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Controversy around him, Harper stays mature


Controversy around him, Harper stays mature

So, Cole Hamels happily acknowledges he plunked Bryce Harper on purpose, saying "I'm not going to deny it" and "I'm just trying to continue the old baseball."

Then Mike Rizzo lambastes the Phillies left-hander, telling the Washington Post "I've never seen a more classless, gutless chicken bleep act in my 30 years in baseball" and saying Hamels is "fake tough."

And where is Harper during all this chaos? What does the Nationals rookie have to say about the maelstrom that has developed all around him, and about the pitcher who publicly admitted throwing at him in the eighth game of his career?

"He's a great guy, great pitcher and knows how to pitch," Harper said. "He's an All-Star. It's all good."

What does it say that between a 28-year-old former World Series MVP, a 51-year-old general manager of a major-league club and a 19-year-old outfielder with one week of big-league experience, the only one showing restraint right now is the 19-year-old?

This may come as a disappointment to all those scouts, opponents and media members who have been trying to label Harper as a punk from the moment he burst onto the national scene, but the kid has been a complete model citizen since his promotion to Washington nine days ago. He couldn't be any more respectful of the game, his teammates and opponents.

Wait, Bryce Harper? Respectful? Yes, that's right.

Credit his own increased maturity. Credit the Nationals' coaching staff and player development folks. Credit his family. Maybe even credit Scott Boras. Whoever is responsible for it, Harper has arrived in the big leagues under perhaps more scrutiny than any rookie in baseball history and has handled it all with aplomb.

He's said all the right things in front of cameras and notebooks, despite plenty of attempts by reporters to get him to slip up. He's done all the right things in the clubhouse, showing he knows his place among a roomful of veterans. And he's certainly played the game the right way, displaying more hustle and baseball instincts than guys with a decade more experience.

"He's smart," Ryan Zimmerman said. "I think his baseball IQ, and the way he adjusts and the things he does at his age is impressive. ... It's only the beginning of it. That's the scary part. He's only going to get better."

Harper plays the game with a boatload of emotion, but he also seems to understand how to channel that emotion into positive play. How many other big leaguers -- 19, 29 or 39 -- would have responded to Hamels' plunking last night the way Harper did?

He didn't charge the mound. He didn't try to overdo himself and make a stupid play on the bases. Instead, he hustled. He went first-to-third on Jayson Werth's routine single to left. And then (on the advice of Werth and third base coach Bo Porter) he timed Hamels' pickoff move perfectly, bolted for the plate and became the first teenager in 48 years to steal home.

"A lot of times, whether it's coaches or media, you get caught up and go: 'Wow,'" Porter said. "Is it 'wow' because he's playing the game unlike other people, or because he's playing the game the way it's supposed to be played? If you ask me, he plays the game the way it's supposed to be played."

And then at the end of the night, Harper stood in front of a dozen reporters trying to get him to say something controversial and revealed what truly matters to him.

"We lost 9-3. That sucks," he said. "I don't like losing. That's the only thing that comes in my mind when we walk away from that field."

Harper is a lot of things right now. He's electric. He's talented. He's taking the baseball world by storm.

Everyone wants to proclaim him the best 19-year-old in the big leagues since A-Rod, since Griffey, since Mantle. Whether he deserves to be lumped in with those greats remains to be seen.

But this much is certain: Bryce Harper's tremendous skills on the field at 19 are being surpassed by only one thing. His maturity.

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Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Majestic’s reign as the maker of MLB jerseys are about to come to an end. 

In 2020, Fanatics and Under Armour will be teaming to make on-field jerseys and apparel for all MLB teams, according to a Sports Business Journal report. 

The news outlet also reports that the deal means the MLB’s licensing relations with Nike will be over as well. 

Under Armour will produce the jerseys starting in Spring Training of the 2020 season, and “broad apparel rights” will go to Fanatics. 

New Era will continue to be the maker of MLB hats. 

Given that Maryland native Kevin Plank founded Under Armour, and that the business' headquarters are in Baltimore, it’s sure to be a splash with baseball fans in the DMV.

You can read the full Sports Business journal report here. 

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Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Here is an early look at the biggest questions facing the Washington Nationals as they embark on another offseason in their quest to build a championship team...

What to do with Wilson Ramos and the catcher position?

The Nationals' biggest question entering this offseason is without a doubt at catcher with All-Star Wilson Ramos on the mend after having the ACL in his right knee repaired on Friday. Not only is the recovery a long one - he could be out until well into the 2017 season - it is the second time he's had the ligament fixed. At 29, his viability as a primary catcher moving forward is a real question. Even Ramos admitted he may have to transition to the American League with his next contract.

