If Bryce Harper had a time machine, we all know what he would do. Or, rather, plenty of us think we know what he would do. He would have negotiated with the Nationals in September and October, gotten Washington to increase its first offer of $300 million for 10 years by a smidgen, then signed to become a career Nat.
Harper never would have become a free agent at all. He would be filthy rich and happy in a town that loved his power, personality and flair — a city that gave him a dozen standing ovations for winning the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game. And he would get to continue playing before a fan base that shrugged off his flaws in fundamentals as part of the Total Bryce Package — a very nice package indeed.
That’s not what happened.
Harper now appears on the verge of signing the least-satisfying $300 million deal in the history of money. He has himself and agent Scott Boras to thank.
When Harper appears soon for his news conference with, probably, the Philadelphia Phillies, he will say all the enthusiastic, perhaps even jubilant, things that are required of a free agent who has just signed a 10-year contract. Maybe he will get a few percent more than the Nats’ $300 million offer or maybe not quite as much.
But no one ever will convince me that Harper, if he had known everything five months ago that he knows now, would not have worked out a deal in D.C.
And no one ever will convince me that Boras hasn’t done one of the worst jobs of any agent in misjudging the free agent market, leading his client into a box canyon — and finding no way out.
Harper and Boras followed a playbook that has worked for 40 years. No one told them there is a new final chapter with a heck of a surprise twist.
Some in Major League Baseball have believed the rumors — who possibly could have encouraged them? — that the Nats would circle back to Harper and give him the option to return to the team for which he had played his whole career. That is a very bad bet.
On Friday, Nats principal owner Mark Lerner reiterated almost verbatim what he told a local radio station 10 weeks ago. “Nothing’s certainly changed on our end,” Lerner said to NBC Sports Washington. “We’ve moved on. . . . There was no way we could wait around. . . . We wish [Harper] nothing but the best.”
Then, as a decent gesture toward Boras — who also represents Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, among others — Lerner added the perfunctory sop: “There’s always that ‘the door’s cracked a little bit.’ I have no clue at this point what they’re up to. We really haven’t heard from them in a couple months.”
Haven’t heard from them in a couple of months?! There’s your “tell.”
At least for now, the only other teams outside Philadelphia showing interest in Harper are the 100-loss Chicago White Sox, whose top bid to Machado was “only” $250 million in guaranteed money, and the 89-loss San Francisco Giants, who face a long rebuilding process because cornerstones Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner seem past their primes.
Harper and Boras have one very large consolation in their stare-down with the Phillies. The Phillies have had a wonderful winter, adding catcher J.T. Realmuto, shortstop Jean Segura, reliever David Robertson and outfielder Andrew McCutchen while essentially only subtracting first baseman Carlos Santana. With Harper, the Phillies might win the National League East. If they find the money to sign lefty Dallas Keuchel, too, they might go to the World Series.
Harper has a chance to go to one of the great traditional, baseball-loving cities and play in a cozy ballpark that, in 50 games in the past, has cost him some batting-average points but also given him a few extra homers. Philly fans are famous for booing, but they throw good parades and love their heroes — once they accept you.
The Phillies also have excellent prospects, so why hasn’t Harper already signed? Is he screaming, “Nooooo?” Is he waiting for Ted Lerner to say, “Come home?”
As I have written before, Harper is not coming back to the Nats, according to sources in the front office, Nats players themselves who have analyzed how much the team has spent this winter, and even Lerner family friends who have been told that “Harper isn’t coming back.”
There is only one person who has not confirmed this: Ted Lerner. And he’s the only one who could say “yes” to a $300 million deal.
So all normal reporting — for months — has said that the Nats are out on Harper and have not engaged with him at all, other than a social visit before Christmas initiated by Harper’s side. However, Lerner and Boras have done major deals on which they were the only people involved. That’s why normally responsible reporters continue to throw the Nats’ name in the pot: “The game ain’t over until Ted doesn’t sing.”
My smart editors ask me: Why can’t the Nats just do a short-term deal at high dollars with Harper? Like three or four years at $35 million or more per year?
They could. But here’s why it probably would be bad baseball business to hamstring themselves that way:
Right now, the Nats have a roster and salary structure that works, at least in theory, for the entire five-year time frame in which they always do their planning.
As matters now stand, the Nats can afford to sign Anthony Rendon to a five-year extension through 2024 that probably falls between the $110 million and $163 million deals of J.D. Martinez and Jose Altuve. We will see whether they get it done. But when teams plan their futures, they make assumptions: The Nats want Rendon.
Max Scherzer’s current deal expires after 2021. Trea Turner becomes a free agent after 2022. The Nats appear positioned to re-sign (or replace) Scherzer and, in addition, go to the $100 million range for Turner, who is an all-star-level shortstop in their eyes. Those three moves may cost the Nats $350 million between now and the end of the 2022 season.
That’s on top of all of this winter’s new salary commitments, which may run as high as $240 million. Right now, at least on paper, the Nats could get it all done.
But if you throw a $35 million-a-year, luxury-tax-exploding Harper contract into the mix, then the Nats never get to reset their luxury-tax penalties to zero. Instead, they get hammered with higher penalties every year.
This winter, every imaginable factor — and some unimagined ones — have worked against Harper and Boras. A few months ago, it seemed almost ridiculous for them not to test the free agent market. Harper has wanted that experience since he was a teenager.
The Nats made what, in retrospect, was a fair market offer to Harper. But, just as the Nats moved on when Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann rejected nine-figure offers for contact extensions — by trading for Turner and signing Scherzer — the team also moved on quickly from Harper, too.
Harper may win multiple World Series titles and MVP awards in Philadelphia. This isn’t a story with a preordained unhappy ending for either him or the Nats.
But when the history of free agency is written, there may be no more stunning and unexpected chapter than the offseason when Bryce Harper became a free agent and assumed the whole baseball world would bid for him — but only the Phillies did.
And maybe for no more money than he already had in hand if he had done nothing.