WASHINGTON — For a night at least, the Home Run Derby represented something more than a sheer display of raw power. In Nationals Park, as Bryce Harper drilled nine homers in 47 seconds with a stunning display that underscored his rare gift to send baseballs into orbit, the display served as a reminder of the relationship between an iconic player and his city, the idea of a connection in which affection flows both ways.
The crowd for the All-Star spectacle roared at every Harper homer, chanted his name over and over into the night. For his part, Harper reciprocated the warmth and love of his fan base not only by winning the Derby but by making clear his appreciation for what so many have meant to him over the eight years of his professional baseball life.
“This wasn’t only for me and my family and everybody like that but this is for, you know, the cook, the guy that works the front, and the people that work upstairs. I mean, this is the whole city of D.C.,” Harper beamed after the fact. “I was very fortunate to be able to bring this back to them and do it here.”
The emotions expressed by Harper came with a context that tinged his emotional sentiments with a hint of melancholy. Harper, now 25, stands on the cusp of a free-agent bidding war that promises to confer upon him incredible riches. Even in a decidedly down year in which he’s hitting .214 with a .365 OBP and .468 slugging mark, he’s expected to cash in to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars on the open market this winter.
And the fact that there are expected to be numerous bidders for his services makes Harper’s future in Washington entirely uncertain. It was hard not to imagine that Monday’s performance might have represented something of a parting gift to the city and organization where Harper has grown up.
Harper’s pending free agency carries considerable significance for the Red Sox. He was born on Oct. 16, 1992, nine days after one Markus Lynn Betts. And while Harper is going to arrive at free agency two years before the Red Sox’ superstar, the fact that Harper and Manny Machado (born on July 6, 1992) are preparing for open-market bonanzas is of both relevance and interest to Betts’s future in Boston.
Harper and Machado represent the first superstars whom Betts views as true contemporaries who will reach free agency, the first players with loud, screaming, franchise-altering tools who will go to the open market. With all due respect to Eric Hosmer and his eight-year, $144 million deal with the Padres, Betts — now amidst a second MVP-caliber campaign in three years — is in a different category.
The deals that Harper and Machado realize will reset the market in a way that has considerable bearing on Betts’s future. Amidst a season in which he has cemented his place as one of the inner-circle elites in the game, Betts is aware of the significance of the coming winter.
“I’m definitely really curious to see how that will play out. We’ll see the way it breaks. We all know what kind of player [Harper] is. I think that may affect some things going forward,” said Betts. “I think things are kind of coming full circle now. My peers are going through what is soon to come. Yeah, I’ll definitely be locked in to see what they get.”
He won’t be alone. Front offices likewise are eager to see where the market for young superstars ends up this winter, knowing that if they have their own prime-age star — if they have a Betts — then any future negotiations will be framed by what Harper and Machado get.
The Sox have made no secret of an interest in retaining Betts beyond his eligibility for free agency following the 2020 season. They’ve approached him about the possibility of extensions, though each time, even as Betts has noted his enjoyment of the Red Sox organization, he’s expressed a preference to negotiate his earnings on a year-to-year basis.
Meanwhile, Betts has also shown a consistent conviction in his worth, whether declining to agree to the Red Sox’ one-year contract tenure in 2017 (he was renewed, a rarity for a Red Sox player) or taking the team to an arbitration hearing and winning this winter. He’s not afraid to seek market value for his services.
With Harper and Machado representing the best middle-of-their-prime free-agent position players to hit the open market since, arguably, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez in 2000-01, this coming winter will offer the Red Sox their best indication to date of what it will cost to retain Betts.
“Very few guys have been very receptive to [extensions]. Right now, most guys have been testing free agency,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, in a conversation about extensions in general rather than Betts in particular, said earlier this year. “Next winter is going to be a very interesting time period, not only for next winter but for where the future goes. You’ve got some big guys out there. There looks like there will be some clubs with some dollars to spend . . . big-market clubs that have been building for years. It will be interesting where some of those guys go with their dollars. That might influence some of these other guys with what their thought process is.”
As the baseball world watches to see where Manny Machado moves in the coming days and again where he’ll go in the winter, and as Harper’s future unfolds in a fashion that confronts Washington fans with the question of how many more nights like Monday there will be, Betts’s future will gain just a bit more definition. With that definition, perhaps, will come some slightly greater clarity about whether that future will be in Boston beyond 2020.