LAS VEGAS -- Sixty stories above the street, Mike Rizzo was asked to clarify once more what the organization’s stance on Bryce Harper is.
The reason Rizzo is going through this again was born last Friday when Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner declared the team all but out on Harper. At the time, Rizzo was a few feet away saying the Nationals hadn’t determined anything. The door remained open. An initial offer was made, the organization would go from there.
That sounded like a common-sense strategy. Offer a low, but respectable, deal. Let the sides work on other things. Circle back to an agent and player the organization has significant ties to.
Instead, Lerner’s comments made the pursuit sound concluded. The Nationals had done the best they could, he said. Other teams would present more cash, piles the Nationals could not -- or at least would not -- match. This was counter to Rizzo’s open stance.
Which is why Monday, Rizzo was trying to merge the sentiments and navigate back to a better place of public understanding.
“I didn’t make much of it,” Rizzo said of Lerner’s comments. “Mark was asked to speculate about Harp’s future and, the one thing I have learned doing this for a long time, I don’t speculate about free agents, where they are going, how much they’re getting. It’s just too difficult because there’s so many factors involved.
“Nothing’s changed with Harp since the end of the season except I think we’re a better team than we were at the end of the season. But we’re not closing the door on anything.”
Rizzo added they do not have a meeting in Las Vegas scheduled with Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, or Harper himself. So, there’s that, too.
The general view of Washington’s handling of Harper has been positive. He was thankful for his treatment since arriving as a 19-year-old comet. Rizzo defended him at all turns. The support moved into the offseason, during which Rizzo has said positive things about Harper to anyone who asked. He’s not playing semantics in that department, using his statements to negotiate or twist what may occur. He told NBC Sports Washington last week their relationship is one of “open dialogue” from both sides. Rizzo has backed Harper in all ways.
Hence, things were smooth. Until last week when Lerner’s comments emerged. They present layers of questions and complications.
Here’s what the Nationals knew in July, if not sooner: Harper was going to become a free agent. Gio Gonzalez would not be back, leaving a hole for a left-handed starting pitcher in the rotation. Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel would become the prime candidates to fill that spot. They would cost at least $100 million each. And, apparently, the organization’s max offer to Harper would be $300 million, one he would never accept. All this was clear.
So, why was he still here?
The Nationals reportedly pulled back a mid-summer trade on the table at Lerner’s behest. Five months later, he would also say publicly -- we’ll get to the oddity of that decision in a minute -- the Nationals made their best offer to Harper. Which means he knew around the trade deadline Harper was not coming back via a too-low offer, yet kept him around anyway. That doesn’t add up. Not soundly, at least.
Maybe what Lerner said was part smoke. He wanted to make it appear the Nationals were fading away from Harper. That process was long anticipated for several reasons. Not the least of which is the glut of talented outfielders and more than half-a-billion dollars dedicated to the top three in the rotation.
But there’s no reason to say that in public. It’s a competitive disadvantage at a minimum. Rizzo’s framing allowed the Phillies to think the Nationals could still be around. Similar comments from ownership, which would ultimately make the decision, could supplement that idea. Pushing the price on Philadelphia may not have a direct result now. However, it could eventually kick it beyond the competitive balance tax in the future. It could complicate dealings with the next uber free agent, like Mike Trout or Mookie Betts. It at least doesn’t ease the situation. Seeds of doubt count as a pound of flesh when tussling with a division rival.
Instead, on a day the New York Yankees publicly backed away, when it appears Harper’s options are dwindling, the Nationals were forced to recycle a general sentiment in order to unwind ownership comments from three days prior.
They’re open, Rizzo said. And he seems to mean it. The question is if his owner does, too.
MORE NATIONALS NEWS:
- Mark Lerner: Little optimism about re-signing Harper
- Blueprint: What A-Rod taught us about Harper's future
- Big money: Patrick Corbin makes Nats' starting rotation worth a fortune