Bryce Harper could be wearing the uniform of a new team in 2019, and with the sands of time perhaps running out on his tenure with Washington, the Nationals have worked to stack their team for 2017 and 2018. The Nationals made a hard but unsuccessful push to land Chris Sale before they paid heavily for center fielder Adam Eaton. Rival evaluators expect that before the start of spring training, Washington will add at least one high-end closer candidate, such as Greg Holland.
The Nationals were bad for a long time before they picked Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon at or near the top of the draft. Their championship hopes might reach an apex in 2017 and 2018, before Harper reaches free agency. The Nationals have a lot at stake.
So does Harper. Because he played his first major league game at age 19, he has accomplished so much already, including winning the NL MVP in 2015 and mashing the 100th homer of his career on April 14, 2016. Think about this: Harper is about a year younger than his childhood friend, Kris Bryant.
But for the first time in his life, Harper had a prolonged slump in 2016. He is a diligent student of hitting, so undoubtedly he felt what everybody in the industry saw: an anxious slugger whose right shoulder seemed to turn too soon in his hitting mechanics. He was flying open in his swing, to use professional jargon, and that left him in a terrible position to hit. Theories abound about why this is. The Nationals vehemently denied reports that Harper was dealing with shoulder trouble. Scouts wondered if the hypercompetitive Harper struggled to cope with the fact that pitchers devoted themselves to working around him, with evaluators noting that Harper’s problems began during a series at Wrigley Field in which the Cubs walked him seven times in three games.
Whatever the reason, Harper’s rate of soft-hit balls spiked from 11.9 percent in ’15 to 19.8 percent in ’16, while his rate of hard-hit balls fell. His rate of home runs on balls put in the air dropped to a career low. On May 1, he struck out four times in a game against St. Louis, and from that day onward, a player long seen as a candidate to get the first $400 million contract in history batted .235 with a .392 slugging percentage.