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