That day appeared to arrive Tuesday, with the news, first reported by Yahoo Sports, that the Dodgers recently sent a contingent of team officials to Las Vegas to meet with Harper and his representatives. Although the extent of the Dodgers’ interest remains unknown, the sudden entrance of the two-time defending National League champions — whose inherent advantages in the pursuit of Harper run from the financial to the geographical to the emotional — is widely perceived as a game-changer.
In the original Yahoo story, the Dodgers’ contingent that visited Harper at his Las Vegas home was said to have included minority owner Magic Johnson, who only five months ago, in his role as president of basketball operations for the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, led the successful effort to woo LeBron James to L.A. Given the modus operandi of agent Scott Boras, who frequently bypasses general managers to go straight to ownership, the involvement of Johnson could have been considered a sign the two sides are already beyond the opening stages of discussions.
However, on Tuesday afternoon, Yahoo amended its story to retract the report of Johnson’s involvement. The updated story included a quote from Johnson saying the only time he had met Harper was when then-Nationals manager Dusty Baker introduced them before a game at Dodger Stadium two years ago.
The possibility of the Dodgers entering the Harper sweepstakes has long been the one great wild card to what has been baseball’s most anticipated free agency in nearly two decades, and the news of their involvement comes less than a week before the start of baseball’s annual Winter Meetings — which, by happenstance, will be held in Las Vegas.
As best as anyone knows, the starting point for signing Harper is $300 million over 10 years — the length and value of the contract the Washington Nationals offered him near the end of the 2018 season, as he neared the cusp of free agency. But Boras is widely thought to have bigger targets in mind, beginning with Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million deal that ranks as the largest in the history of North American sports, and perhaps even ranging toward or beyond $400 million.
The Dodgers, at least under the regime of President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, have typically stayed away from massive, lengthy contracts with elite free agents, in a way that belies their status as a large-market, moneymaking behemoth that annually ranks at or near the top in the majors in attendance, revenue, payroll and franchise valuation. Since Friedman arrived in 2014, the Dodgers’ biggest deals have come to retain their own players, a list headed by the three-year, $93 million contract to extend ace Clayton Kershaw last month.
“There’s not a hard-and-fast rule,” Friedman told The Washington Post in February in regards to signing elite free agents, “but if you look back over time, there are a lot more free agent contracts that haven’t worked out than have.”
The Dodgers went to great lengths to get their 2018 payroll under the luxury-tax threshold of $197 million, thus resetting their penalty-tax rate — often viewed as a potential precursor to a big-money pursuit of Harper or free agent infielder Manny Machado this winter. Though they traded for Machado in July, a move that helped them reach the World Series for the second straight year, they have given no indication of being interested in his services long-term.
Harper, it now appears, is a different story.
As of the general managers’ meetings last month in Carlsbad, Calif., Boras and his team were engaged in preliminary conversations with what one person familiar with them said were a large number of teams — conversations largely meant to get a sense of what Harper might be asking for.
Boras and Co. expected action to increase in the weeks before the Winter Meetings, to the point that the agency planned to find places to meet with interested teams away from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where the meetings will be held.
Some in the industry have speculated that Harper might want to wait for Machado, the other prized free agent in this year’s class, to sign first to ensure he gets the biggest contract in big league history — so he knows the number to beat. But others think Boras and his team might be thinking differently — that they don’t want to risk Machado setting the market lower than they want it. If Machado got less than everyone expected, for example, teams could use that number as a lower jumping-off point.
The Dodgers have always seemed like a perfect fit for Harper, who has joked about becoming a Southern California firefighter someday and often spends time in the area in the offseason. Vegas is only a four-hour drive from Dodger Stadium — where Harper made his big league debut on April 28, 2012 — close enough that his father, Ron, was often on the field during batting practice when the Nationals played there, offering hitting tips to his son. Dodgers legend Steve Garvey is a family friend and has often sought out Harper for on-field conversations before games there over the years.
And Harper’s personality has always seemed perfectly suited for the glamour and pomp of Hollywood, a trait he shares, incidentally, with the last free agent pursued by Dodgers/Lakers celebrity/dealmaker Johnson. James couldn’t resist the lure of L.A. It remains to be seen whether Harper can, or will.