Nationals owner indicates that Harper will sign elsewhere
There were many answers inside Nationals Park on Friday afternoon, from those spoken by general manager Mike Rizzo, to the quiet presence of all-star catcher Yan Gomes, to Patrick Corbin, the reason dozens gathered at the ballpark on the doorstep of winter, where they watched the lefthanded pitcher button up his Washington Nationals uniform for the first time.
But aside the excitement of Corbin’s signing lurked two questions prompted by the pace the Nationals are operating at this off-season: What is there left to do? And is there still room for Bryce Harper?
Rizzo continued to separate the star outfielder from the Nationals’ other moves, saying “Harp is a big part of our family, and we’d love to have him back.” But principal owner Mark Lerner sent a different message, suggesting in a Friday radio interview that Harper’s return is unlikely.
“I don’t really expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on,” Lerner told 106.7 The Fan. “There’s just too much money out there that he’d be leaving on the table. That’s just not (agent Scott) Boras’s M.O., to leave money on the table.”
“This was a special six years,” Lerner continued, referencing Harper’s transformation from a homegrown talent into a franchise cornerstone. “And he’ll still be iconic in the city, when he comes in playing for another team. We’ll do right by him and have a real ceremony. You can’t be mad at him, and I don’t think he’d be mad at us if we can’t go any further.”
The Nationals have not let Harper’s unresolved free agency delay their roster construction for 2019. They have actually done the opposite. In chronological order, this off-season already includes a trade for reliever Kyle Barraclough, the signing of former all-star closer Trevor Rosenthal, the signing of veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki, the trade for Gomes, and then the signing of Corbin to a six-year, US$140 million contract this week, with Washington outbidding the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies. Those moves all came before baseball’s annual winter meetings, which will be in Las Vegas next week, and signalled just how committed the Nationals are to competing regardless of Harper’s decision.
Harper turned down a 10-year, $300-million offer the Nationals extended in late September, and principal owner Mark Lerner said in the radio interview Friday: “We told them, ’This is the best we can do.’ “Lerner added that, given what the Nationals have spent in the last month or so, it may be hard to bring back Harper even if he and Boras showed interest in the initial offer. And if the Harper sweepstakes are tilting away from Washington, there is a chance the Nationals explore the market beyond their remaining needs.
The starting rotation is strong at the top — with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin — but a few more options could stir up competition for the final spot, and sharpen what will be the team’s most enticing strength should Harper move on.
If Harper does not return, the Nationals may be more likely to go after a second baseman who could help account for his production. Rizzo confirmed Friday that he had been in contact with the representation of D.J. LeMahieu, one of the best free agent second basemen, but couched that by saying the Nationals have reached out to around 40 available players. They have also expressed confidence in some combination of Howie Kendrick and Wilmer Difo at that position, and might not want to give a veteran a multi-year deal given that top prospect Carter Kieboom, a shortstop by trade, has started to work at second base.
The Washington Nationals’ introduction of pitcher Patrick Corbin, left, was overshadowed by owner Mark Lerner’s comments.