If Ramos does leave, behind him will be a significant hole on the Nationals. They have several in-house options, but none that are anywhere close to Ramos, who emerged this season as the best offensive catcher in baseball. Pedro Severino is a nice young player, but has a career .632 OPS in the minors. The drop-off on offense from Ramos to him would be significant. The same can be said about Jose Lobaton.

It won't be easy replacing Ramos with an external option, if that's the way the Nats opt to go. Catchers who can hit and play defense like him are a rarity. Matt Wieters of the Orioles would be the best option in free agency, but he's a year older and is also a step down offensively. Unless they like Wieters - who does happen to be represented by Scott Boras - they may have to trade for a new backstop, and that won't be easy either. 

This is all not to rule out the Nationals re-signing Ramos, but right now it's difficult to project what type of contract he will garner and whether that could fit in their plans. Surely it would be tough for them to offer a long-term deal, but maybe they make sense if he decides to take a short-term contract to reset for free agency either next offseason or the one after that.

Any major upgrades needed?

The Nationals are in an interesting spot, having won 95 games and the NL East, but with yet another disappointing end to their year. General manager Mike Rizzo loves to make big splashes in the offseason. Every single winter he does something aggressive and unexpected. What will he do this year? There aren't many areas where he could potentially upgrade, but that hasn't stopped him in the past.

If Ramos leaves, catcher is obviously the biggest need. But beyond that, the two major problem areas in their lineup this season were at shortstop and first base. Danny Espinosa played solid defense and hit 24 homers, but held an unsightly .209 batting average. His .552 OPS in the second half was worst in baseball among those with at least 165 at-bats. 

Espinosa is always looking over his shoulder this time of the year and just this past winter appeared to be the odd-man out when the Nats traded for Ben Revere and signed Daniel Murphy. Espinosa managed to overcome the odds and play 157 games. He has one year left on his contract, so one way or another the Nats will need to start thinking long-term about his position.

Shortstop is an easier situation to evaluate than first base, where Ryan Zimmerman is due to make $14 million each of the next two seasons and $18 million the year after that. He had the worst season of his career with a .642 OPS through 115 games. Bringing in a first baseman to flat-out replace Zimmerman seems unrealistic, given his contract. But perhaps they can find someone who plays both first base and left field, with Jayson Werth having just one year left on his deal.

Who will be the closer?

The Nationals found success in the ninth inning with Mark Melancon after they acquired him at the trade deadline in a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But it was just a rental. Now Melancon is due for free agency and the Nats once again have questions at the position. They could opt to re-sign Melancon, or go with another free agent option. Aroldis Chapman, whom they have coveted in the past, will be available. So will Kenley Jansen, who just helped end their season with the Dodgers. It's an unusually deep crop of star closers and it would be a surprise if the Nationals didn't snag one of them. Another option would be to promote Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen, but that would be out of the Nationals' character.

Are they content with the rotation?

If one were to pick the biggest reason the Nationals lost their NL Division Series against the Dodgers it would have to be the starting rotation. It was their most glaring weakness and it wasn't even close. This is despite the Nats being built on starting pitching and boasting one of the best regular season rotations in baseball. Losing Stephen Strasburg to injury didn't help, but they still had four capable starters left over. Max Scherzer struggled in Game 1, while Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross combined to pitch just 11 1/3 innings in their respective outings. 

If you look at the year as a whole, starting pitching was not a major concern. But the Nats are always aggressive in addressing their needs, whether big or small. They have top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, but neither distinguished themselves this season. Do they sit tight and hope things improve, or do they try to make another game-changing move? With a weak free agent class, any outside upgrade would have to come through a trade. Also, Gonzalez' $12 million team option is definitely something to watch this winter.

Will extension talks with Harper heat up?

Both the Nationals and Bryce Harper, one could argue, may have incentive to back away from the negotiating table this winter, given the Nats have to be less confident in giving Harper a record-setting contract after his disappointing year, and that Harper may not be wise to sign his new deal when his stock has lowered. But if the Nats and Harper do not come to terms this winter, that sets up a lot more pressure for the following offseason. Harper has two years left on his contract. Heading into next offseason without a deal, with just one year remaining, would create a lot of uncertainty for all sides involved, including the fans who certainly want to see the 2015 MVP remain in Washington for a long time. The storyline would dominate their offseason.

This upcoming winter always seemed like the best time to broker a deal to avoid that scenario, but the timing has not worked out with Harper's production on the field. Also, would anyone be surprised if it turns out Harper was dealing with an injury this season that held him back at the plate? If it were a serious one, he wouldn't have kept playing. But any injury has to be factored in those discussions.

[RELATED: Bullpen, baserunning leads to Nats heartbreak]