Be careful, Washington Nationals fans. If you want Bryce Harper to stick around for the duration — if not the entirety — of his career, you might want to fill more seats at Nationals Park in the future.
OK, that's not a direct implication that Harper made when discussing recent attendance at Nationals home games with CSN Washington's Mark Zuckerman. But it's not a stretch to read into those comments and perhaps apply them toward his long-term status in D.C., is it?
"I think it’s tired, I really do," Harper said to Zuckerman. "Just ’cause football season’s coming up, we’re still in it. I think having support is hopefully going to help us in this last month. I think fans know that guys feed off the crowd. They’ve got a whole winter to watch RGIII. I think we’re all looking forward to that. But we could possibly get into the playoffs and go farther from there."
Harper arguably has a point. The Nats have won 13 of their past 18 games. In their last eight games, Washington has seven victories. Yet is it just too late for D.C. to get excited about a team that's been one of the biggest disappointments of the 2013 MLB season?
It should also be pointed out that the Nationals' most recent success has come at the expense of the Cubs, Royals and Marlins. No offense to the Royals, who are still on the fringes of the AL Central and wild-card races, but those three clubs don't present the stiffest competition. And besides, the Nats should beat teams like that if they're as good as most everyone predicted, if they're actually still World Series contenders.
But does anyone believe the Nationals still deserve that kind of status?
Washington is still 13 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. That division race is all but over. A seven-game deficit in the NL wild-card standings provides more reason for optimism. But the Nats would still need to leapfrog the Diamondbacks and hope for a total collapse by the Reds to nab that second wild-card spot.
Is it possible? Sure. We shouldn't question anything after what we saw in 2011, with the Rays and Cardinals overcoming seemingly insurmontable deficits to win playoff bids. And the Reds' upcoming schedule includes matchups with the Cards and Los Angeles Dodgers, while the Nats have a presumably softer slate with the Mets, Phillies and Marlins. In a couple of weeks, that wild-card race could get interesting.
That's why Harper and the Nationals have to be disappointed with the recent attendance at Nationals Park.
Harper's crack about Robert Griffin III was amusing, but also astute. For all the progress that the Nats may have made with D.C. sports fans last season, Washington is first and foremost a Redskins town. Having a young superstar at quarterback does nothing to dampen that enthusiasm.
The Nationals may never overcome that loyalty and fandom, even with a World Series victory. They're still the new kids in town, as far as the D.C. sports scene goes.
Of course, there are several other factors that would influence recent turnout at Nats games. From everything I've ever heard about D.C., the town empties out in August with Congress out of session and residents looking to avoid the oppressively humid weather. Kids going back to school affects attendance at virtually every ballpark in MLB.
Those factors can be overcome by winning. This year's early attendance at Nationals Park demonstrated that. The Nationals rank 12th in MLB attendance this season, which isn't bad. But it surely would have been better if the team lived up to the massive expectations placed upon them this year.
But maybe knowing that one of the Nats' young stars will be around for a long time could also keep D.C. sports fans interested. If it's up to agent Scott Boras, a 12-year contract would go a long way toward setting up Harper to spend his entire career in a Nationals uniform. That's what Boras strongly implied as only he can when talking to the Nats' media corps on Tuesday.
The topic of a massive long-term deal for Harper actually came up when a reporter asked Boras if he was open to the idea of Stephen Strasburg signing a contract extension. The 25-year-old right-hander is eligible for arbitration next season and is sure to cash in with some big salaries over the next three years. That is, unless the Nationals offer a contract that buys out those arbitration years and perhaps the first or second years of Strasburg's free agency.
As we know, however, Boras doesn't usually play that game — especially with someone sure to draw heavy interest in free agency. Strasburg's future obviously looks promising, since he'll be 29 when he hits the open market. But when talking about long-term contract extensions, it soon became clear that Boras was more interested in the sort of deal that his other, much younger client could earn.
"I’m more into 12-year deals for young players," Boras said to reporters, including the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore. "The M.O. is, you want to keep them in the franchise, and you want to be there for the fans and be a marquee for them. So why not?"
This is why we love — or hate — Boras. How many other agents would have the audacity to even utter a sentence like, "I'm more into 12-year deals for young players." If Boras had a mustache, you can imagine him twirling it as he said those words. But that comes from a place of supreme confidence. And when it comes to Harper's standing with the Nationals, Boras probably has every reason to feel bold.
Harper is only 20 years old. He has two years before becoming eligible for arbitration, which gives him five before free agency. Typically, a free agent is 30 years or older when he reaches the open market. It's possible that he's already had his best years in the big leagues. This wouldn't be a 31-year-old Albert Pujols signing a 10-year contract with the Angels.
If you believe a major leaguer reaches his prime at the age of 26 or 27, Harper arguably won't even have reached his full development when he's allowed to sign with any MLB team. A club signing Harper very likely will get the best years he has as a ballplayer.
Boras got a record-setting 10-year, $225 million deal for Alex Rodriguez when he was 25 years old. (He surpassed that with a 10-year, $275 million contract after A-Rod exercised an opt-out clause seven years into his first mega-contract.) He got a nine-year, $214 million deal for Prince Fielder from the Detroit Tigers when he was 28 years old.
As outlandish as a 12-year contract for any professional athlete looks at first glance, is it really beyond rational belief that Boras could get that kind of package for a player already as successful at a young age as Harper has been? And if Rodriguez got $225 million at the time, how much will Harper get?
Rodriguez set the bar for average annual salary at $27.5 million with his contract. Josh Hamilton came close with an average of $25 million per season in his deal with the Angels. Pujols is right behind him with a $24 million average annual salary. So where would Harper line up on that scale? Could he expect to earn $30 million per year with his contract? Are we really looking at a potential $360 million deal here?
Well, maybe it would be more like $300 million. That would still put Harper in the $25 million per season range. But the Nationals wouldn't pay him that kind of money when they can keep him at a far lower price for the next five years. So any potential deal would surely escalate significantly toward the back end of the contract, yet could still give Harper an average annual salary that would rank him among baseball's elite superstars.
Obviously, there would be a tremendous risk in signing Harper to that length of contract. Considering the frenzied way Harper plays — running the bases with abandon, occasionally colliding dangerously with outfield walls and getting plunked by opposing pitchers — Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and owner Ted Lerner will surely approach such a proposition with considerable caution.
As fun as he is to watch in just his second major league season, Harper carries himself like a guy who believes it's better to burn out than fade away. That might not speak well to his longevity.
Yet the Nationals may not have a choice. Not if they want to keep Harper for most — if not all — of his career. For all the talk that Ryan Zimmerman or Strasburg is the face of the franchise, won't Harper ultimately be the team's cornerstone player. He's the one the front office will build a roster around for years to come.
In the meantime, it might help if Harper feels loved and supported by his home fans. That certainly couldn't hurt the chances of him wanting to effectively marry the Nationals in terms of his career. Boras won't let Harper settle for a hometown discount, of course. But we've seen players such as Kenny Rogers and Robinson Cano break away from him when they just want to get a deal done or don't necessarily need to set the next milestone in baseball contracts.
So maybe Harper is letting the Nats and their fans know that a long-term thing could happen. He's into them. He sees a future, maybe even one in which he rules the nation's capital along with RGIII. But Harper has to feel loved. He has to see that D.C. is interested in baseball, not necessarily just when the team is winning, but especially if the team is winning.
September could be an important month for the Nationals. But it's possible the team and its supporters may not realize just how crucial the next month might be. Tickets are on sale now, Nats fans.