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Washington Nationals

Healthy Bryce Harper back to his MVP-caliber self

(Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

Bryce Harper was tabbed as a future star when he was 15 years old. He was labeled as a once-in-a-generation talent when he was drafted first overall by the Washington Nationals in the MLB draft in 2010. He was in the majors at 19 and won the Rookie of the Year award. By his fourth season, at age 22, he was the Most Valuable Player in the National League. All these milestones are notable, but there remained a perception that Harper had not maximized his potential. That belief was more prominent after a 2016 season when he was a slightly above-average performer rather than the megastar he had been and could be for a decade-plus.

Harper’s resume of accomplishments at age 24 would constitute a solid career for 90 percent of players. Still, there has been an underlying sense of disappointment that Harper has not done more with his seemingly limitless baseball abilities. Hampered by injuries and controversy — some of his own making — he has been viewed as an underachiever and problematic. Failing to run out groundballs, fits of temper that have led to ejections, and the most famous incident of all — the 2015 dugout confrontation with Jonathan Papelbon in which Papelbon choked Harper — have pockmarked Harper’s career.

That MVP was won in 2015, which was a great statistical year for Harper with a .330/.460/.649 slash, 42 home runs, a 1.109 OPS and a 198 OPS+, but a dysfunctional and disastrous year for the Nationals as a team, and led to drastic changes in the club’s on-field management and roster construction.

The 2016 Nationals were largely harmonious. They won the National League East with a new manager in Dusty Baker who, in contrast to former manager Matt Williams, had control of the clubhouse and garnered respect from the veterans as soon as he walked in the door so the Papelbon-Harper-type incident would probably not happen. And if it did, it wouldn’t happen in public. Ironically, they accomplished that with Harper a nonfactor for long stretches as little more than a threat for what he could do rather than what he was doing.

A .243/.373/.441 slash with 24 homers is mediocre even for good players, let alone someone with the natural gifts of Harper. It was reported, denied and acknowledged (sort of) that Harper was playing with some form of physical issue(s). Sports Illustrated claimed it was shoulder problems; Harper denied it; agent Scott Boras gave a cryptic response prior to the 2017 season implying that Harper was not 100 percent healthy.

ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 18: Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) hits a home run in the first inning during the game between the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Angels on July 18, 2017, at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. (Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire)

Clearly, when a player of Harper’s stature is playing as poorly as he was in 2016, there’s something amiss, particularly when he’s 23 and should be at the top of his game.

Because he’s so talented and the expectations are justifiably stratospheric, any drop-off is taken to an extreme as some say he’s overrated or that the Nationals should consider trading him before he hits free agency or stumbles further. Naturally, that’s ludicrous, but it’s also par for the course of being celebrated at such a young age. Like he did in 2015 when the “Is this all there is?” questions began in earnest, Harper has fired back at his detractors with another MVP-caliber season in 2017.

His numbers before Friday night’s game against the San Francisco Giants are reminiscent of his 2015 season: a slash of .327/.420/.616, 29 home runs, an OPS of 1.036 and OPS+ of 164 place him in the conversation for the award even as circumstances suggest that winning it is unlikely. On his own team, there are compelling cases for Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer. In the National League, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Corey Seager will presumably finish ahead of him in the voting. However, he has again responded to the criticism that continually crops up about him and whether he can reach and maintain the elite level.

As he heads into his final season and a half before free agency riches with another club or a contract extension with the Nationals dwarfing anything MLB has ever seen, he’s back to where he was two years ago and doing it for a team heading for the playoffs. He’s neither choking nor being choked, and the looming questions about him are no longer being asked.

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