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For Nationals, the hard part of negotiations with Bryce Harper begins now

For Nationals, the hard part of negotiations with Bryce Harper begins now

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.


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Fresh round of cuts helps Nationals Opening Day roster take shape

Fresh round of cuts helps Nationals Opening Day roster take shape

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Opening Day roster became much clearer Saturday following a slew of player moves by the Nationals.

Right-handed pitcher Joe Ross was optioned to Triple-A Fresno. After consideration of using Ross in the bullpen, the organization decided to send him to Triple A and stretch him out there. Manager Davey Martinez said they view Ross as a starter now and in the future.

Catcher Spencer Kieboom and right-handed starter Erick Fedde will go to Double-A Harrisburg. This is the first instance of a decision based on the change in Triple-A affiliation. The Nationals switched from Syracuse to Fresno in the offseason -- a move they did not have complete control of. So, Kieboom and Fedde will go to Harrisburg in order to be readily available should something happen to a player on the 25-man roster during the opening homestand.

Prospect Carter Kieboom, right-handed starter Henderson Alvarez, right-handed reliever Aaron Barrett, right-handed reliever Scott Copeland and left-handed reliever Vidal Nuno have been reassigned to minor-league camp.

Carter Kieboom impressed at the plate throughout the spring. He continues to learn second base after sliding over from his traditional shortstop position. Barrett takes another step in his comeback following Tommy John surgery and a fractured elbow. Martinez said he thinks Barrett will help the parent club at some point this season.

Washington has three spring training games remaining. Patrick Corbin and Joe Ross pitch in split-squad games Sunday. Monday, the team is back in the District for its final game of the exhibition season. The season opener is Thursday, March 28.

This round of cuts drops the team’s options to 30 players. Koda Glover (forearm), Howie Kendrick (hamstring) and Michael A. Taylor (hip/knee) are unlikely to be ready for Opening Day. That trio appears heading for the injured list. Which leaves two bench spots among utility player Adrian Sanchez, outfielder Andrew Stevenson or first baseman, and out-of-nowhere minor-leaguer, Jake Noll until Taylor and Kendrick are ready. Two bullpen spots are available to Wander Suero, Justin Miller and Austen Williams in that alignment.

The Nationals could keep all three relievers for Opening Day. That would give them a bench of catcher Kurt Suzuki, utility player Wilmer Difo, first baseman Matt Adams, and likely Stevenson as the fourth outfielder.

Another wrinkle: reliever Kyle Barraclough, who has a 5.19 ERA and has allowed three home runs in 8 ⅔ innings, still has options. Sending him down would be a significant pivot after the organization often touted him as one of its featured relievers.

Last, multiple off-days to start the season play into this equation. If the Nationals choose a smaller bullpen group, it will have more time than usual to recover. What we know is these players are coming to play Thursday:

Starting pitchers:
Max Scherzer
Stephen Strasburg
Patrick Corbin (L)
Anibal Sanchez
Jeremy Hellickson

Tony Sipp (L)
Matt Grace (L)
Wander Suero
Trevor Rosenthal
Sean Doolittle (L)

Position players:
Yan Gomes (C)
Kurt Suzuki (C)
Ryan Zimmerman (1B)
Brian Dozier (2B)
Trea Turner (SS)
Anthony Rendon (3B)
Adam Eaton (RF)
Victor Robles (CF)
Juan Soto (LF)
Wilmer Difo (Utility)
Matt Adams (1B)

A few decisions remain to determine who will join them.


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Davey Martinez reveals the top -- and bottom -- of his lineup

Davey Martinez reveals the top -- and bottom -- of his lineup

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- We have a decision: Adam Eaton will leadoff, Trea Turner will hit second.

And, Victor Robles will reside at the bottom of the order in the ninth spot. Nationals manager Davey Martinez waffled during the spring about how to handle the top of the lineup. He recently made a decision, but declined to reveal it until asked again Saturday.

“After running all the numbers, I kind of like it,” Martinez said. “I like the fact he’s the first hitter they face. He’s a pest. I like the fact that he goes up there and sometimes gives 7-, 8-pitch at-bats, 9-pitch at-bats. And him hitting in front of Trea...Trea can hit and can drive in runs as well, so, having Robles hitting ninth, Eaton one, Trea two, that’s a pretty good combination.”

Both Eaton and Turner have led off the majority of their careers. Both would prefer to leadoff if given a straight choice. Here, Martinez decided for them.

A natural question is how such a structure would influence Turner’s opportunities to steal with either Juan Soto or Anthony Rendon right behind him. Martinez said it should have no bearing. Turner can just go.

“We want him to go,” Martinez said. “I think his biggest fear is maybe hitting in front of Anthony and Soto, but that shouldn’t deter what you do. We want him to steal bases.”

Robles is often going to hit ninth in order to align with Eaton and Turner. Martinez argues there is only one time when a player is the actual “leadoff” hitter. After that, the lineup churn begins.

So, here’s an Opening Day projection:

Eaton (L)
Soto (L)

One possible glitch is the catcher hitting in front of the pitcher. That could lead to situations where the pitcher is moving a runner, and the runner happens to be a catcher. Though, Gomes and Kurt Suzuki are above-average runners for their position.

Martinez said more information on the how and why of this decision is to come.

“Just what’s best as a whole lineup-wise, construction-wise,” Martinez said. “You’ll know more Opening Day why we want to do it, but I like Adam leading off.”