(Photo Credit: REUTERS/GEOFF BURKE)
Yankee fans will find themselves in a conundrum.
The Yankees are fighting for first place in the AL East; it seems as if the Red Sox have proven to be the perfect foil in a division race that will go down to the wire. When one team loses, the other does. The same can be said when one team wins. Thus, the imperative leading into a two-game set with the Washington Nationals will be to win both games before heading to the far more inferior Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers.
Except, Yankee fans know full well what awaits them in Washington. Beyond the fact that the Nationals are one of the hottest teams in baseball after their fourth straight win to move them a game and a half out of first place in the NL East, there is the glimpse of a possible future that can alter the makeup of the New York Yankees.
Because Bryce Harper, playing right field while also playing in the final year of his contract, will be the main storyline in this brief meeting of the Nationals and Yankees. The speculation of where the ultra-talented outfielder could land has been one of the more popular topics of conversation in 2018, and the Yankees have always been at the top of the list of teams who would pay Harper a contract that could climb to the $400m threshold.
So this is the dilemma Yankee fans find themselves in. On one hand, two wins in this series are crucial because as Boston keeps winning, the Yankees need to match their rivals step for step. But this series will prove to be an audition of sorts for Harper since a memorable performance could endear him to Yankee fans long before the team makes an offer on the right fielder. A memorable performance could help convince otherwise those Yankee fans skeptical of Harper's talent and value.
The spotlight's on Harper
The spotlight will be on Harper this series, just as much as the spotlight has been on him all year.
Because, as the Nationals' lineup has been decimated by untimely injuries that have seen Adam Eaton, Ryan Zimmerman, and Daniel Murphy shelved on the DL, it has been a one-man show for Harper. That is no discredit to the likes of Trea Turner or Anthony Rendon, but Harper remains as the one man in the lineup who opposing teams won't let beat them.
It's reflected in the low batting average. Heading into Tuesday's game, Harper's slash of .236/.400/.543 reflects how inconsistently pitchers attack him. The high on-base percentage of .400 comes on the strength of a league-leading 41 walks, while a .943 on-base plus slugging percentage is bolstered by the combination of a high walk rate while also having 13 home runs on the season.
Consider this: he's on pace for 50 home runs, 116 RBI, 116 runs scored, and 158 walks. If the name of the game is to get on base and score runs, then not only is Harper succeeding at this, but he's excelling. Perhaps those numbers would inflate if his batting average matched his career mark of .282 but with as many injuries that have plagued the Nationals to date, Harper stands as the lone threat on a team that could see their playoff window closing soon.
How Harper could fit with Yankees
If—and that's a mighty big if, considering nothing is set in stone—the Yankees sign Harper to the largest contract in history, it could be a smart move for both parties.
At 26, Harper remains in his prime as a generational talent and game changer. The Yankees, stocked with the likes of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Giancarlo Stanton, could include him into what would be Murderers' Row 2.0 because for the first time in his career, the weight of carrying the offense won't be on Harper's shoulders. The added protection of Judge and Stanton and Sanchez could see Harper reach levels of production he has never reached before.
And with a lefty swing tailor-made for Yankee Stadium, including Harper could add some much-needed diversity from the predominantly righty-swinging Yankee lineup that could project as this:
Betwixt Judge and Stanton, Harper is guaranteed to enjoy both from RBI opportunities while not having to sacrifice his ability to get on base. His average could see a significant increase with Stanton protecting him from the cleanup spot.
This is all speculation. The Yankees could invest their spending money in a different player, and Harper could go to one of the many other teams who is expected to be in play. In that case, all of this is a moot point.
But this is the fun of fantasizing about a potentially historic lineup in all of baseball, and you know full well many will do the same come first pitch on Tuesday in Washington.