Winter Meetings Mailbag: Whither Bryce Harper? And more burning questions from readers.

The annual chaos of the Winter Meetings begins Sunday in Orlando, just as the baseball world is showing signs of life. The Nationals have showed very few such signs since deciding on their coaching staff, seemingly moving through the calm before their winter storm. But with the lack of activity has come a lack of clarity about the Nationals’ plans and intentions. So we’ll try to provide some here.

Below, find the answers to some reader questions about Bryce Harper’s contract situation, Dave Martinez’s job description and a variety of other topics. These answers could change, perhaps as soon as next week. But here are answers nonetheless, compiled based on what we know now and what we know about the past.

Are the chances of Bryce coming back determined by finalizing a deal during the season, or is he basically going to be gone if he makes it to the next offseason without a deal? — @Captain_Cabby

Chelsea: We might as well start with Bryce, since so much of this Nationals season will depend on him, and so much of this Nationals season will be spent wondering about which team will depend on him next. Harper has loomed over the Nationals’ dealings for years now. Are they saving up to give him the biggest deal in MLB history? Is the fact that they haven’t crafted an extension yet a sign that the relationship is deteriorating? Would losing Harper to free agency represent a devastating blow to the franchise?

None of those questions can be answered with anything resembling a firm “yes,” and I think yours falls into that category, too. Harper’s intentions are entirely unclear, I think in part by design, in part inevitably. He is a mid-20s superstar facing the biggest decision of his life. All signs point to him wanting a big market, and we’ve known that. All signs point to him commanding the biggest free agent deal in American pro sports history, and we’ve known that, too. But what we don’t know is which of those things matters more to him.

What we do know — or thought we did until Stephen Strasburg signed that surprise extension two summers ago — is Scott Boras’s history with megastars. He does not extend them. He holds the market hostage with them. That Harper does not have a deal now, or likely won’t by the end of next season, does not change the Boras MO: Get the most big-market teams involved in the pursuit of a client so that client gets the most money possible. The same will almost certainly be true of Harper, and the Nationals now qualify as a big-market team, with their payroll in the upper third of baseball’s 30 teams.

I expect them to make a serious offer for Harper. I think Mike Rizzo is serious when he says he believes he has a chance to convince Harper to come back. I don’t think the fact that he doesn’t have a deal yet says anything. Frankly, I don’t think there was ever going to be an extension, not when salary history can be made next winter. But I wouldn’t read into that. What I do read into is the way Harper indicates his priorities. He loves the big stage. He loves baseball history. I don’t know that he loves the attention that comes with all that anymore, though perhaps he’s resigned to it. I don’t read anything into the notion that he doesn’t have a deal yet, and don’t think it matters for what happens next winter. Maybe that changes between now and November, but I think the only change that matters would come in Harper’s mind and priorities. And it’s my experience that mid-20s people change their minds every so often, as evidenced by the hour-long grocery trip I just spent waffling over seltzer brands. We all have our struggles.

Do you get the feeling that Martinez needs to deliver significant postseason success (pennant or better), or are the Nats already thinking about post-2018 seasons/rebuild? — @CharlieLex

Jorge: I don’t think Dave Martinez “needs” to deliver significant postseason success as much as his superiors — ownership on down to front office — “need” to see him deliver it. Ted Lerner is 92 years old. Mike Rizzo is in the final year of his contract. Harper, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Madson, Gio Gonzalez and a few others will be free agents in a year. #Window talk is frowned upon at Nationals Park, but the reality is, though Washington’s #window to compete for a World Series may not close after next season, 2018 is its final — and perhaps best — chance to win a World Series with this core of players. The #window on this group is closing. #window

That, as a result, puts pressure on Martinez, a first-year manager, to come in, win over the clubhouse and deliver what his three predecessors couldn’t — a postseason series victory, to start. But Martinez didn’t sign a one-year contract. Washington emerged from its comfort zone to sign him to a three-year deal with an option for a fourth season. The Nationals have eaten a year of a manager’s contract before to move on — they did it with Williams in 2016 — but swallowing two years isn’t likely unless 2018 becomes the most disastrous of disasters. So it’s logical to believe they signed Martinez with not only 2018 in mind, but with what lies beyond it. What happens in 2018 will probably have a huge impact on what that looks like.

By the way, Martinez is scheduled to address the media at the Winter Meetings on Monday. Stay tuned.

If you could dream up one shocking Rizzo move, within the team’s financial constraints, which position or player would you hazard a guess on? — @evanmccarthy

C: I love this question, which has sent me down an endless rabbit hole of speculative irresponsibility. Trade for Manny Machado, sign him long term, put him at shortstop, move Trea Turner to center, trade Michael A. Taylor for a starter. Or offer Harper and someone straight up for Mike Trout. Who says no?

Well, I do. Please, no one aggregate those as actual rumors. In all seriousness, I think if there is a Max Scherzer-esque shocker on the way, it would probably some kind of deal — free agent or trade — for a big-name starter. I guess Jake Arrieta is the most obvious big-name free agent. Maybe he wouldn’t qualify as a shock. So I guess I’ll go with a trade for a big-name starter. We’ve long thrown Gerrit Cole’s name out there as a potential target, but I’m not sure he qualifies as shocking. I’ll just say a deal for a big-name starter, maybe one of the guys who would hit free agency next year or the year after.

The other option, in my mind, would be a deal for a big-name infielder — or even a lesser-known infielder. Texas’s Jurickson Profar has always been interesting, and with Murphy’s status uncertain, maybe Rizzo and Co. hunt someone controllable who could lock down second base for a while. Those are my answers, and they are vague for a reason.

