LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. —  Next year, the Nationals will not operate in the shadows at the Winter Meetings as they are this week at The Swan and Dolphin Hotel. They will draw the spotlight Las Vegas because hometown kid Bryce Harper will be a free agent fielding pitches from clubs willing to give him the most lucrative contract in professional sports history. It will be the most important week during the most important offseason in Nationals history.

That’s unless the Nationals somehow preclude Harper from hitting free agency. Washington has exclusive rights to negotiate with Harper until after the 2018 campaign. Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, almost always has his clients reach free agency, but the Nationals did strike a deal with Stephen Strasburg, another Boras client, months before he was slated to become a free agent last year.

General Manager Mike Rizzo declined to reveal if that’s the club’s plan on Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re not going to discuss what we’re going to do with Harp other than we love having him in the organization,” Rizzo said in the Nationals’ suite at the Winter Meetings. “We’re the team that drafted him, developed him and he’s performed greatly for us. But we’re going to keep all those discussions internal.”

But on Wednesday morning, Boras, holding court in front of a throng of reporters for his annual Winter Meetings forum, revealed the two sides had “preliminary discussions” about Harper’s future a month ago. Rizzo later confirmed the talks, which took place in Palm Springs, Calif., where Nationals principal owner Ted Lerner, who has an extensive history of negotiating with Boras directly, has a home. Lerner engaged in the discussion, which also touched on free agent right-hander Jake Arrieta, one of Boras’s high-priced clients this winter. Rizzo called Boras’s visit an “annual pilgrimage.”

“I’m not going to read too much into it,” Rizzo said. “It was a preliminary conversation. It’s something that we wanted to do. We’d like to get more momentum and obviously everyone’s heart in the right place. We’ll see where it takes us.”

Asked if he envisions a scenario in which the two parties reach an agreement before the season, Boras declined to speculate.

“That’s up to ownership,” Boras said. “So we’ll have to look at it and report it back to Bryce.”

The Nationals and Harper agreed to a one-year, $21.625 million contract for 2018 in May, eliminating the need for arbitration — and reducing the risk of generating resentment between them and their prized former MVP. The salary is the highest for an arbitration-eligible player in league history and likely the lowest Harper will make for the rest of his career.

If — when? — he reaches free agency, Harper would arguably be the most sought-after commodity on the market since Alex Rodriguez, who was entering his age-25 season when he chose to sign a 10-year, $252 million contract the Texas Rangers on the final day of the Winter Meetings in 2000. Rodriguez’s contract stunned the industry. It was the richest in professional sports history at the time, more than doubling what had been the largest deal baseball had ever seen.

Nearly two decades later, Harper is expected to command at least $400 million. He will be 26 in 2018 with at least one National League most valuable player award and five all-star appearances on his résumé. He’s one of the faces of baseball, a brand unto himself in a sport that has trouble marketing stars entering the prime of his career.

“I frankly view it as a very simple process,” Boras said. “When you have iconic players, they’re different. They’re different because you’re not paying for performance value. You’re acquiring a right to someone that generates revenue above what you pay him apart from his performance. So that iconic value is something that attaches to very few players in baseball … But it’s certainly something that travels with Bryce.”

The New York Yankees, Harper’s favorite team growing up, presumably won’t be in the mix after acquiring Giancarlo Stanton over the weekend, but the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies figure to bid for his services. Others will probably emerge. Washington will have stout competition regardless of the Yankees’ interest level.

For now, Harper will play right field and bat somewhere in the middle of the order in 2018 for new manager Dave Martinez. He will be the everyday linchpin for a franchise starving for postseason success for at least another year with next winter’s sweepstakes looming — unless the unexpected happens before then.

Read more on the Nationals: