Harper’s free agency to haunt Na­tion­als

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - THOM LOVERRO

Nearly 10 years ago, New York Yan­kees pres­i­dent Randy Levine and Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als owner Ted Lerner — both Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity alumni — took part in a fo­rum at the school to dis­cuss the eco­nomics of the game.

Levine told the crowd be­cause of the pres­sures on the Yan­kees, it was their goal to win the World Se­ries each and ev­ery year.

Lerner got a few laughs with his re­sponse, “I might add, we’re not con­cerned with win­ning the World Se­ries this year.”

I thought of that ex­change when I saw Na­tion­als out­fielder Bryce Harper in a Yan­kees uni­form on the back page of Satur­day’s New York Daily News, with the head­line “Bats to the Fu­ture.”

Harper and Ori­oles star Manny Machado were photo shopped into Yan­kee uni­forms as part of a pro­jec­tion of the fran­chise’s fi­nan­cial po­si­tion fol­low­ing the 2018 sea­son — when both play­ers be­come free agents — in the wake of the new la­bor agree­ment reached last week that runs through 2021.

Is ev­ery­one still chuck­ling about the no­tion of the Na­tion­als com­pet­ing with the Yan­kees?

Wash­ing­ton has be­come one of the stan­dards of ex­cel­lence in base­ball un­der gen­eral man­ager

Mike Rizzo in the past five sea­sons, out­dis­tanc­ing the Yan­kees in wins (458 to 435) and di­vi­sion ti­tles (three Na­tional League East ti­tles for Wash­ing­ton, one Amer­i­can League East ti­tle for New York and one wild card).

Yet most peo­ple be­lieve it is a fore­gone con­clu­sion that Harper, who has made it clear his love for the Yan­kees as a young base­ball fan, will repli­cate that Daily News back page some day.

That makes Harper pretty much un­trade­able.

Trade Harper, you say? Are you se­ri­ous?

It’s a pos­si­bil­ity Na­tion­als fans bet­ter get used to.

The 2018 All-Star Game could take place in Wash­ing­ton with base­ball’s Min­is­ter of Fun in an­other uni­form.

The Na­tion­als have just two years left be­fore Harper would be­come a free agent, which opens the door for ei­ther ne­go­ti­a­tions or trade talks for both.

But how much would Wash­ing­ton get in any deal, though, if the trad­ing part­ner be­lieves, like most, that Harper is New York Yan­kees prop­erty-in-wait­ing? Why would you trade for Harper if you will be fac­ing the same chal­lenge as the Na­tion­als — a player with an agent in Scott Bo­ras who will likely be de­ter­mined to take his player to free agency, where Harper is ex­pected to set con­tracts records. A $400 mil­lion player, or maybe a $500 mil­lion player?

If the Na­tion­als be­lieve they have lit­tle, if any chance to con­vince Harper to stay with Wash­ing­ton, then he will never have more value than now — when an­other team can get at least two more years out of him — and should be one of the top­ics of dis­cus­sion at the win­ter meet­ings un­der­way this week just a few miles from Na­tion­als Park at Na­tional Har­bor.

Now, you could say Wash­ing­ton can en­joy the ben­e­fits of those two years them­selves, and, if they can­not re­sign him and he goes to the Yan­kees, the Na­tion­als will get draft choice com­pen­sa­tion. But that is di­min­ished un­der the new la­bor agree­ment. Teams over the lux­ury tax thresh­old have the big­gest bur­den of com­pen­sa­tion — which would likely in­clude the Yan­kees — but that com­pen­sa­tion is only a sec­ond and fifth round pick.

Na­tion­als fans can look for a sliver of hope with the long-term con­tract that Bo­ras’ other high-pro­file client, Stephen Stras­burg, signed with Wash­ing­ton last year, but th­ese are two dif­fer­ent play­ers. One likes com­fort and fa­mil­iar­ity. The other loves the spot­light, and, based on the pro­file in ESPN The Mag­a­zine, Harper sees him­self as a his­toric player who will change the game.

Harper told USA Today last spring, “I’ve got three years to play,’’ Harper said. “I’m a Na­tional. I’m very hum­bled to put a W on my chest ev­ery sin­gle day. I love the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. I love D.C. I get chills just think­ing about it right now. It’s such a mon­u­men­tal town. I look for­ward to play­ing there ev­ery sin­gle day for the next three years. That’s on my mind right now.” Now it’s two years.

Rizzo and Bo­ras have had con­ver­sa­tions about a long-term Harper deal, but noth­ing on the level of true ne­go­ti­a­tions. The Wash­ing­ton fran­chise has one of the most suc­cess­ful own­er­ship groups on and off the field,” Bo­ras told USA Today in Fe­bru­ary. “They cer­tainly have the abil­ity to con­duct what­ever form of busi­ness they see fit.”

Yes, they do. Don’t buy the sto­ry­line from the Na­tion­als that the MASN con­flict would hand­cuff them from mak­ing a Harper deal. The money is there.

The ques­tion then, is — are the Na­tion­als the same fran­chise that drew laughs nearly 10 years ago about com­par­isons to the Yan­kees? Or is Ted Lerner ready to do bat­tle with his GW alumni brother?

● Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curve­balls” Wed­nes­days avail­able on iTunes and Google Play.

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