help the team win.”

His biggest supporter, general manager Mike Rizzo, called Harper “the ultimate team player. He cares about wins more than stats. He’d rather win a championship than win an MVP.

“When we had this new outfield configuration, when Davey Martinez had to fit Adam Eaton in and because Soto is playing so well we had to find a configuration that worked best for the team, Bryce Harper went to Davey and said, ‘Yes, I can play centerfield,’” Rizzo said. “That took all the pressure off Adam Eaton’s knee and ankle. It kept Juan Soto in a more comfortable position in left field, but it exposed Harp in a year where he could use fewer distractions and fewer things to think about. He is playing a position that he hasn’t played a lot for the good of the team so we can get these potent left-handed bats in the lineup.”

Now, of course, this will be the Nationals’ party line publicly. But speaking with several members of the organization and the clubhouse, this may be the case.

Behind the scenes, they say what is driving Harper down these days is his obsession with winning — and leaving behind a winning legacy in Washington.

“He wants to win so badly and is trying so hard,” one team member told me, and it was a common theme.

“You don’t think he was paying attention to what went on with Alex Ovechkin here?” another club official said.

Ovechkin, as has been well documented, is now the most popular person in the city, the toast of the town, after leading the Washington Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in the organization’s 44-year history.

Harper, 25, the 2015 National League Most Valuable Player, has always played things in a too-cool-for-school style, revealing less and less of himself with each season here. And when four of the last six seasons ended in disappointing first-round exits for his team, Harper has never shown much in the way of pain following those losses publicly. If he burned inside, he hid it well.

But we may have underestimated the damage that those postseason failures have done to Harper. He’s been here for all of them, arriving in 2012, and likely after that did not expect to be here in 2018 still without a trip to the National League Championship Series, let alone the World Series.

And now this may be his last chance.

There won’t be much sympathy for Harper here. You can certainly argue that Harper is in control of his future, and he can decide if he wants to say in Washington beyond this season and bring the franchise and the city a world championship — and you would be right. This is not like Ovechkin looking at his gray hairs in the mirror and realizing he was closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

But he also may feel that the upcoming Winter of Bryce — his anticipated historic free agency — may be a runaway train. When I say historic, it is with the expectation that Harper will likely wind up the highest priced free agent in the history of the game — perhaps with a $400 million-plus deal.

There are a lot of expectations that come with that — certainly from the players’ union, who will see Harper’s contract as again raising the bar for all other free agents present and future. Remember, it was the players’ union that killed the trade of Alex Rodriguez to the Boston Red Sox in 2003 because a restructuring of his contract would have reduced its value. There will be many people watching — and hoping a Harper deal puts money in their pockets as well, players and agents alike.

And what of the Washington Nationals? Will they be willing to competitively bid for his services with a deal that could commit anywhere from $30 million to $40 million a year to their payroll for one player for the next five to 10 years? When they are looking at their roster and see Soto and Victor Robles under their financial control for the next six seasons — plus Adam Eaton through 2021?

What we may be seeing is Harper watching the legacy he thought he would leave behind here in Washington when he got here in 2012 slip away with each strikeout or ground ball.

Bryce Harper a loser? He may be such a winner that it is hurting him.

⦁ Thom Loverro’s weekly “Cigars & Curveballs” is available Wednesdays on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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