The first real pulling and pushing and what if bubbled up in late July when Bryce Harper was made available in a trade. It would have to be overwhelming, franchise-altering really, in order to even be considered. This was more due diligence than authentic. Why wouldn’t Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo whisper to contending teams about Harper’s possible availability? Doing so is pragmatic. It’s also a delicate task when months away from convincing the same player to hang around for another decade.
When Rizzo saw the news cycle move in a possibly detrimental way with the clock ticking toward July 31, he shut it down. He sent word that Harper would not be traded. His message was flat and stern, one he relayed to Harper prior to pushing it to a media outlet. Rizzo knew the situation was not like Aroldis Chapman being moved by the New York Yankees and then re-signed. Much more was on the line in terms of emotion and future. Irking a former MVP during a losing season three months before he finally becomes a free agent is an impolitic negotiation strategy. So Rizzo stopped it.
A few things have changed now that Harper is an actual free agent. Among them, a decline in prospective suitors. However, the game, the give-and-take public dance associated with the process of his retainment or acquisition, has not. The Nationals checked their boxes by first making Harper a qualifying offer, then following with a reasonable opening long-term offer which puts them on the path to initial appeasement. “OK, they are serious,” would be the preferred reaction to the first offer. That doesn’t mean Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, didn’t receive a kick out of the too-low figures.
Rizzo is in a complicated spot. His team has multiple holes, yet he doesn’t know how he can allot his assets. If Harper is back, Victor Robles can be traded. That trade can solve the third spot in the rotation or fill the pit at catcher. Anthony Rendon’s contract is also lurking. He, also a Boras client, moves into its final year in 2019. If the Nationals pay Harper, can they pay Rendon? If the outfield suddenly becomes inexpensive wall to wall, featuring Juan Soto, Robles and Adam Eaton, finding the cash for Rendon becomes much easier.
The next few months will be filled with incremental moves and a December week of mania at the Winter Meetings in Harper’s hometown of Las Vegas. Teams will begin to fall off while the Nationals try to responsibly fill voids as they bide their time. They added Kyle Barraclough to the bullpen for money they would not use anyway. Bringing in Trevor Rosenthal on what is essentially a one-year deal doesn’t preclude them from doing anything else, while giving the bullpen a needed setup man. In essence, Rizzo swapped the cost of Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler for Rosenthal. Next is the wait, because Boras wants to wait.
His stumping began in earnest back in late May when he stopped by Nationals Park after the MLB draft. Boras represents the Nationals’ 2018 first-round pick Mason Denaburg. In theory, he was in town to discuss putting yet another player on the Nationals payroll. Instead, much of a careening 20-plus minute conversation with reporters included soliloquies about Harper’s future, leading to this:
“A player like Bryce Harper is unique in the sense he makes you money in addition to the service he provides,” Boras said then. “He’s iconic.”
He also has limited options. The Nationals are not fighting the league for retention. They’re most likely fighting three other teams at this point. The Cubs picking up Cole Hamels’ $20 million option pushes their finances in a time when their base group is becoming more expensive and they are already in the luxury tax. Think a situation where Robles, Soto and Turner are late in arbitration, inflating their costs right before free agency. That’s where the Cubs are, as of this moment, when counting their cash. The Yankees appear to have devolved into a more distant player no matter how hard the media there, or elsewhere, tries to conjure a New York angle, something that has irritated Harper for years. Philadelphia and San Francisco have the money, but not the panache or general market framework Harper seemingly desires. Manny Machado also appears the better positional fit for a Phillies team ready to spend.
All of which is positive news for the Nationals, who believe they “own the tiebreakers” should the money be close.
Both sides are now on to the semantics portion in this pursuit (Boras, as is his wont, began this well before anyone else). Harper finally began openly talking to reporters he knew at the end of the season. His message was steady, sounded well-coached, and pushed things onto the Lerner family.
“Excited about the future,” he told me. “If I’m going to be part of that future, and hopefully I am, and if I’m in those plans for the Nationals organization and the Lerners, we’ll see what happens.”
“There is a reality that we would love to sign him, but we may not,” Rizzo said this week, according to the Associated Press. “We have to have a strategy and plan put together to win baseball games, not only for 2019 but beyond. I think we have a good strategy in place, a good plan in place, and we have started to begin that process and we will see where it takes us.”
Harper notably tasked eight years as too few, which means the length of the contract is going to be more placation than reality. Ten years will represent the prospective investment though it’s unlikely to turn into the actual duration of stay. The surface money and years from dueling offers will be the same, if not close. A tussle around no-trade clauses, opt-outs and up-front-versus-deferred money will couple with ego attached to legacy and location. Recall the Seattle Mariners lost Alex Rodriguez because they did not guarantee more than five years. The Braves would not give Rodriguez a no-trade clause. Texas gave him everything.
"You really had to have a plan to bring in this kind of player, a plan almost a year in advance," Boras said when Rodriguez signed for a then-record $252 million in 2000.
Rizzo has planned for this for much longer than a year. He almost undermined himself at the trade deadline before corralling the situation. He’s long defended Harper, though stunningly brought back Jonathan Papelbon following a dugout fight between the ornery closer and young star. Rizzo has never wavered from publicly stating they want Harper back. He argues behind the scenes their chances are as good as anyone else. He’s through the initial protocols. Now, the hard part of figuring out exactly what Harper wants, and giving it to him, begins.
MORE NATIONALS NEWS: