But it’s not just Rendon. The Lerner Way has already affected Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Eventually, it could touch Trea Turner and Juan Soto and Victor Robles. And the Lerner Way is this: Why would we pay you a dollar now if we could pay you that dollar in a year? Or a decade? Or a generation?
There’s one thing I feel bad about in the Harper saga, and it’s this: We reported, time and again, that the Nationals had made a 10-year, $300 million offer. That wasn’t wrong. But it wasn’t exactly right, either. The lesson here, which we should have learned long ago: When we report on a Washington offer to a player, we need to know more than just the years and the dollars. We need to know about the deferrals.
This Nats’ approach to Harper was first reported Thursday, but it’s worth lingering over even now that he’s gone because of its potential relationship to future negotiations. Two people with knowledge of the Nationals’ September offer to Harper — an offer made before the start of free agency — said the amount of deferred money was unprecedented. One person said it was $100 million, and that Harper wouldn’t see all the money until he was 60. Another described Major League Baseball as being hesitant to endorse such a deal.
The sides quarreled over how much money the offer was worth in present-day dollars. The point is this: It’s how the Lerners do business.
We know the Nationals have successfully negotiated two contracts with clients of Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, that have included deferrals: the January 2015 free agent deal for Scherzer and the May 2016 extension for Strasburg. Those deals both include significant deferrals. According to a copy of the terms obtained by The Washington Post, for instance, Scherzer’s 2019 salary is $35 million, all of which is deferred without interest. (Don’t feel bad for Scherzer, though: He has a $50 million signing bonus that is spread out over the course of the deal, so it’s not like he’s making no money this year.) Strasburg’s 2019 salary is $25 million — $10 million of which is deferred without interest.
The difference that allowed those deals, each for seven years, to be consummated: Both Strasburg and Scherzer will be paid all of their money within seven years of the end of the contract. Neither will be 60. That’s not the way other clubs do business, but it’s not a dealbreaker, either.
Harper’s deal with the Phillies, according to two people with knowledge of the contract, is “front-loaded.” It includes, according to one person familiar with it, a $20 million signing bonus that Harper will have when the ink dries.
Why does that matter? Because the Lerners’ strategy is to take the dollar they’re not paying a player today and invest it to make more money themselves. That’s sound, and they’re billionaires because they think that way. But from a player’s perspective, it inarguably devalues an offer.
Remember: This isn’t new. It’s modus operandi in Washington. Three offseasons ago, the Nats pursued, to varying degrees, free agent outfielders Jason Heyward and Yoenis Cespedes and utility man Ben Zobrist. They lost on all three, and deferrals came into play. Cespedes, for instance, was offered a five-year, $110 million contract by Washington but took a three-year, $75 million deal from the New York Mets. Why? The Nats were going to pay out that $110 million over 10 years.
Which is a meandering way to get back to Rendon. Even without Harper, the Nats have a formidable roster. I’m never going to fall into the trap of thinking they’re better without him — fill out a lineup with him in there, and then one without, and tell me the second is somehow better. But their core going forward — in which I’d include Scherzer, Strasburg, Rendon, Turner, Soto, Robles, lefty Patrick Corbin and closer Sean Doolittle — remains outstanding.
There is, then, the question of who would be better to keep: Harper or Rendon? That’s no longer an option. They can only try to retain one. And for all I believe in Harper’s ability, and the fact that I think his best years are ahead of him and not behind, there are some realities here.
Rendon and Harper were teammates for six seasons, from 2013 to 2018. In four of those seasons, Rendon posted more wins above replacement — whether measured by baseball-reference or FanGraphs — than Harper did. I still find WAR to be murky, because the defensive element tries to quantify something that I’m not convinced can be absolutely quantified. What’s not murky: Rendon is a superior third baseman, and Harper is no longer a superior outfielder.
The point: The Nats should, and do, want Rendon on their team going forward. It’s also worth remembering what Rendon said to kick off this spring training: He employs Boras, not the other way around. Read that as a contrast to who was driving the Harper-Boras train if you will. The words matter.
“What everyone has the misconception of is they think that we work for Scott,” Rendon said. “Like, no. That’s not the way it works. Like, I’m telling him how it’s going, and you can ask him. We’ve gotten [into] some jibber-jabbers before, too. Like, I’m paying him.”
Right now, Rendon is paying Boras to engage in whatever talks both sides find worthwhile. But what we learned from the Harper saga — I’m sorry, learned again — is that numbers from the Nats aren’t necessarily the numbers of and by themselves, and that Washington’s baseball team conducts its business differently. That doesn’t mean it can’t build a competitive roster or retain the players it drafted and developed. It just means we should look askance at any offer until we know the details.
For more Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.