Bryce Harper, arguably the most visible and marketed face of the Washington Nationals, was a no-show Saturday at the team’s annual NatsFest, and General Manager Mike Rizzo did not hide his displeasure.
Harper and the Nationals are scheduled to take part in a grievance hearing over his eligibility for arbitration Tuesday in New York.
“We’re disappointed he’s not here,” Rizzo told reporters Saturday, “but he chose not to be here because of the grievance.”
“I have attended NatsFest each year and always enjoy my experience with the fans,” Harper, 22, countered in a statement provided by his representatives, “but was unable to attend this year’s event due to matters out of my control. I look forward to next year’s NatsFest.”
Earlier in the week, Rizzo acknowledged that the Nationals wanted to avoid a hearing with the outfielder and his agent, Scott Boras, because of the animosity it could create. His remark Saturday was unusually strong for a general manager discussing a team’s rising young star at an event tailored for its fans.
The dispute goes back to the day Harper signed with the Nationals. He has logged enough service time to qualify for arbitration as a “Super 2,” a player who ranks in the top 22 percent of players with between two and three years of service time. But Harper’s five-year major league draft contract, signed at the last minute before the deadline in August 2010, muddles whether he can become eligible for arbitration. Nearly all major league draft contracts used to include an opt-out clause that allowed players to enter the arbitration process rather than take the salary prescribed in their draft deal. But that is no longer allowed.
Given the choice, Harper would opt for arbitration. His draft deal stipulates he will earn $1.5 million in base salary in 2015. In arbitration, Harper is projected to make around $2.5 million.
The Nationals contend that an opt-out clause was not included in Harper’s contract. Boras says the Nationals verbally agreed to include the clause at the deadline. The difference in 2015 salary may be $1 million, but in arbitration salaries compound each year and many more millions could be at stake.
The Nationals and Harper still could reach a settlement before Tuesday’s hearing. The case will be heard by a three-person panel consisting of a Major League Baseball representative (likely vice president and deputy general counsel of labor relations Patrick Houlihan), a players’ union representative (perhaps general counsel David Prouty) and MLB chief arbitrator Frederic Horowitz.
The panel likely won’t rule immediately, but it would be expected to deliver a decision as soon as possible because arbitration figures are scheduled to be exchanged Jan. 16.
Harper played left field last season, but he’ll move to right next year, swapping positions with Jayson Werth. Werth attended NatsFest but did not talk to reporters. The veteran was convicted Dec. 5 of reckless driving and was sentenced to 10 days in jail; his attorney said he plans to appeal.
“Werth is here, and he’s going to be all over the place,” said Rizzo, who acknowledged it was his call to keep Werth from the media.
“We’ve got a lot of things scheduled for him. . . . He’s going to be around and visit with the fans, and I think that’s the important part of what he should be doing.”
Also Saturday, ESPN.com reported that the Toronto Blue Jays had expressed interest in hiring Rizzo as team president and CEO. Rizzo, however, denied any interest in the job.
“I have not been contacted by the Toronto Blue Jays,” he said. “My sole focus is on the Washington Nationals and bringing a World Series [title] to the District.”
Rizzo is under contract with the Nationals and would need permission from ownership to talk to another team.
Rizzo joins a list of successful executives who have been linked to the Blue Jays. Reports have mentioned Baltimore’s Dan Duquette, Minnesota’s Terry Ryan and Chicago’s Kenny Williams among potential candidates to replace Paul Beeston, who still holds his position.
Rizzo joined the Nationals in 2007 as an assistant general manager in charge of scouting. He helped build the Nationals’ farm system and became general manager in 2009 after Jim Bowden resigned following a scandal in the Dominican Republic.
Rizzo oversaw a transformation of the Nationals’ major and minor league teams with trades, free agent signings and strong drafts. He was given the title of president in August 2013 and handed a long-term extension. The details of that extension are not known.