LAS VEGAS — Scott Boras and his team spread the word again, as they do every year at this time. He would speak Wednesday morning, near the giant Christmas tree at the top of the escalators. Boras, and just about everyone in the industry, had looked to this particular address for years now. He would be talking about Bryce Harper, the most hyped free agent in recent history, at a glitzy casino hosting the winter meetings in Harper’s hometown. “Harper’s Bazaar,” as Boras dubbed it, was bound to be riveting.
And yet, as Boras fielded nearly an hour of questions about Harper (and a few other, lower-profile clients), nothing riveting happened at all. Harper’s Bazaar was, at most, bizarre and, at least, downright boring. Harper does not have a deal, and he does not seem likely to get one soon.
“Certainly, we’ve had a lot of meetings over the last three weeks. We’ve met with a lot of clubs, had a lot of discussions. When you get to that point, something could happen quickly. Something could also happen in a matter of weeks,” Boras said. “So we really can’t put a time on it.”
Boras avoided naming specific teams involved with Harper. Of the Nationals, whose owner suggested the team could no longer pay for Harper but whose general manager left the door open, Boras was coy.
“When they say the door’s open,” Boras said. “I would certainly pay attention to what they say.”
When asked about the Philadelphia Phillies, who many speculate have the money and interest to give Harper a record deal, Boras deferred and said he would let the Phillies discuss their level of interest. He did say he and his team took Harper’s monstrous career numbers at Citizens Bank Park and projected them over an entire season and that the Phillies are on Harper’s list. He did not confirm whether Harper was on theirs.
On the New York Yankees, Boras suggested General Manager Brian Cashman was not honest with reporters when he implied they had no room for Harper.
“The Yankees are very adept. If they’re going to do something, I think they can earnestly tell you that right now they’re not doing it,” Boras said, “and have every intention of doing something else when it’s best for them to do it.”
Prompted with nearly every team in the race to land Harper — with questions about the outfielder’s interest in a rebuilding team like the San Francisco Giants, or a lower-profile team like the Chicago White Sox — Boras dodged, never ruling anyone out, but never exactly ruling them in, either.
“This is not a race where every car is labeled,” Boras said. “There’s a lot of people that want to keep what they’re doing very private, which is usually the practice with a major free agent.”
Boras made clear that in Harper, he is selling what he calls “a generational talent.” Multiple times, he cited the increase in attendance, TV ratings, and franchise value the Nationals experienced during Harper’s tenure.
“He has the ability to, economically, pay for himself,” Boras said.
From the outset, Harper was clear about his intentions. He wanted a long deal, so long that when it was suggested he might receive a 10-year deal, Boras suggested that was thinking too small. But in recent weeks, after years of confident and widespread speculation that Harper would receive the largest contract in baseball history sometime around these meetings, many in the industry wonder whether anyone will give it to him.
One theory is that a team might jump in with a shorter deal with a high average annual value — one that would qualify as record-breaking but not lock a team in to an uncomfortable long-term situation. Asked about his willingness to take a short-term contract, Boras did not say what Harper wanted. He explained what he thinks the owners he is talking to want, or at least should want.
“Owners are after, from a business standpoint, what they’re trying to build and look at when they’re involved with this kind of player, they’re after his legacy. They’re after building a brand around him,” Boras said. “I just don’t think there’s an appetite in ownerships for those types of things. Certainly, everyone I think that wants Bryce wants to make sure he’s there for a long time.”
So far, he does not have that deal. If offers have been made, Boras won’t say so. If Harper has serious suitors, Boras won’t name them, and those suitors (as is prudent for leverage) won’t identify themselves. The only team that has been open about its pursuit is the Nationals, who offered Harper what would have been the biggest free agent deal in pro sports history: 10 years, $300 million.
He turned that one down, which paved the way for weeks of speculation and inspired questions across the industry about whether Harper will get the deal he and Boras want after all. But turning down that offer also gave Boras a chance to do what he did Wednesday, to use a list of unexpected metaphors and unorthodox analogies to explain why Harper still deserves that deal, and to smile knowingly as anyone raised questions about his ability to get it.
But as the rhetoric flowed all week, Harper waited, out of sight. He had dinner Tuesday night with Shawn Kelley, who is job-hunting here this week. Dave Martinez hoped to find time to say hello. Mike Rizzo didn’t schedule any meetings, not wanting to bother Harper further; Harper knows how the Nationals feel.
And while no one can speak to Harper’s mental state other than Harper, people familiar with the climate around contracts like these indicate he must be under enormous pressure. Because when players of Harper’s stature (read: earning potential) hit the market, the Major League Baseball Players Association wants them to maximize their compensation to pave the way for players who will come after them. Max Scherzer, a union representative, has often said much of his motivation in negotiating his megadeal was to set a high bar for his colleagues as much as secure his own future.
When players of Harper’s stature hit the market under Boras’s eye, they also stall the free agent market. The lesser dominoes can’t fall until the big ones tumble. The lesser dominoes want Harper to sign, too — and quickly, if possible.
Meanwhile, Harper and his wife, Kayla, wait. His contract will determine where they settle as they grow their young family. The payday that seemed inevitable since Harper was a teenage star-in-the-making is finally here. Harper once said his grandmother taught him not to talk about two things: politics and how much money he makes. Harper has never delved into the former. He has never had a need to. But no one at the Mandalay Bay, a few hotels down from where he and Boras are reportedly taking their meetings with potential suitors, will stop talking about the latter.
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