Bryce Harper will meet with the San Diego Padres and representatives of their ownership group on Thursday, according to multiple reports, adding a surprise team to a free agency sweepstakes that’s been oddly quiet given its preceding hype.

Harper, the 26-year-old outfielder who spent the first seven years of his career with the Washington Nationals, has shared the dull spotlight of a dragging offseason with shortstop Manny Machado. Neither player has found a landing spot with the start of spring training less than two weeks away, creating a logjam of talented, unsigned free agents and sparking talks of collusion among deep-pocketed owners unwilling to invest in a winning product. It is believed that Harper is being pursued by the Philadelphia Phillies, Nationals, Chicago White Sox and, now, the Padres, a team with a top-notch farm system and, conceivably, a lot of money to spend. The Phillies and White Sox also appear willing to spring for a large, long-term contract and have been linked to both Harper and Machado throughout the winter.

And still, Harper’s only known offer came from the Nationals at the end of September. That was for 10 years and $300 million and while it was unlikely Harper would sign a deal before hitting free agency, that signaled the Nationals' initial interest in bringing back the homegrown star. Since, Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said in an early December radio show that he didn’t “expect [Harper] to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on.” Then, according to people with knowledge of the situation, the Nationals had a five-hour meeting with Harper and his representation on the Saturday before Christmas. Even if the Nationals still feel like a long shot to re-sign Harper, and have aggressively spent elsewhere this offseason to prepare for life without him, they remain in a mix that has now welcomed the Padres.

The news of San Diego’s involvement was first reported Thursday by The Athletic, which also noted that Harper representation have met with a “number of clubs” in recent days, including second and third meetings in “some cases.” The Phillies met with Harper in Las Vegas earlier in January, according to multiple reports, and have seemed to make the biggest push to sign him. They have already inked outfielder Andrew McCutchen to a three-year, $50 million deal, added reliever David Robertson and traded for budding shortstop Jean Segura after their owner said in November that they would be “a little bit stupid” with how much they planned to spend this offseason. That would make Harper, who has long been pegged for a decade-long contract worth anywhere between $300 and $400 million, a logical fit.

The Padres are a bit more curious, as they finished last in the National League West in 2018 and seem far away from contention. Signing Harper or Machado — or a trade for star catcher J.T. Realmuto, another long-winded sweepstakes they are involved in — could lay a foundation for future success. But it is unclear if they are actually considering a real run at Harper, or if they are being pulled into the fold to drive up the price and, in their interest, generate headlines and convince a fan base they may soon invest in being competitive.

While it once seemed that the Nationals' 10-year, $300 million offer would serve as the floor for Harper negotiations, his market has gotten murkier as the 2019 season draws closer. All that is clear, on the doorstep of February, is that Bryce Harper does not play for any baseball team and the league continues to wait, and wait, for that to be sorted out.

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