The dullest sports column is one that says: In a highly charged and controversial situation involving the largest contract in the history of American professional sports, everyone involved is acting courteously and wisely. Carry on.
In the case of Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals, we’re stuck with just such sensible, classy behavior on both sides. And both sides are benefiting.
According to The Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes, the Nats made a significant long-term contract offer to Harper on Sept. 26. He didn’t take it, but the Nats discussed terms for a new deal with Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, throughout September. Thus, groundwork has been laid and goodwill maintained.
Also, of huge importance to both, all public relations fences and private feelings remain in good order. Boras, his clients (such as Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg) and the Lerner family are always entwined. Next megadeal to consider: Anthony Rendon, who will be a free agent after 2019. Who is the Nats’ first significant offseason signing for $7 million, plus an option? Reliever Trevor Rosenthal, a Boras client. These folks flat out can’t afford a nasty fight.
My take — and hope — throughout this process has been that the Nats and Harper stay on good terms. The most likely case, just because so many scenarios are in play, is that some deal or sequence of deals gets done — the Nats sign a major free agent, or Harper gets a blow-away offer — that catalyzes a Harper departure in which no one is at fault. If so, that’s life. But don’t make Harper leave.
Because cheerful scenarios exist, too. If his best offers turn out to be from the St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies, as some now suspect, with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs or New York Yankees not top bidders, then the Nats want to be in that tussle. Does brash, flashy Bryce really want to spend his life playing before old-school Cardinals fans? Or with the total-rebuild Giants? The Phillies have cash, but after Harper has truly enjoyed seven years in D.C., is Philadelphia going to win that beauty pageant showdown?
The size of the Harper jackpot is still a mystery. While people close to the situation told Janes that the Nats’ offer was “aggressive” and one person termed it “historic,” it was less than the daydream number of $400 million that has floated around Harper for years. If you want to guess $300 million for 10 years, go ahead, but be aware that both the Nats and Boras want the highest possible number to be in circulation. That helps Boras drive up his client’s price; the Nats look fair no matter what happens and, come Rendon time, everybody’s happy.
The most candid words came from Mike Rizzo at the general managers’ meeting this week. “I’m comfortable with the alternative [to Harper re-signing],” Rizzo said, referring to the Nats’ ability to field an inexpensive but potentially very good outfield of Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Adam Eaton and Michael A. Taylor without Harper. “But I’m uncomfortable with the statement that we’re a better team without him.”
That’s true. But the Nats have an even more desperate need than Harper. They must add starting pitching if they are going to play in October while Scherzer is still excellent and signed through 2021. The Nats also need a quality reliever and, if they could afford it, upgrades at catcher and perhaps second base.
That’s why Rizzo also said, “It behooves us to have an expiration date” on waiting for Harper. The Nats will be negotiating on “parallel tracks” with free agents such as top southpaw starters Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel.
This auction class is so ridiculously deep at some positions of need, especially relievers of all types, solid back-end starters and second basemen, that the Nats’ free agent cash pile may be dished out on a first-grab, first-get basis. For example, D.J. LeMahieu, a three-time Gold Glove winner at second base who won the batting title in 2016 (at .348) and is still only 30, isn’t even listed among the top 25 free agents by MLB.com.
Without a doubt, the Nats’ big contract offer and the September talks improve their chances of retaining Harper. Harper and Boras now have a stake to put in the ground, establishing a minimum Harper value. Does that gift to Harper — because no deal offered Sept. 26 is likely to get done — come with an unspoken quid pro quo? Do the Nats now get the final phone call before any deal gets done?
The Nats have given Harper another negotiating gift with other teams. Their big offer is an endorsement of his character — on the field and off. The Nats know him best, vastly better than any other team possibly could, and they want him.
Now we enter baseball arcana. The Nats have done more than merely stay on friendly terms. In my view, based on last winter’s free agent market, the Nats now have an inherent advantage over any other team in signing Harper.
Because the Nats made a one-year qualifying offer to Harper last week, which he naturally rejected, any team that signs Harper as a free agent will be penalized — fairly severely. Only the Nats avoid such a penalty. How big is this “draft-pick forfeiture” for signing a free agent who has rejected a qualifying offer? Fortunately for our sanity, all the teams likely to go after Harper are in the same “forfeiture tier.” They would lose their second-highest pick in the 2019 draft and give up $500,000 in international bonus pool money.
That’s a lot of forfeiting.
How much is such a penalty worth in future lost wins above replacement (WAR) for those players you will never get to draft or sign? Every team’s analytics department would have a different number. But my estimate is that some teams put the career value of those lost players at $25 million to $50 million.
Since 1996, the Nats/Expos’ second-highest picks, who would have been forfeited in such a scenario, include future all-stars Milton Bradley and Brandon Phillips, as well as Drew Storen, Sammy Solis and Andrew Stephenson.
With international money, the Nats signed Victor Robles for $225,000, while Wilmer Difo, Reynaldo Lopez and Pedro Severino signed for about $100,000 combined. Juan Soto, their second-priciest international signing ever, got $1.5 million.
When the final Harper deal gets done, Team X would have to pay more than $250 million in salary while also losing a valuable draft pick and future international players, some of them possible standouts. The Nats would “only” have to fork over the cash. That’s called having an edge.
Who says that civility and mutual respect can’t be newsworthy? Harper and Boras just got their stake in the ground. And the Nats have shown Rendon and future homegrown players that they can play free agency in any of several ways. Like Ryan Zimmerman, they can sign two years early and be set for life with a $100 million extension. Like Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond, they can turn down deals worth more than $100 million a year or two early and take their chances on the direction of their careers. Like Strasburg, they can sign six months early, at a team discount, and have peace of mind in what would otherwise have been their walk year. Or they can go free agent, like Harper, and still get an honorable offer before they leave, which puts a floor under their value.
It says here that this is the way you do business if you want long-term success with smooth, respectful long-term relationships within your industry.
Harper may or may not play for the Nats again. But other than simply outbidding the universe, this is the way you maximize the chances that he will.