Harper’s con­tin­ued avail­abil­ity sounds alarm on slow off­sea­son


Bryce Harper has been seen as a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion tal­ent since join­ing the Washington Na­tion­als as a teenage phe­nom in 2012. So it was not un­usual to think the slug­ger, like so many base­ball su­per­stars be­fore him, was des­tined for a strato­spheric deal when he reached free agency.

But with Na­tion­als pitch­ers and catch­ers re­port­ing to spring train­ing in West Palm Beach, Florida, in two days, Harper and other prom­i­nent free agents, in­clud­ing Manny Machado, are still avail­able.

Base­ball, which de­pend­ing on the list cited, has eight or nine of the 10 most lu­cra­tive player con­tracts in sports. Teams are now sud­denly balk­ing at sign­ing those long-term, break-the-bank con­tracts. That shift over the last two off­sea­sons has some agents, an­a­lysts and play­ers rais­ing ques­tions of col­lu­sion among Ma­jor League Base­ball own­ers.

“Two of the best play­ers in the game, and they have very lit­tle in­ter­est in them, from just what I hear. It’s not good,” Chicago Cubs third base­man Kris Bryant, a friend of Harper’s, told re­porters at the team’s win­ter con­ven­tion. “It’s some­thing that will have to change. I know a lot of the other play­ers are pretty up­set about it.”

It’s not just Harper and Machado. Five-time All-Star out­fielder Adam Jones, for­mer Cy Young win­ner Dal­las Keuchel and seven-time All-Star closer Craig

Kimbrel were all still on the mar­ket as of Sun­day.

MLB saw a league record $10.3 bil­lion in rev­enues in 2018, but many teams are not spend­ing as much as be­fore on their play­ers. Forbes re­ported that 54.2 per­cent of the league’s rev­enues went to player salaries last year, the sec­ond-low­est mark of the decade.

It’s a belt-tight­en­ing trend that play­ers, es­pe­cially, aren’t happy about.

“I un­der­stand it can be dif­fi­cult to em­pathize with ath­letes who make mil­lions to play a kids game but this is trou­bling and some­thing thing to keep an eye out for in any in­dus­try,” Na­tion­als closer Sean Doolit­tle wrote on Twit­ter in Jan­uary. “The money from these record rev­enues aren’t be­ing spent on pay­ing play­ers or mi­nor lea­guers and it costs the fans more to go to games (ticket prices, park­ing, con­ces­sions) than ever be­fore.”

A few clubs have spent big this off­sea­son — the Na­tion­als lead the league at $189 mil­lion paid to free agents. But they are one of just seven teams to have spent even $50 mil­lion this win­ter.

MLB in­sid­ers for USA To­day, ESPN and The Ath­letic have helped the pub­lic cob­ble to­gether the list of Harper’s suit­ors. The out­fielder, once seen as a top can­di­date to be­come base­ball’s first $400 mil­lion man, has met with the San Diego Padres and San Fran­cisco Gi­ants in re­cent weeks. The Philadel­phia Phillies were long ru­mored to be the fa­vorites to land Harper, and the Chicago White Sox were se­ri­ous about pur­su­ing him as well.

A re­turn to the Dis­trict re­mains on the ta­ble. The Na­tion­als of­fered Harper a 10-year, $300 mil­lion con­tract at the end of the 2018 sea­son. Harper’s camp sup­pos­edly turned it down, but no other con­tract of­fer de­tails in the Harper ne­go­ti­a­tions have be­come pub­lic yet.

For all the crit­i­cism com­ing from play­ers and their sup­port­ers, MLB com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred said it takes two to make a deal.

“What’s go­ing on is that the clubs that are in­volved and the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the in­di­vid­ual play­ers haven’t been able to reach an agree­ment,” Man­fred told ESPN. “It takes two par­ties to make an agree­ment.”

Last off­sea­son, Man­fred was even more pointed in his de­fense of man­age­ment — sug­gest­ing to the New York Times that it was agents, not own­ers, slow­ing down the process.

“Draw­ing lines in the sand based on a per­cep­tion that your mar­ket value is some­thing dif­fer­ent than what the mar­ket is telling you your value is, that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Man­fred said. “It is a fact that mar­kets dic­tate value. Val­ues are not dic­tated by big, thick, three-ring binders and rhetoric about who’s bet­ter than whom. They’re dic­tated by mar­kets. That’s the sys­tem we ne­go­ti­ated.”

Teams, too, have seem­ingly taken a dif­fer­ent ap­proach in build­ing their rosters in re­cent years. Af­ter the Cubs and Hous­ton Astros won the World Series by tear­ing down their rosters and build­ing them back up, other squads have tried to repli­cate the model. In 2018, eight teams fin­ished with at least 95 losses — the most in MLB his­tory, ac­cord­ing to the New York Times.

Around MLB, there are at least five teams in the midst of a com­plete tear­down — Detroit, Kansas City, Mi­ami, Texas and Bal­ti­more.

New Ori­oles gen­eral man­ager Mike Elias told re­porters in Novem­ber he planned to build an “elite tal­ent pipe­line” through the draft.

“This is a process, and it’s a process that doesn’t have short­cuts,” said Elias, who was hired from Hous­ton.

But while some teams are con­tent with re­build­ing, that doesn’t ex­plain why some teams like the Cubs or the Yan­kees aren’t more heav­ily in­volved in adding mar­quee free agents this off­sea­son. Both play­off con­tenders were seen as fa­vorites for Harper and Machado last year.

Ex­perts have sug­gested the lack of ac­tiv­ity in free agency will lead to a tense la­bor ne­go­ti­a­tion when the cur­rent col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment ex­pires in De­cem­ber 2021. MLB play­ers have not gone on strike since 1994, but will they if rev­enues con­tinue to rise with­out a con­cur­rent in­crease in player salaries?

There are no ob­vi­ous so­lu­tions to what most par­ties — play­ers, agents, fans — see as a glar­ing prob­lem. Bos­ton Red Sox pres­i­dent of base­ball op­er­a­tions Dave Dom­browski sug­gested at the last win­ter meet­ings that a “free agency dead­line” ought to be given con­sid­er­a­tion.

But such a dead­line does not ex­ist yet, mean­ing Harper and some of the world’s best base­ball play­ers could have to wait even longer to find a home.


ON THE MAR­KET: Free agent out­fielder Bryce Harper still has not signed with a team yet as the Washington Na­tion­als re­port to spring train­ing in two days.


Free agent Bryce Harper re­port­edly turned down a 10-year, $300 mil­lion con­tract that the Washington Na­tion­als of­fered him at the end of the 2018 sea­son.

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