CLEARWATER, Fla. — On the first day of the 17th week of his free agency, Bryce Harper remained unsigned, and 30 Major League Baseball teams went about the business of preparing for their seasons, now just a few weeks away.
Although resolution remained elusive Monday, the contours of Harper’s choice came closer into view. The Philadelphia Phillies, considered the odds-on favorites to sign the 26-year-old slugger for weeks, appear prepared to give him the 10-plus-year, $300 million-plus deal he and agent Scott Boras have been seeking. The Los Angeles Dodgers, whose management flew to meet with Harper at his Las Vegas home on Sunday, are thought to be seeking a shorter-term deal but have other advantages, from the geographical to the historical.
But time has become an enemy. Even if he were to sign on Tuesday and be in uniform with his new team by the end of the week, Harper would be at least two weeks behind the rest of his teammates — time they have spent getting up to game speed and fostering camaraderie, neither of which can be suitably simulated in absentia.
“You’re here at 6:30 in the morning. You’re doing the workouts. You’re having meetings. You’re getting to know your teammates. The chemistry is being built,” Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta said Monday. “That is invaluable time, and a lot of the teams don’t understand how important it is for us. And ultimately, it’s going to affect whichever teams sign those players.
“Bryce [is] going to eventually sign and be fine. But there is going to be a delay in [his] ability to get ready for Opening Day. There’s no way around that. There just isn’t. I don’t care if he’s working out with a junior college or a high school — whatever it is, it’s not this.”
Arrieta, perhaps better than anyone else in baseball, knows what he’s talking about. A year ago, when he was considered a consensus top-three free agent, he lasted on the market until March 11, when he finally signed a three-year $75 million deal with the Phillies. From the players’ standpoint, Arrieta’s slow-moving market and below-market deal were among the most glaring signs that there was a problem with free agency — an assertion that has continued, and intensified, this winter.
The offers “just weren’t there,” Arrieta, 32, recalled Monday.
“I was just waiting for the phone to ring,” he said. “Working out for seven hours a day. Driving myself crazy. Having conversations with my wife: ‘Where are we going to go? Where are we going to live?’ It sucks. It sucks. Everybody’s saying, ‘He got all this money, and he’s still complaining.’ Yeah, I get it. But it doesn’t change the human element of it. The emotions. The stress. It’s all real. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. We all suffer from the same emotions.”
In regards to Harper, he said, “Most people can’t get past the money. But if you eliminate that, it’s one of the most supremely talented players in our game today, one of the faces of the game, who doesn’t have a team.”
For much of last winter and this one, the union and the league have waged a war of words over which side is to blame for the free agent slowdown, with the players saying the offers have dried up — or, in some cases, have been in the same lowball range — and the league saying players and their agents have turned down offers or misread a marketplace that has shifted in the era of analytics.
“I don’t care if the commissioner wants to blame us, or we want to blame them,” Arrieta said. “Whoever is to blame, it’s just bad for our sport.”
Harper and Manny Machado were supposed to have been special cases — 26-year-old superstars who had their sights set on signing the biggest free agent contracts in U.S. sports history. Machado, in fact, did exactly that, signing a 10-year, $300 million deal with the San Diego Padres last week. But even their markets, at least from the outside, have appeared slow to develop — just as the ones for premium talents J.D. Martinez, Yu Darvish and Arrieta did last year, and pitchers Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel (both still unsigned) this year.
Harper, Arrieta, Martinez and Keuchel all have the same agent: Boras.
“Everybody thought, ‘Oh, this will correct itself,’” Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young winner with the Chicago Cubs, said of the industry reaction to last winter’s slowdown. “Everybody talked about how it’s going to go back to normal next year. BS. It’s not, and it didn’t. Teams are waiting for players to get desperate. That’s the way it is.
“Machado got the deal that, at least in my mind, everyone knew he was going to get. So what took so long? The notion that there are deals these players aren’t taking — I can tell you firsthand, it’s false. So it just stinks. It stinks for everyone. It stinks for the fans. It stinks for the free agents who are getting pushed out of the game. It stinks for the free agents who are supremely talented and have a lot to offer who aren’t in camp yet.”
Not so long ago, a young superstar such as Harper might have jumped at a shorter-term contract, at a presumably higher annual salary, with a team such as the Dodgers — because at the end of a four-year deal, theoretically speaking, he could reenter free agency at age 30 and, assuming he stayed healthy, cash in on a second massive deal. But with teams, some of them burned in the past by failed deals with older players, now largely staying away from free agents past age 30, that is no longer as appealing of an option.
“It’s definitely not a given” that the second big contract would materialize, Arrieta said. “Look, I know there have been a couple of deals in the last few years that were unfavorable for the team … But a big part of this game has always been taking risks. There’s no crystal ball. You pay guys based on what they’ve done in the past and what you project in the future.”
It’s easy to see the latest developments with Harper — the Phillies’ sustained interest, the Dodgers’ late push — and assume the end is very near. But the same has been said for weeks, and he remains unsigned. All it takes is one look at Arrieta, whose first anniversary of signing with the Phillies is still two weeks in the distance, to know how long it could drag out.
“I feel sorry for the guys going through it now,” Arrieta said. “Bryce is going to get taken care of, as Machado did. It’s just that it would be nice to see it happen sooner rather than later, so he can get in camp and get going.”
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