Harper always plays — and often talks — with a defiant ferocity, a fiery edge that makes him more polarizing than genial superstars like Mike Trout, Kris Bryant and Jose Altuve. The Nationals believe Harper’s looming free agency will inspire him, not distract him.
“I’ve known him since he’s 16, and I know his mind’s right,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s going to take this as a challenge and prepare himself to have a super season. We all know when he’s on the field, he’s going to perform. He’s not a person that’s going to be distracted. His focus is intense.”
Harper missed more than six weeks late last season with a bone bruise in his left knee after slipping on a wet first base while trying to beat out a grounder. He still hit 29 homers with a .319 average and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.008. He said he felt fine in the playoffs, when the Nationals lost a five-game division series to the Chicago Cubs.
That has been a discouraging refrain in Harper’s career. Every season has ended before his birthday, which is Oct. 16. He has helped Washington win four National League East titles but has hit just .211 in the postseason, losing each time in the first round.
Last October, as the potential tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 5, Harper struck out to end the season. He insisted he flushed the loss quickly.
“I was done,” he said. “When I walk out of that clubhouse any day that I play, I walk out. The season’s over; that game’s over. They beat us and that was it.”
Several of Harper’s teammates are also facing free agency, including second baseman Daniel Murphy, starter Gio Gonzalez, catcher Matt Wieters and reliever Ryan Madson. The Nationals could still contend without them — with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in the rotation, they will always have hope — but now could be their best chance.
“Whether it’s Bryce’s last year, Murph’s last year, my last year, we feel like this team is good enough to win the World Series,” Wieters said. “So that makes it easy to put away all that thought of where we’re going to be in the future, because we feel like we have a chance this year — and all you want coming into spring training is a chance.”
The Nationals essentially return the same roster that won the division by 20 games last season. The veteran left fielder Jayson Werth is gone, but Adam Eaton, last winter’s most prominent addition, is back after knee surgery. Eaton and Trea Turner should form a dynamic top of the order, ahead of Harper, Murphy, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman.
“We’re expected to win; that’s how it is,” Harper said. “We’re expected to win the East. We’re expected to possibly win a pennant, and we’re expected to possibly win a World Series.”
Harper said he was eager to play for Dave Martinez, who replaced Dusty Baker as manager and could bring more emphasis on analytics. Martinez, the bench coach for Joe Maddon with the Cubs, had speakers installed on each practice field here to blast music from all corners. He wants the team to have fun, keep winning, and forget about scaling the playoff hump.
“For me, they’ve accomplished the hump,” Martinez said. “My message to them is, ‘Hey, when we get there, it’s just playing one more game. One more game. It’ll be Game 163, 164, 165, that’s it.’ We’re good enough to finish this out. They know that. We’ve just got to concentrate on the here and now.”
That is Harper’s approach, too. He will play, and play hard, for the Nationals, until the moment — when? if? — he walks right out the door.