J: I’ll jump in here to say I agree on the starting pitcher and think trading for a catcher also makes a lot of sense. J.T. Realmuto? Yasmani Grandal? Hmmm . . .

Severino: backup catcher in 2018 or not? — @LarryLyon

J: Larry, if the offseason ended today, Pedro Severino is not only your backup catcher, he’s basically platooning with Matt Wieters. The Nationals’ plan is to have Wieters play fewer games next season — think 90 to 100 — and that means the “backup” would play 60 to 70. That’s more than a typical backup. It’s more like a platoon. But the offseason fun is just getting started, so the Nationals could go out and get themselves an established big league catcher to team with Wieters. I mentioned Realmuto and Grandal above. Those two would be clear upgrades over Wieters and start over him. While Grandal, whom the Dodgers are reportedly set on trading, is slated to become a free agent next year, Realmuto would come under team control for the next four seasons, so the Nationals would have a long-term answer behind the plate.

If the Nationals don’t believe Severino — or Raudy Read, an inferior defender but superior hitter — is the answer, they could aim lower. One intriguing name: free agent Jonathan Lucroy. The 31-year-old was considered one of baseball’s best all-around catchers just two years ago. Then this past season, he posted a .635 OPS in 77 games with the Rangers and, according to advanced metrics, fell off defensively, dropping his stock at exactly the wrong time — just months before free agency. But he was traded midseason to Colorado and rebounded a bit, batting .310 with an .865 OPS in 46 games for the Rockies.

But that’s all getting ahead of ourselves. The Nationals could end up deciding Severino — or Read — is ready to partner with Wieters. As of today, one of them is the answer. But that could change.

Should Nats look for another top-level starting pitcher? Roark may/should bounce back and Gio is Gio, but #5 man is murkier. –@NickLaP0rte

C: I guess this answer should depend on how we define “top-level” (for example, do only Yu Darvish and Arrieta fit that bill this winter?), but my general answer is yes, absolutely. The Nationals need a starter. I expect them to get one. But you’re right; Roark had a down year last year, which calls his viability into some level of question. Gio had an outstanding year last year, which in his case, somehow does the same. So even the third and fourth spots in that rotation have question marks. Consider the fact that the big four are aging (three of them are over 30, and Strasburg’s injury history makes him an equal risk), and the Nationals simply need more depth. Erick Fedde might be a mid- to top-of-the-rotation type someday, but he didn’t show himself at that point last year. A.J. Cole is serviceable, but the Nationals have rarely settled for that in their recent run — and certainly seem unlikely to bet on it. After Cole and Fedde, their depth drops off a great deal.

Do they need to get a top-of-the-rotation type? Probably not, though the day might be near, and when Gonzalez becomes a free agent next winter, that could be the time to make the big move. For now, I think they need a middle-of-the-rotation type, someone proven as durable and reliable, someone who won’t necessarily break their bank and seems unlikely to break their hearts with a bad or injury-riddled season. Then again, Rizzo has rarely settled for middle-of-the-rotation types when bolstering his rotation. If he decides it’s time for a proven starter, well . . . maybe those top-level guys come into play after all.

Any chance of keeping the law firm together next year? If not, who from the current bullpen is available to step up? — @PepperMunodi

J: There’s a chance. First of all, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson are coming back. Brandon Kintzler, the most replaceable of the three, is the only one whose status is unknown. Kintzler is a unique late-inning reliever because, in an age when everyone throws 98 mph and strikeout totals are astronomical, Kintzler doesn’t miss many bats. He relies more on soft contact which, in turn, requires more luck to succeed. Kintzler was very good last year — he pitched to a combined 3.03 ERA between his time in Minnesota and Washington — and he’ll have suitors. The Cubs are reportedly one of them. The Nationals, I believe, will be in the market for a late-inning right-hander. Remember, Madson is 37 and has an extensive injury history. Acquiring some insurance makes sense. Kintzler is an option. Other free agents in that mold include Greg Holland, Trevor Rosenthal, Pat Neshek, Addison Reed, Bryan Shaw and Wade Davis.

As for relievers currently on the roster who could step up, you probably have to start with Koda Glover. He’ll be coming off a forgettable 2017 and a significant shoulder injury, but he should be cleared for spring training and still hasn’t turned 25. If he can recoup his stuff and stay healthy — admittedly big ifs — the Nationals would have a young, cheap asset more than capable of pitching the seventh inning. Shawn Kelley is more of a question mark, but he’s under contract next year and the Nationals will hope he’ll look more like 2016 Shawn Kelley than the one in 2017 that allowed 12 home runs in 26 innings. Wander Suero is another option. The 26-year-old right-hander was recently added to the 40-man roster after posting a 1.79 ERA in 54 outings between Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Syracuse.

Notice I didn’t include Matt Albers. That’s because the Nationals don’t plan on re-signing him. A year after signing a minor league deal, he’ll have his fair share of suitors coming off a 1.62 ERA in 63 games.

Will you be at Winterfest meeting with some of the Nats fans that read your good work every day? — @NavyYardNats

C: First of all, thank you for the kind words! We appreciate them. We will certainly be at Winterfest, though we generally get relegated to some back room where the players come to talk to us and we rarely see the light of day. But we will definitely be around all weekend, so keep an eye out!

Read more:

Nationals’ plans hinge on Shohei Ohtani or Giancarlo Stanton despite not being in the running

Nationals tender contracts to Anthony Rendon, Tanner Roark and Michael A. Taylor

Checking in with Chip Hale, the new Nationals bench coach

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