- - Wednesday, March 7, 2018

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. | You’ll sometimes hear baseball observers say of a great hitter, “He’s worth the price of admission for batting practice.”

You could say the same about Anthony Rendon taking ground balls before a game.

The Washington Nationals third baseman is like a dancer, his feet moving quickly, the glove snatching the hard grounder and the rifle throw to first. Coaches and teammates marveled at him in warmups before Tuesday’s exhibition game against the Houston Astros.

It’s infield practice, seemingly one of the most boring exercises in baseball, but Rendon is must-watch when he is on the field. And at the plate.

He’d rather you didn’t though.

In his introductory press conference this spring when he threatened to leave the room if anyone asked him about his future in Washington, Bryce Harper had an honest, if arrogant, Bryce Harper moment when he told reporters, “If I stay healthy, I can be one of the best players in the game.”

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So can Anthony Rendon.

The Nationals have two of them — candidates for best player in the game. They need to keep one — and that one appears to be Rendon, who next season will be where Harper is this year, entering the final year of his Nationals contract.

Harper and Rendon have a lot in common — besides sharing the same agent in Scott Boras.

But there are also key differences.

Harper likes the limelight. He likes attention. He has seemingly been destined for his upcoming free agency — possibly a $500 million player — since he was drafted by Washington in 2010.

Rendon, 27, Washington’s first-round pick in 2011 out of Rice University, would just as soon play in an empty stadium. He would prefer not to be the center of attention.

As his career progresses, that has become harder to do.

In 147 games last year, Rendon batted .301 with 41 doubles, 25 home runs and 100 RBI. He won the National League Silver Slugger award for third basemen when he batted .287 with 111 runs scored, 39 doubles, 21 home runs and 83 RBI in 2014, and was named NL Comeback Player of the Year in 2016 when, after missing 82 games the year before from a knee injury and a strained oblique muscle, batted .270 with 91 runs scored, 38 doubles, 20 home runs and 85 RBI.

He finished fifth in NL Most Valuable Player voting in 2014, and sixth last season.

“He is one of the quiet players and one of the best in the game,” manager Dave Martinez said.

The Nationals are well-equipped moving forward if Harper leaves at the end of this season and signs elsewhere. You would be looking at an outfield of Adam Eaton, Michael Taylor and top prospect Victor Robles, with Brian Goodwin mixed in. There is life after Bryce Harper, even if Washington faces another tough free agency in 2019, with Rendon.

That departure, should it happen, might be much harder to live with. But the Nationals likely have a far better chance of keeping Rendon than they ever have had for Harper.

Rendon is more like another Boras client, Stephen Strasburg. Neither player craves the spotlight like Harper does.

During the Nationals Fan Fest in December, Rendon said he was willing to listen to talk about a contract extension. At the start of camp, though, he felt his words were taken out of context — though it’s not clear how.

“You made it all seem like, ‘Oh, you want a contract right now,’” Rendon said. “And I think what I was talking about was, ‘Yeah, I’m open to listen to it.’ It’s kind of like if anybody wants a promotion, you’re obviously going to want to hear about it, you’re not going to want to just ignore it. But hey, I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey, I want my extension now.’ I’m open to hear about it.”

This new media-friendly version of Anthony Rendon is going to need some work.

The organization made a smart move by connecting the Texas native to their work at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. Rendon is on the board of directors and has been very active in his support of their youth baseball and education programs. His ties to the community are deep.

Sporting a new, shorter haircut, he’s appeared more relaxed this spring and more willing to accept the inevitability that people will want to talk about him, write about him — and watch him play.

“I’m thinking with my new haircut, I’m professional now,” he joked with reporters at the start of spring training. “I’m trying to show everybody to take me seriously. So maybe I’ll get more All-Star votes.”

With the All-Star Game in Washington this season, it would be a special moment to add to the legacy of Anthony Rendon as a Washington National — hopefully, a long and continuing legacy.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs,” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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