LAS VEGAS — Agent Scott Boras was not happy when he saw the comments Washington Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner made about Bryce Harper on Friday afternoon, the comments so many around baseball felt rang a death knell for the Nationals' pursuit of the young superstar free agent. As a general industry rule, team and player representatives aren’t supposed to talk about these things publicly, at least not as frankly as Lerner did when he said he expected Harper to end up elsewhere. In fairness to Boras, even those within the Nationals organization were a little surprised to see their new controlling owner speak with such candor.
But Boras has raised concerns with the Nationals about Lerner’s comments violating a more specific rule, one etched in the latest collective bargaining agreement. Attachment 49 states that clubs, players or player representatives may not “disclose to the media the substance of contract discussions between a player and a Club, (including but not limited to the facts of offers, the substance of offers, or decisions not to make offers or to withdraw offers) until after terms on the contract have been confirmed by the Office of the Commissioner and the Players Association.” As Boras sees it, Lerner violated that provision when he said in a radio interview on 106.7 the Fan that the Nationals did “the best we could do” by offering Harper $300 million over 10 years in September.
But the agreement provides some leeway. A team, representative or player may “respond to a media inquiry” about an offer — i.e., verify its existence if asked directly, verify its terms if asked directly, confirm or deny discussions between a team and player, and so on. It also states that the interviewee may not follow up on those answers with additional information.
The Nationals do not believe Lerner’s comments violate any of those rules. Indeed, Lerner did not volunteer the terms of an offer but explained the context in which the Nationals made theirs — and why he thinks they cannot do better.
“When we met with them and we gave them the offer, we told them, ‘This is the best we can do.’ We said, ‘If this is of interest to you, please come back to us and we’ll see whether we can finish it up,' " Lerner said in that interview.
Lerner also speculated Boras and his team will be able to get more money elsewhere, and that they will take it. He did not state, at any point, that the Nationals would not listen if Boras circled back to them. He said he didn’t expect them to do so.
“If he comes back, it’s a strong possibility that we won’t be able to make it work,” Lerner said. “But I really don’t expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on. There’s just too much money out there that he’d be leaving on the table. That’s just not Mr. Boras’s M.O. to leave money on the table.”
As of Monday, Boras and his team had not raised any concerns with the Major League Baseball Players Association, which has the power to file grievances, asserting wrongdoing in the comments. They have, however, had contact with the club expressing concerns about those comments, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.
But Boras said Monday he does not believe Mark Lerner speaks for the whole Nationals organization in his feelings about Harper’s future. He said that when he makes big deals, he makes them with Mark’s father, Ted — and history supports his point.
General Manager Mike Rizzo, meanwhile, downplayed the comments and insisted the Nationals are not giving up on Harper.
“I didn’t make much of it," he told reporters at baseball’s winter meetings in his daily availability in the Nationals' suite at the Delano on Monday.
“Nothing has changed since the end of the season. We’re not closing the door on anybody.”
The contrast between Rizzo’s statements and Lerner’s does not betray some deep-rooted difference of opinion, multiple people in the organization say. The extent of any internal unrest caused by those comments begins and ends with the fact that Rizzo now has to answer a few more Harper questions than he might have otherwise, though he was always going to spend this week shooting down rumors. Lerner spoke from the gut, an uncommon development from an ownership family often criticized for not commenting on its decisions.
Rizzo won’t agree with Lerner’s assessment because he wants to keep his team’s options open. Rizzo has been a staunch Harper defender since day one, adamant that his team will never be better without him. If he believes the roster is better with Harper, then he wouldn’t say anything to eliminate the possibility that it will include him. Besides, Rizzo knows all too well that one phone call from Boras to his longtime negotiating partner Ted Lerner could change the whole thing anyway. Why rule anything out?
Boras, for his part, can’t afford to lose Washington as a potential and legitimate suitor. If those around the league take Lerner’s words at face value, the so-far-unclear list of teams bidding for Harper (and offering the megadeal Boras is hunting for him) will think the one team known to have bid on him is, at the very least, not planning to offer him more than 10 years, $300 million — and that it might not be able to afford even that anymore.
As reports bubbled up around Mandalay Bay that six teams were likely to chase Manny Machado and drive his market up, another report surfaced that the Philadelphia Phillies, long thought to be Harper’s likely high bidder, were focused more on Machado. Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman told reporters he was “surprised you’re still asking” about Harper as a fit.
So Boras is fighting to defend Harper’s market against rumors that it might not be nearly as strong as expected. As of Monday, he and his team had meetings scheduled with several teams this week in Las Vegas, but the extent of those teams' interest — i.e., whether anyone is willing to spend the record-breaking money Boras believes his client is worth — remains unclear.
None of that is to say the market for Harper doesn’t exist. In fact, many in the Nationals organization believe what Lerner does: that Harper will be able to get more than they offered elsewhere. But Boras cannot let the Nationals fall out of the race, lest anyone conclude there will be no race without them.