The Philadelphia Phillies, according to Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia, will send a contingent of organizational heavyweights to Las Vegas this weekend to meet with six-time All-Star Bryce Harper, who has seemingly been a free-agent for the better part of all of our lives at this stage. Harper, 26, is a six-time All-Star, who has established himself as the face of baseball – even if he hasn’t been the sport’s most consistent on-field superstar – during seven seasons with the Washington Nationals. But another superstar – yes, superstar – that’s made his name with the Nationals can become a free-agent after the 2019 season, and any extension talks he has with the organization could prove to be crucial to the Phillies as well.
Thursday, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that Anthony Rendon and his representatives are eyeing a deal similar to the seven-year/$163.5 million deal that Houston Astros superstar Jose Altuve agreed to last March. Altuve’s deal was perhaps unique – the first two seasons of that deal will pay him “just” $12.5 million, as they are exercised options – and he is a second baseman, while Rendon is a third baseman, but it’s still one of the larger deals in baseball.
Between 2015 and 2018, Rendon has been the seventh best offensive third baseman in baseball, per FanGraphs. Over that same period, he’s graded out as the best fielder of all qualified third baseman. That includes Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado (more on them in a minute). He’s an elite talent and will be paid as such in the coming 12 months, whether it’s by the Nationals or another team.
It is difficult to imagine the Nationals retaining both Rendon and Harper long-term. Maybe they’ll re-sign Harper and allow Rendon to play out his final season with the club prior to free-agency – in theory, they could win a World Series in 2019 – but it’s almost impossible the two will remain teammates past 2019. The Nationals owe Max Scherzer nearly $60 million between 2020 and 2021. They just signed Patrick Corbin to a six-year/$140 million free-agent deal. Stephen Strasburg can opt-out of his contract after 2019, though considering he can opt-into $90 million between 2020 and 2023, that probably won’t happen. And it’s never too early to start planning for a long-term deal with Juan Soto, who very likely will receive more money than Harper or Rendon when he can become a free-agent after the 2024 season, which would still be in the window of any new deal for Harper or Rendon.
So no, the Nationals window hasn’t closed. Far from it, really – from here they are the favorite to win the National League East in 2019, with or without Harper. But at some point in the next 12 months, they are likely to lose one of Harper or Rendon, and when your division rival loses a superstar, even if it doesn’t push them out of being a contender, that’s a positive.
Interestingly, while much has been made of the Phillies chances of signing Harper this offseason, if they strike out on him and Machado this offseason, Rendon could be a potential target of the Phillies next offseason. By acquiring Jean Segura from the Seattle Mariners this offseason, the Phillies seemingly locked up the shortstop position for years to come. If Machado is unwilling to sign with the Phillies without a guarantee that he’ll remain at shortstop – and/or he chooses to sign with the New York Yankees or Chicago White Sox – Rendon would be a pretty good fallback option next offseason.
The Phillies, unlike the Nationals, may be able to pay Rendon even if they did sign Harper this offseason and went with a shorter term option at third base in 2019 – i.e., signing Mike Moustakas or giving Maikel Franco another season. The Phillies, unlike the Nationals, don’t have major financial commitments to pitchers in their 30s. Eventually, yes, they will have to take care of Aaron Nola, Seranthony Dominguez, Rhys Hoskins etc., but signing both Nationals stars long-term would seem to be at least a possibility for managing partner John Middleton.
If Harper does leave the nation’s capital this offseason, whether it is to Philadelphia or elsewhere, there would seem to be a good chance the Nationals pivot and sign Rendon to an extension in the ballpark of what Rosenthal says he wants. If Harper signs with either Chicago team or the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Phillies land Machado, that may largely be a moot point for the Phillies. The Nationals would keep a star player, but it likely wouldn’t have much of a trickle-down effect on the Phillies.
However, if Harper leaves D.C., the Nationals re-sign Rendon and the Phillies miss out on Machado, it could very well have a trickle-down effect on the Phillies. This scenario, which is entirely possible, could leave the Phillies without either Harper or Machado this offseason. Middleton, he of the stupid money, would be left with egg on his face in that scenario. It may cause him to attempt to overcompensate next offseason when Nolan Arenado, a six-time Gold Glove Award winner, will become a free-agent. Mike Schmidt, the greatest Phillie and third baseman of all-time, said last Spring Training that Arenado, 27, is his “heir apparent.” This is meant with no disrespect to Arenado, one of the game’s best players, but that is rather drastic overexaggeration. But Arenado is a hell of a player, one the Phillies would almost certainly be interested in next offseason, should they not land Machado this offseason and Arenado not re-sign with the Rockies in the meantime. Signing Arenado may not even be off-the-table if the Phillies sign Harper, not Machado, this offseason. And who would set the market for Arenado? You guessed it, Rendon, who likely would sign a massive extension with the Nationals prior to free-agency in this scenario.
And frankly, at the pace that this offseason has gone, it probably shouldn’t be ruled out that Harper leaves Washington, the Nationals re-sign Rendon and that becomes another baseline in discussions for Machado.
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