Harper out to return to elite level in '17

Harper out to return to elite level in '17

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Nationals squad each day this week. Today's topic: How's Your Star?

WASHINGTON -- A year ago, there was a case to be made for Bryce Harper as perhaps the best player in baseball. He was coming off winning the NL Most Valuable Player award unanimously in 2015, the youngest player in history to do so. He started off 2016 with a scorching hot April that earned him NL Player of the Month honors, but his performance for the rest of the season was underwhelming.

In 2017, all eyes will be on Harper to rebound from his down season last year and prove that he is closer to the player that posted 9.9 Wins Above Replacement in 2015 than the one who fell to 1.6 WAR in '16.

30 stars ready to shine bright in 2017

The reason for Harper's drop-off in production remains unclear, but he wanted to spend this offseason focusing on his performance and growth. There were questions surrounding Harper last season regarding his health. Multiple reports said that Harper was being hindered by a shoulder injury and his agent, Scott Boras, acknowledged this offseason that Harper was playing through some limitations. The Nationals, however, vehemently denied that Harper was playing through some undisclosed injury. Harper did not confirm nor deny any problems during the season.

Harper set to cash in after 2018

Harper, still only 24 years old, has the talent and pedigree to return to being one of baseball's most dominant players. He is one of the biggest and most recognizable stars in baseball at a time when the game has an influx of young talent.

Last season, teams pitched around Harper more than ever and it took him some time to adjust to the new ways teams were attacking him. He still put together a solid season in 2016, even if it did not live up to his lofty standards, with 24 home runs, a .373 on-base percentage and a career-high 21 stolen bases.

It's important for the Nats to capitalize on Harper's talent now considering he can become a free agent after the 2018 season. Signing him seems almost certain to require the largest contract in baseball history and he will reportedly seek a contract worth a total of $400 million. The high price makes the next two seasons even more important for the Nationals to take advantage of having so many stars still in their prime while Harper remains under contract.

If Harper is healthy this season, expect him to return to his elite-level performance. And if he does, it will be huge for the Nats in their quest to bring a World Series championship to D.C.

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.