CARLSBAD, Calif. — The Washington Nationals offered Bryce Harper the biggest free agent contract in the history of the four major North American sports in late September, and he and his agent turned it down. Think about that sentence for a moment, and glean these two stunning facts from it:
First, the Nationals — often described as somewhere between maddeningly selective in their spending and unnecessarily frugal — were willing to give one of their players a record-setting deal. They offered Harper $300 million for 10 years in a deal that included no opt-outs, according to multiple people familiar with the terms. The biggest free agent deal in pro sports history by total value had been Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year deal worth $275 million with the New York Yankees in 2007. Giancarlo Stanton’s 2014 deal, which guaranteed him $325 million over 13 seasons, was an extension.
Second, Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, turned that deal down. And some would have considered them negligent not to do so. For years now, Boras has been selling Harper as a talent so rare he could command more than $400 million, and when presented with that number this week, he joked, “Why be so limiting?”
So where does that leave Harper and the Nationals now? Importantly, both sides felt the offer was legitimate and respectful. Teams do make token offers now and then, to save face or push the price up for rivals. The consensus among both sides is that it was a respectful, genuine effort. But people familiar with the offer also indicate that it is now off the table, an offer meant to capitalize on the Nationals' exclusive negotiating rights with Harper that stood for five weeks until the 26-year-old officially became a free agent. The sides could still strike a deal later in the offseason. But if they do, it almost certainly won’t be that deal, and Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo acknowledged Tuesday that his team cannot afford to wait around.
“It behooves us to have an expiration date,” Rizzo told reporters Tuesday, an indication that the Nationals are prepared to move on in their plans without Harper because, as one person familiar with the situation said, they “can’t have $300 million dangling out there for months.” Indeed, the Nationals need starting pitching, a catcher and to upgrade their bench. They cannot wait for Harper to make his decision — which many in the industry believe will come no sooner than the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas next month — and miss out on the market.
If Harper signs elsewhere, the Nationals' outfield next season will consist of Juan Soto in left field, Victor Robles in center and Adam Eaton in right field with former Gold Glove finalist Michael A. Taylor as a backup in center. It will cost them roughly $13 million.
“I’m comfortable with the alternative [to signing Harper],” Rizzo said Tuesday. “But I’m not comfortable with the statement that we’re a better team without him.”
Whether the Nationals will be without Harper remains to be seen. For the moment, it seems he and Boras will explore options elsewhere. That Nationals' offer may be off the table in its current form, but Boras rarely lets a high-spending team drop out of the race for a high-priced client. Given Harper’s history with the Nationals, Boras seems unlikely to make a deal elsewhere without first circling back. But for now, the Nationals made an offer that maintained a solid relationship with Harper while giving him what the team saw as fair market value. Boras did not counter, but word is the Nationals would go higher for a reasonable offer — though how much higher remains to be seen.
Importantly for any future negotiations, Harper’s deal would not be the largest in baseball history by average annual value. Zack Greinke ($34 million), David Price ($31 million) and Clayton Kershaw ($31 million) all got more. Max Scherzer got exactly $30 million. But no position player has ever earned an average annual value of more than $27.5 million (Rodriguez and Yoenis Cespedes). The Nationals were willing to make a strong commitment. It was not enough.