Harper and the Nats take the high road; both will ben­e­fit

The Star Democrat - - SPORTS - By THOMAS BOSWELL WPNS Sports Colum­nist

(WPNS) — The dullest sports col­umn is one that says: In a highly-charged and con­tro­ver­sial sit­u­a­tion in­volv­ing the largest con­tract in the his­tory of Amer­i­can pro­fes­sional sports, every­one in­volved is act­ing cour­te­ously and wisely. Carry on.

In the case of Bryce Harper and the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, we’re stuck with just such sen­si­ble, classy be­hav­ior on both sides. And both sides are ben­e­fit­ing. Ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Chelsea Janes, the Nats made a sig­nif­i­cant long-term con­tract of­fer to Harper on Sept. 26. He didn’t take it, but the Nats dis­cussed terms for a new deal with Harper and his agent Scott Bo­ras through­out Septem­ber. Thus, ground­work has been laid and good will main­tained.

Also, of huge im­por­tance to both, all pub­lic-re­la­tions fences and pri­vate feel­ings re­main in good or­der. Bo­ras, his clients (like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg) and the Lerner fam­ily are al­ways en­twined. Next megadeal to con­sider: An­thony Ren­don, who’ll be a free agent after 2019. Who is the Nats’ first sig­nif­i­cant off­sea­son sign­ing for $7 mil­lion, plus an op­tion? Re­liever Trevor Rosenthal, a Bo­ras client. These folks flat out can’t af­ford a nasty fight.

My take, and hope, through­out this process has been that the Nats and Harper stay on good terms. The most likely case, just be­cause so many sce­nar­ios are in play, is that some deal, or se­quence of deals, gets done — the Nats sign a ma­jor free agent, or Harper gets a blow-away of­fer — which cat­alyzes a Bryce de­par­ture in which no one is at fault. If so, that’s life. But don’t make Harper leave.

Be­cause cheer­ful sce­nar­ios ex­ist, too. If his best of­fers turn out to be from the Car­di­nals, Giants and Phillies, as some now sus­pect, with the Dodgers, Cubs or Yan­kees not top bid­ders, then the Nats want to be in that tus­sle. Does brash, flashy Bryce re­ally want to spend his life play­ing be­fore old-school Cards fans? Or with the to­tal-re­build Giants? The Phils have cash, but after Harper has truly en­joyed seven years in Wash­ing­ton, is Philadel­phia go­ing to win that beauty-pageant show­down?

The size of the Harper jack­pot is still a mys­tery. While sources told Janes that the Nats of­fer was “aggressive” and one source termed it “his­toric,” it was less than the day­dream num­ber of $400-mil­lion that has floated around Harper for years. If you want to guess $300-mil­lion for 10 years, go ahead, but be aware that both the Nats and Bo­ras want the high­est pos­si­ble num­ber to be in cir­cu­la­tion. That helps Bo­ras drive up his client’s price; the Nats look fair no mat­ter what hap­pens and, come Ren­don time, every­body’s happy.

The most can­did words came from Mike Rizzo at the general man­agers’ meet­ing this week. “I’m com­fort­able with the al­ter­na­tive [to Harper re-sign­ing],” Rizzo said, re­fer­ring to the Nats’ abil­ity to field an in­ex­pen­sive, but po­ten­tially very good out­field of Juan Soto, Vic­tor Robles, Adam Ea­ton and Michael A. Tay­lor with­out Harper. “But I’m un­com­fort­able with the state­ment that we’re a bet­ter team with­out him.”

That’s true. But the Nats have an even more des­per­ate need than Harper. They must add start­ing pitch­ing if they are go­ing to play in Oc­to­ber while Scherzer is still ex­cel­lent and signed through 2021. The Nats also need a qual­ity re­liever and, if they could af­ford it, up­grades at catcher and per­haps se­cond base.

That’s why Rizzo also said, “It be­hooves us to have an ex­pi­ra­tion date” on wait­ing for Harper. The Nats will be ne­go­ti­at­ing on “par­al­lel tracks” with free agents like top south­paw starters, Pa­trick Corbin or Dal­las Keuchel.

This auc­tion class is so ridicu­lously deep at some po­si­tions of need, es­pe­cially re­liev­ers of all types, solid back-end starters and se­cond base­men, that the Nats’ free agent cash-pile may be dished out on a first­grab, first-get ba­sis. For ex­am­ple, 2018 gold-glove fi­nal­ist at se­cond base, D.J. LeMahieu, only 30, who won the bat­ting ti­tle in 2016 (at .348), isn’t even listed among the top-25 free agents.

