Washington Nationals

Spector: Is Bryce Harper destined to become baseball’s Kevin Durant?

13 October 2016: Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) walks into the dugout prior to the start of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. The Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Washington Nationals, 4-3 to advance to the National League Championship Series. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)
(Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

Unless Bryce Harper signs an extension with the Nationals, he is 21 months away from becoming the most prized free agent in baseball history, as he should. Harper will have just turned 26 in November of 2018, and will be either a four-time, five-time or, most likely, six-time All-Star.

The 2015 National League MVP will be just entering the stage of his career where most players peak. While there’s no guarantee that Harper didn’t already have his career year, he will be a much safer bet to deliver value for astronomical money than, say, Albert Pujols, who was a month from his 32nd birthday when he signed with the Angels to a 10-year, $240 million contract – of which $140 million is due over the next five years, his age-37 through 41 seasons.

Jason Heyward is a better example of a free agent signing a big deal with an eye toward the future rather than paying for accomplishments attained elsewhere, but the closest parallel to Harper, should he leave Washington in two years, may be an athlete well known to the D.C. area, hometown hero Kevin Durant.

Last summer, Durant was months away from turning 28 when he left the Oklahoma City Thunder to sign with the Golden State Warriors, a superstar at the peak of his powers leaving the team that drafted him (though they were the Seattle SuperSonics then) to turn a rival from a historic superteam to something even more formidable. The shockwaves sent throughout the NBA by Durant’s move would be something similar to what might happen if Harper ditches the Nationals.

There are, however, some key differences. One is that, even though there had been reports going back to February, from no less than Adrian Wojarnowski, that Golden State could sign Durant, but the thought was still there that it would be “hard to lure him from the Thunder.” We’re two years out on Harper’s free agency, there’s been talk about it going back even longer, and it absolutely will not be a shock if he leaves Washington – unless, maybe, you’re a particularly doe-eyed fan of the Nationals.

That’s not to say Harper is definitely leaving Washington, one of the few teams that could even begin to imagine meeting the asking price for the Scott Boras client. Those last few words are the other key difference between Durant and Harper: money. In leaving Oklahoma City, because of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, Durant left some money on the table. That’s not a thing that baseball players hire Boras to do as their agent.

25 SEP 2016: Washington Nationals Right field Bryce Harper (34) waits on deck during the MLB baseball game between the Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire)

25 SEP 2016: Washington Nationals Right field Bryce Harper (34) waits on deck during the MLB baseball game between the Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire)

Not that Durant isn’t never-work-again wealthy, but if Harper leaves the Nationals, it’s obviously going to be for beaucoup bucks. That will open him up to some criticism, because it always does with free agents, but nothing on the level of what Durant faced when he made his decision. People understand the concept of selling yourself to the highest bidder much more than they empathize with a top player joining a rival to chase rings, even as much as we’re told that championships are what it’s all about.

Unless Harper goes to a National League East rival, it’s hard to see the heat on him for his decision approaching what Durant got for joining the team he’d just lost to in a seven-game Western Conference final. Maybe if the Cubs beat the Nationals in the NLCS in 2018, and Harper winds up at Wrigley, but Nationals fans still would feel more betrayal seeing Harper pull on the royal blue pinstripes of the Mets or the red ones of the Phillies.

Philadelphia is an intriguing possibility, because the Phillies’ only current commitment to payroll in 2019 is $5.35 million for Odubel Herrera on the extension he signed this winter. It’s a deep-pocketed franchise in a huge market, with young talent that should be coming into full bloom to welcome the star-studded free agent class that hits the market along with Harper. Whether he winds up there or not, the Phillies should be players that winter.

The other possibilities are the ones you know and, unless you’re a fan of one of the specific teams, probably loathe: the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers. Maybe the Giants, and we’ll see what kind of spending the Cubs do as their young core starts to reach arbitration age. There’s always the possibility of a mystery team, because these teams are owned by billionaires who only have to decide that a deal is worth doing to break the budget, but let’s just say that nobody in Minnesota is Photoshopping Harper into Twins gear.

We know all of this already, two years out. The focus will become crisper as time goes by. But if Harper does leave Washington, whatever the reaction is shouldn’t be personal. It’s clear even now, it’s business.

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