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Rumors swirl but Bryce Harper’s market remains far blurrier than Manny Machado’s

Scott Boras addressed almost an hour of Bryce Harper questions a few weeks ago at the Winter Meetings, but none of them seem to have answers yet. (Janie McCauley/Associated Press)

A hush settled in over the baseball world recently, a polite quiet that allowed everyone a break for the holidays, at least on the outside. But as the calendar turned, the free agent market continued to churn, seemingly held in place by Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, who simply will not make up their minds.

Machado’s market is taking shape, with the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies emerging as legitimate suitors, according to reports. But Harper’s remains maddeningly unclear. The Washington Nationals remain the only team known to have made him a formal offer. And they may have circled back to him.

According to a person with direct knowledge of Harper’s process, the 26-year-old and his agent, Scott Boras, met with Nationals owner Ted Lerner for five hours on the Saturday before Christmas. Asked to confirm that this meeting happened, multiple people with the club refused to do so, a departure from their relative openness about their status with Harper this winter. On the record and off it, club officials have been willing to discuss the Harper situation because it seemed relatively uncomplicated until now: They made their offer. They put forth a legitimate effort to sign him. And he didn’t take it.

But ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported Wednesday that Harper has met with Nationals representatives “many times” this winter, news he attributed to “club sources.” Later in the day, club sources confirmed the meeting had taken place. Lerner, Harper and Boras did meet. The sides have had contact since the Winter Meetings.

A meeting with Ted Lerner, notorious for his propensity to consummate big deals with Boras without much front office involvement, does not necessarily foretell a deal.

The Nationals made no formal overtures to Harper at the Winter Meetings, according to General Manager Mike Rizzo, who said the Nationals did not schedule a meeting with Harper there. In fact, the only “Nationals representative” known to have met with him there was former reliever Shawn Kelley, who tracked down Harper for dinner one night. Even Harper’s beloved manager, Dave Martinez, had trouble finding Harper for a quick Vegas visit that week.

Two months into the offseason, MLB appears to still be in a high-stakes waiting game

That the Nationals did not meet with Harper in Vegas apparently did not mean they were done with him — and vice versa. Boras has said all along that he is selling Harper to owners, not front offices, because of the sizable, franchise-altering investment he will require. So in going straight to Lerner, Boras is a) in keeping with his long tradition of doing so and b) in keeping with his plan to sell Harper directly to those who would be paying him.

The team’s initial reluctance to confirm the meeting most likely comes from a desire to be coy about their pursuit. If they are not really chasing Harper, they will want to create the illusion that they are doing so to drive up the price for other suitors — like, say, their division rival Phillies. The meeting could have been Boras’s attempt to circle back to the Nationals after their initial offer, just in case.

If they are chasing Harper — a drastic change of tune from their public and private stance — the Nationals would not want other suitors to know that either, lest their price for Harper rise with increased demand.

For now, even with a confirmed meeting in recent weeks. Harper’s market remains far blurrier than Machado’s. For now, definitive, imminent rumors about Harper’s free agent destination have yet to percolate publicly. So this will end as so many articles have before it: Until Harper signs elsewhere, you simply cannot rule out the Nationals. The door, it seems, remains open.

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