On Friday, the Washington Nationals formally introduced their new $140 million, free agent pitcher, Patrick Corbin, at Nationals Park. Then afterward, principal owner Mark Lerner informally, almost casually, said goodbye to Bryce Harper on a local radio show, adding, “We thank him for his time here.”
The last of many dots in the Harper-Washington saga was finally connected Tuesday when the Nationals stunned much of the baseball world by outbidding the Yankees and Phillies by more than $30 million to close a deal that the team felt fixed its most fundamental flaw: its need for a top-flight left-hander to be its No. 3 starter.
“Will the Nats have enough money left to sign Harper?” some asked.
The Nats and Harper have been doing a mutually respectful dance of disentanglement for two years, pretty much since the day Washington traded for outfielder Adam Eaton, who remains under team control for three more seasons and was seen as a future replacement for Harper — if necessary. Since then, both sides, no matter how much the Nats genuinely appreciate Harper and no matter how much Bryce truly likes D.C., have known where this was trending.
The Nats have plenty of needs. But spending the offseason waiting to see whether a player they think is worth $300 million can be re-signed for $400 million isn’t one of them.
For his part, Harper has branded himself, saying he wanted to be to baseball what LeBron James is to the NBA. Becoming the highest-paid MLB player ever — whether or not he’s one of the top five players in the game — has always been a huge goal. At 26, with flair, hair, an MVP award and Scott Boras for an agent, who can blame him for wanting to find out?
On Friday, what some have known but were too appreciative, strategic or respectful of the other side to express in public finally came out into the open. The Nats and Harper had great fun together, but it’s Splitsville. Time to see other people.
“I don’t really expect [Harper] to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on,” Lerner said on 106.7 the Fan, adding that, at this point, the Nats “probably” wouldn’t be able to match the 10-year, $300 million deal that Harper declined in September — not even if Harper wanted to return.
The reason: Such a price, after the addition of Corbin, would crimp the Nats’ payroll too much to remain a consistent, perennial contender.
“We handled it perfectly,” a Nationals decision-maker said.
This is the finale of a two-year balancing act in which the Nats have planned a viable future without Harper while leaving the door open for him to re-sign — as Stephen Strasburg did.
In September, the Nationals showed Harper the respect of a huge contract — although at a significant team discount — if he really wanted to stay in Washington for another decade. That offer also was a kind of going-away gift to Harper — a stake for him and Boras to put in the ground for other teams to beat, as well as an endorsement of the Nationals’ approval of Harper, the person.
However, the offer was also late enough and low enough that the team knew Harper would never take it. Just as Harper knew that his September professions of love for all things D.C. were too little, too late to ignite a deal. Both sides were setting the stage for a graceful separation. Because both sides knew this was coming.
In September, in the Nationals’ clubhouse, Harper said to me, “I just don’t know if I’m in their plans for the future.”
I thought: “If you don’t know by now, then that means you aren’t. And you’ve known it for quite a while.”
Don’t give Harper a cynicism Oscar. He really is a bit sad. But not so sad that he doesn’t want to find out all about free agency.
“There’s just too much money out there that he’d be leaving on the table,” Lerner said on 106.7, speculating that the outfielder might get as much as $100 million more than the Nats offered. “That’s just not Mr. Boras’s MO, to leave money on the table.”
Why would an owner be so candid so early in the offseason? It’s just Lerner being honest.
What we really have here is the emergence of Mark Lerner as the central public voice — and crucial private influence — in the Nats’ decision-making.
So far, so very good.
Lerner’s involvement in offseason decisions has been one key to the Nats’ ability to add five vital pieces to their roster puzzle before the winter meetings even arrive. He and General Manager Mike Rizzo have been a tight unit. “I like to act and not react,” Rizzo said Friday.
While some teams have barely touched their problems, the Nats have addressed their three greatest areas of concern, adding catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough, and a fine southpaw starter in Corbin, who was the prize free agent pitcher of this offseason.
Lerner and Rizzo made such a strong impression on Corbin that their dinner together contributed to the left-hander’s quick decision to sign here. “You can’t overstate the importance of the impression Mark made. He’s so genuine. When he speaks about what he and his family want to do for the team, for Washington and for his father, you believe him completely,” one person close to Corbin said.
That sixth season — a year at which the Yankees and Phillies were believed to have balked — on Corbin’s $140 million contract certainly helped.
The Nats may have had some luck in landing Corbin, too. In exploring D.C. but with no intention of connecting with any Nationals, Corbin and his wife, Jen, ran into Ryan Zimmerman and his wife on a date together — out on the town with no toddlers in tow. Not a bad look. They talked for almost an hour, with Zimmerman, apparently, being an excellent accidental ambassador for the team.
Since the Nationals traded three strong pitching prospects to the White Sox for Eaton two years ago, there has been anticipation of significant change this offseason. Getting Eaton was an insurance policy should Harper leave. But other key players, such as Gio Gonzalez and Daniel Murphy, also were due to hit free agency this winter.
Plans have been laid for a long time. But one crucial development has been the return to health of Lerner, who was seriously ill for almost a year and had a leg amputated as he battled cancer in 2017. His assumption of the lead role comes at just the right time to follow his father.
One member of Corbin’s group recalled the scenes at dinner. Rizzo began pointing his finger across the table at Corbin, jabbing it at him. In the salty, direct language of ballplayers, Rizzo first told the pitcher why the Nats wanted him so much, then flipped the script and told Corbin why he should want to be with the Nationals. Other teams had been a bit artificial or practiced in their presentations. Not Rizzo.
Lerner — sincere, natural and the most unpretentious of owners — started to talk. Then he got rolling, about the team, the town, his elderly father and how serious his franchise was about finally getting to the top.
“Athletes respond to emotion. And they can tell what’s real,” a member of the Corbin party said.
Now Patrick Corbin is in the Washington rotation. And with the team no longer worried about Harper casting a shadow over its present and plans, the Nationals — and Lerner — don’t seem finished yet.