With­out doubt, the Nats’ big con­tract of­fer, and the Septem­ber talks, im­prove their chances of re­tain­ing Harper. Bryce and Bo­ras now have a stake to put in the ground, es­tab­lish­ing a min­i­mum Harper value. Does that gift to Harper — since no deal of­fered on Sept. 26 is likely to get done — come with an un­spo­ken quid pro quo? Do the Nats now get the fi­nal phone call be­fore any deal gets done?

The Nats have given Harper an­other ne­go­ti­at­ing gift with other teams. Their big of­fer is an en­dorse­ment of his char­ac­ter — on field and off. The Nats know him best, vastly bet­ter than any other team pos­si­bly could, and they want him.

Now we en­ter base­ball ar­cana. The Nats have done more than merely stay on friendly terms. In my view, based on last win­ter’s free agent mar­ket, the Nats now have an in­her­ent ad­van­tage over any other team in sign­ing Harper.

Be­cause the Nats made a one-year qual­i­fy­ing of­fer to Harper last week, which he nat­u­rally re­jected, any team that signs Harper as a free agent will be pe­nal­ized — fairly se­verely. Only the Nats avoid such a penalty. How big is this “draft-pick for­fei­ture” for sign­ing a free agent who’s re­jected a qual­i­fy­ing of­fer? For­tu­nately for our san­ity, all the teams likely to go after Harper are in the same “for­fei­ture tier.” They’d lose their sec­ond­high­est pick in the 2019 draft and give up $500,000 in in­ter­na­tional bonus pool money.

That’s a lot of for­feit­ing. How much is such a penalty worth in fu­ture lost wins above re­place­ment (WAR) for those play­ers you’ll never get to draft or sign? Ev­ery team’s an­a­lyt­ics de­part­ment would have a dif­fer­ent num­ber. But my guessti­mate is that some teams put the ca­reer value of those lost play­ers at $25-to-$50-mil­lion.

Since 1996, the Nats/Ex­pos se­cond-high­est picks, who’d have been for­feited in such a sce­nario, in­clude fu­ture All-Stars Mil­ton Bradley and Bran­don Phillips, as well as Drew Storen, Sammy So­lis, An­drew Stephen­son and the Nats’ 2018 co-mi­nor-league pitcher of the year Wil Crowe. Dane Dun­ning and Alex Meyer be­came use­ful trade pieces.

With in­ter­na­tional money, the Nats signed Vic­tor Robles for $225,000 while Wilmer Difo, Rey­naldo Lopez and Pe­dro Sev­erino signed for less than $200,000 com­bined. Juan Soto, their sec­ond­prici­est in­ter­na­tional ever, got $1.5-mil­lion.

When the fi­nal Harper deal gets done, Team X would have to pay more than $250 mil­lion in salary while also los­ing a valu­able draft pick and fu­ture in­ter­na­tional play­ers, some of them pos­si­ble stand­outs. The Nats would “only” have to fork over the cash. That’s called hav­ing an edge.

Who says that ci­vil­ity, and mu­tual re­spect, can’t be news­wor­thy? Harper and Bo­ras just got their stake in the ground. And the Nats have shown Ren­don, and fu­ture homegrown play­ers, that they can play free agency in any of sev­eral ways. Like Ryan Zim­mer­man, they can sign two years early and be set for life with a $100-mil­lion ex­ten­sion. Like Jor­dan Zim­mer­man and Ian Des­mond, they can turn down deals worth more than $100-mil­lion two years early and take their chances on the di­rec­tion of their ca­reers. Like Strasburg, they can sign six months early, at a team dis­count, and have peace of mind in what would oth­er­wise have been their walk year. Or they can go free agent, like Harper, and still get an hon­or­able of­fer be­fore they leave, which puts a floor un­der their value.

It says here that this is the way you do busi­ness if you want long-term suc­cess with smooth re­spect­ful long-term re­la­tion­ships within your in­dustr y.

Harper may or may not ever play for the Nats again. But, other than sim­ply out­bid­ding the uni­verse, this is the way you max­i­mize the chances that he will.

AP PHOTO

Ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Chelsea Janes, the Nats made a sig­nif­i­cant long-term con­tract of­fer to Bryce Harper on Sept. 26. He didn’t take it, but the Nats dis­cussed terms for a new deal with Harper and his agent Scott Bo­ras through­out Septem­ber. Thus, ground­work has been laid and good will main­tained.

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