Like Stephen Strasburg, Nationals Have Completely Mishandled Bryce Harper

I don’t have any idea where Washington Nationals RHP Stephen Strasburg, or RF Bryce Harper, will be playing once their contracts expire, but I’m certain it won’t be with the organization that drafted them with back-to-back top overall picks in 2009 and ’10.

The pair are about as similar as they are different.

On the one hand, both are represented by agent über-genius, Scott Boras. Both are face-of-the-franchise-caliber talents, and both have had their own experiences of extreme displeasure with the Nationals organization.

On the other, Strasburg is a pitcher, Harper a position player; Strasburg is a speak softly but carry a big stick type personality, Harper an aggressive, balls-out character. The media is behind Stephen Strasburg and vilifies Bryce Harper.

They’re both exceptionally talented. Neither have reached their respective peaks. And both are going to get paid a shit-ton of money once they reach free agency. The further their star-crossed timelines continue to unfold, the more it looks as if both will make it there, meaning there’s very little chance Washington will have the ability to retain them.

Stephen Strasburg was drafted in 2009 to a record $7.5 million signing bonus, and found success almost immediately. In 2010 he was worth +2.5 fWAR in only 68 innings of work, and followed that with +1.1 fWAR in 2011 before succumbing to Tommy John surgery, effectively ending his campaign.

In his career he’s produced +15.2 FIP-wins in only 649.1 IP. He’s essentially worth one Platonic Win every 42.7 innings on the mound. To put that into perspective with some of his contemporaries, Clayton Kershaw has been worth one win every 38.6 innings pitched; Yu Darvish has been worth one win every 39.2 IP; Max Scherzer, who will be the highest-priced free agent this winter, has been worth one win every 45.9 IP.

There are better ways to determining value, but, from a per-innings-pitched perspective, Strasburg is an ace major league starting pitcher.

In 2011 he went down with arm surgery, and in 2012 he was shut down prematurely by GM Mike Rizzo in September, before the Nationals eventually lost to the Cardinals in the NLDS. As a competitor, at the time Strasburg was obviously unhappy about this, going so far as saying:

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it, to be honest… It’s something that I’m not happy about at all. That’s not why I play the game.”

Only two years from free agency, Strasburg just witnessed Jon Lester coming home with a six-year, $155 million contract from the Cubs, and is about to see Scherzer get something closer to Kershaw’s seven-year, $215 million deal he signed with the Dodgers last year. He’ll collect around $8 million through arbitration this winter, another $11-12 million in 2016, then he’ll be gone. Scott Boras likes his clients to reach their free agency payday, and there’s almost zero incentive in taking a below-market deal to stay with Washington at this point. That’s what players do when they are in their pre-arb seasons.

I’m not saying the damaged relationship between he and the front office is the reason he will eventually leave, but I do think it was a significant factor in why he never reached an agreement earlier on to stay.

Bryce Harper was the club’s #1 pick in 2010, reaching the major leagues as a 19 year-old in 2012. In 357 games, which equates to roughly 2.2 big league seasons, Harper has generated +9.5 fWAR, an average of about 4.5 wins every 162 games. He’s still only 22 years old as of right now. A low-end future projection pegs him as an annual All Star outfielder, with certain potential of at least one, probably three or four, MVP Awards before his career is finished.

Due to a quirk in his rookie contract, which was actually a five-year, $9.9 million major league contract (with $6.25 million signing bonus) when he was drafted, Harper is currently disputing his Super Two status with the Nationals.

It’s complicated, but the gist is — since he has played in the majors for as much service time as he’s had — he is entitled to arbitration this winter, which would net him a raise from the $2.25 million he’s actually due. If the court sides with Harper’s grievance, he should get a raise up to about $5 million next year.

The Nationals, forced by a roster with numerous players on expiring contracts after 2015, are for some reason disputing that they should not have to pay Harper arbitration until after next year, saving the club about $3 million. Which, in baseball, equates to almost nothing.

Bryce Harper isn’t pleased by this blowback, even refusing to attend a recent Washington fan-fest type of event. Harper says he wasn’t able to attend “due to matters out of my control,” though his GM disagrees:

“We’re disappointed he’s not here, but he chose not to be here because of the grievance,” Rizzo said.

In sports you really, really have to read between the lines, since no one — neither the athletes nor management — ever says anything very substantial. In this instance, Rizzo is essentially calling Bryce Harper’s bullshit, saying he chose to fuck off because of the dispute the two sides are having. And still, the equation remains simple: Understandably, the player wants to get paid, and the organization wants to save money. Okay.

What I don’t understand, at least from the Nationals perspective, is why are they creating a rift with their most talented, most marketable player, over a few million dollars? Bryce Harper is the kind of once-in-a-generation talent that turns really good teams in great teams; he is one of the key cogs that make Washington a contender year after year.

In 2012, I think Mike Rizzo’s stance on Stephen Strasburg was at least mildly defensible. He had a specific innings limit in mind and didn’t want Strasburg to cross it, thus potentially harming his arm for 2013 and beyond. But if that was the case, why didn’t they delay his start time so he could be saved for the postseason? Why didn’t they skip some of his starts during the regular season to keep him under that innings-pitched threshold?

These are questions that have been asked before, I’m just giving you a refresher course.

With this Bryce Harper situation, what the fuck, man? You cannot treat your star players like this.

When Washington drafted Strasburg and Harper back-to-back with top overall picks, they did so with the promise that they would be the slam dunk, front-of-the-rotation starter and middle of the order bat that would carry the franchise through years of prosperity. In baseball there are no guarantees, and still Strasburg and Harper have carried their ends of the bargain. The Nationals have been one of MLB’s most successful organizations in terms of wins since the two have been in the league.

Yet, we’re here now. Strasburg is two years away from free agency, Harper four, and it seems as if Washington has done — and are doing — everything in its power to alienate their two bread-winners.

I don’t have any idea where the two will be playing once their contracts expire, but I imagine it will be with a club that can afford one of the ten-best players in the sport, which each will be by the time they reach free agency. That limits the suitors to, basically, five or six teams.

The only thing I know is it won’t be the Washington Nationals.