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Mike Rizzo left to clarify mixed messages on Harper

Mike Rizzo left to clarify mixed messages on Harper

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.

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Nationals GM Mike Rizzo still hopeful about re-signing Bryce Harper but admits it's speculation

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo still hopeful about re-signing Bryce Harper but admits it's speculation

Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo sounded a little more optimistic about the possibility of Bryce Harper staying in D.C. -- at least when compared with recent comments made by managing principal owner Mark Lerner.

On the last day of the 2018 regular season, the Nats reportedly offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million deal with no opt-outs, which the star free agent turned down. Lerner told 106.7 The Fan on Friday that the offer was the best the organization could do, and he did not come across as optimistic about re-signing Harper. 

Rizzo, however, doesn't seem like he's given up hope on Harper.

"I love the kid, the family loves the kid and he's a terrific player," Rizzo told MLB Network on Monday from the 2018 Winter Meetings in Las Vegas. "We thought we made a market-value offer to him. It was a serious offer. 

"We wanted him to stay. We gave him five, six weeks to think about it. But when free agency started, we had to be in a position to allocate our money somewhere else and not wait on him. But again, we've never closed the door on Harp. He's a huge part for where we're at, and we love the player."

Notable players the Nats have signed so far in the offseason include key pitching free agent Patrick Corbin, catchers Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes and relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough.

MLBTradeRumors.com projects Harper will sign a 14-year, $420 million deal, which would be the largest contract in baseball history. 

Although that's significantly more than what the Nats offered the slugger, Rizzo acknowledged it's entirely possible that the market won't turn out to be what Harper expected and he could end up reaching back out to Washington. 

"I think he's interested in us," Rizzo continued on MLB Network. "He loves playing there, we love having him. The fan base just adores him. And there's a lot of speculation at this time, where he's gonna (land). 

"I don't think anybody knows, and maybe Harp doesn't even know yet where he's gonna go or who he's gonna play with. To ask anybody is just speculation, and I've been through this too many times and long enough where I'm not even going to speculate. We love him, and we're not closing the door on anybody."

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Nationals on periphery at Winter Meetings this week as they appear all but out on Bryce Harper

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Nationals on periphery at Winter Meetings this week as they appear all but out on Bryce Harper

LAS VEGAS -- Marlins Man walked into a modest eatery Sunday here in Las Vegas to look over the options. His bright orange jersey stood out among the cowboy hats and zombie-like Sunday exodus inside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

While another Las Vegas weekend closed, sending an army of roller bags across the casino floor toward the exit and airport, baseball started to creep into the home of the 2018 Winter Meetings. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo wandered across the marble floor. Media members from cities across the country became situated. Television stations raised their studios and radio talkers began to ramble. Everyone is wondering if the show in Vegas will be filled with drama or just another stall along the way to the offseason’s biggest news.

We know Rizzo turned in his homework early. Patrick Corbin’s money and introduction arrived late last week. Corbin, presumably, is the Nationals’ largest offseason expenditure. Surprising comments from Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner to 106.7 The Fan on Friday made that seem to be the case. He described Bryce Harper as all but gone, speaking wistfully, if not definitively.

Which means Rizzo is here for smaller shopping and the rest of baseball waits on Harper and Manny Machado.

A look through the Nationals shows few remaining gaps. Rizzo publicly contends he feels all right about starting the season with a Wilmer Difo/Howie Kendrick platoon at second base. The outfield is clear without Harper. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde will fight for the final rotation spot. Two new catchers have arrived. The bullpen was upgraded. Rizzo didn’t wait and watch what other teams were doing.

“We like the club we have at present,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington last week. “But, we’re never satisfied. There’s tweaks and combinations we can go after. We’ll be looking for values out there. What works for us, how do we construct the periphery of the roster. You can never have enough pitching and we’re always on the look for good starting and relief pitching. That could be something we attack either via the free agent market or trade market.”

One thing the market remains full of is left-handed relievers. The Nationals currently have three. One of which is Sammy Solis.

Washington decided to tender him a contract and the sides reached a one-year deal. There was consideration not to tender him a contract, which would have ended Solis’ time with Nationals. Instead, he’s back despite two back-to-back poor seasons following a strong 2016. Last season was a wreck. Solis finished with a 6.41 ERA. The other two lefties, Sean Doolittle and Matt Grace, were excellent. So, are the Nationals in the market for one more left-handed reliever to be sure?

“We’ve got right now on the roster three really competent left-handed pitchers,” Rizzo said, “in Doolittle, Grace who had a magnificent season last year and Sammy Solis, who we feel is a bounceback candidate. We feel good about the left-handed spot. We feel good about our bullpen as a whole.”

The Nationals were mid-pack last season in relievers’ ERA in both the National League and Major League Baseball. Their bullpen does appear close to done: Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Koda Glover, Grace, Solis, Justin Miller and Wander Suero are eight quick spots down there.

One upside here for Rizzo is he can wait. He doesn’t need to jump at the flush reliever market, which includes several decent left-handed options, because of the team’s prompt signings. A discount may arrive later. A factor to remember in regard to Solis is the Nationals would only be on the hook for 1/6th of his salary if they cut him in spring training. That’s a small penalty if someone in West Palm Beach appears more capable.

Washington also needs a left-handed bat off the bench that can play first base. Matt Adams, Justin Bour and Lucas Duda are names that could fill that slot. None will rattle the meetings.

This is life on the periphery, as Rizzo puts it. Will they talk to a lot of agents here? Yes. Will they consider an upgrade at second base? Of course. Are they part of the gigantic Harper and Machado storylines unlikely to conclude in Las Vegas but en route to dominate the conversation? Not really. At least not if Lerner’s public declaration is filled with flat facts. They offered Harper, he can do better elsewhere, and now life is quieter, even in Las Vegas.

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