Photo Credit: Matt Hazlett | Getty

by: Rich Daniels

Combine this article's headline with the Washington Nationals, and what immediately comes to mind? 

For most of us, Bryce Harper's name leaps to the forefront. 

The man-child who took baseball by storm with 22 home runs at the age of 19 in 2012. The young mega-star who was National League Most Valuable Player in 2015 by leading the league in most categories including magazine covers.

He's been a star since before he was the top overall pick in the 2010 draft. The hype surrounding Bryce Harper has been intense, especially now that he's just a few short months away from his first free agent contract negotiations which have been deeply speculated to be headed north of the $300 million mark.

It's a big decision, for sure. So let's get the data in mind before the hype takes over again.

Harper has produced 176 career home runs and 488 RBI's at the age of 25. 

More modern measurements show career marks of a .898 OPS and an average OPS-plus of 138. All numbers uncommon to typical players, even those in their primes. The indicators of greatness are there, but there are also serious gaps in Harper's game.

He's driven in over 90 runs only once (99 in 2015) and managed just a .278 career batting average. So, despite the potential of greatness, the young outfielder is far from achieving it.

Staying on the field has been an issue in Harper's young career as he's exceeded 140 games played only twice.

He's played as little as 100 and 111 games in a season as well. Harper has played an average of 134 games played over his six-and-a-half seasons. So we're left with an average season of 134 games, 27 HR, 75 RBI, 11 SB and 88 Runs scored.

Good, solid numbers a lot of major leaguers would be happy to have, but do they merit the fanfare Harper has garnered so early in his career?

Indeed, the hype is the problem. 

The superstar treatment was understandable when Harper was 19 and arrived in the Nationals clubhouse.

It still fit when in his third season the outfielder was limited to 100 games played due to injury and managed only 13 home runs. The hype seemed fulfilled in 2015 after a 42 homer campaign and a National League MVP award.

But now, three non-descript years later and on the verge of free agency, one has to wonder if the hype is misplaced. Harper still carries the reputation of a superstar that bloomed prior to the 2010 draft, but despite quality big league production, it falls short of superstar consideration.

In Harper's defense, he has faced health challenges so far in his career. 

Injuries to his neck, shoulder, thumb, hip, toe and twice to his left knee, including last year's disturbing hyper-extension, have significantly limited his ability to be on the field. Harper has no doubt done his best to play through hurt and injury ensuring limited effectiveness at least some of the time.

Then there's the question of what really goes on in the six inches between Harper's ears. 

To some, the soft-spoken star seems intensely self-aware.

To others, Harper comes off as just plain arrogant. Obvious demonstrations of hard work are accompanied by an unwillingness to change or make major adjustments. Evidence of that can be easily seen in Harper's continuing battles with defensive shifts.

Opposing defenses regularly place five fielders to the right of second base when Harper steps to the plate, yet the left-handed hitter continually pulls the ball into the teeth of the defense. Granted, opposing pitchers keep the ball on the inside part of the plate as much as possible, but adjustments allowing hitting to center and left fields are available.

Surely a player of superstar caliber can adjust to hit to the side of the field where only two defenders are positioned rather than the side where there are five. Harper has even publicly blamed defensive shifts as a major reason for his struggles so far this season.

With two months until the end of the season, Harper's free agent bonanza is approaching fast. 

Teams will line up in an effort to lure the, by then, 26-year-old to their cities, but just what will they be bargaining for? 

As mentioned before, Harper has averaged 27 home runs, 75 RBI's and 88 runs scored per season, numbers partially created by injuries and his hitting second in the batting order for some stretches of his career. As of now, the soon-to-be top free agent target is hitting just .234 on the season and that is up more than a dozen points since the All-Star break.

Then there's the big question of why the Nationals underachieve so often.

Harper has been the face of that franchise since the day he arrived and the Nats have never gotten past the League Divisional Series in four tries ('12, '14, '16 and '17). Despite his abilities and powerfully talented rosters, the Nats have been left in the cold of October watching the LCS and World Series on television.

Professional baseball is the ultimate bottom line of the game. 

It's about winning when all is said and done.

Talent and status can be debated ad nauseam but has no real bearing on the object of the game. Harper is immensely talented, yet is not able to lead a team beyond the second round of the playoffs.

He demonstrated great ability as a very young player but has had his productivity stagnate. Moreover, the anointed "Chosen One" has resisted change himself when change is just what his team needs. Harper has batted wherever he's placed in the lineup, endured injury to stay on the field and shifted to center field when asked, but he hasn't adjusted his approach to the game despite now familiar limits to production.

Bryce Harper has stubbornly stuck to his ways of doing things no matter the outcomes. 

It's as though he's been personally satisfied with B+ or A- productivity while collecting the accolades of being not only the face of a franchise but looked upon as one of the top players in the major leagues. 

The easy judgment to jump to is that Harper will only push himself so far to make sure he can make it to free agency in a state that will get him that record contract. But .230 is time for a siesta, not a superstar batting average. That approach reeks of stubborn arrogance.

However, Harper has not overtly demonstrated such an attitude at any time.

But the fact remains that he has leveled off as a hitter and his team has underachieved right along with him. Could it be that the young star is supremely confident in the approach and attitude that delivered him to the major leagues at the age of 19? After all, we've not only been watching the development of a young ballplayer but also witnessed a young man coming of age.

Most of us can't brag about our early 20's decision-making prowess, so jumping on Harper for his train of thought is something we should all consider thoroughly. To be honest, none of us can be sure why Harper does anything because this is one subject he doesn't share much at all.

For now, it's August and the Nats are struggling to stay relevant in the National League playoff race.

No postseason means no name-branding moments for a superstar destined for record rewards, but the plotline defies convention.

Under-achieving players typically aren't rewarded with record-setting contracts, and it's not uncommon to see a player sign a big contract and watch his production dissipate thereafter. Harper has picked up his productivity since the All-Star break and we get to see if it will last or be enough to deliver his team to the postseason again.

Then we'll get to sit back and watch as all the questions, all the accolades and all the doubts are sorted out and negotiated in the free agency process.

Will Harper be a savior to a club looking to get over the top? Will he be an overpaid 600 lb gorilla for a team to entertain for the next decade? Just about all the cards are on the table and the real game will start this winter when the stakes are at their highest in free agency.  

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