Spring training isn’t in the future. It is here. And Bryce Harper’s offer from the Washington Nationals isn’t current. It has expired. He is a man who, for right now, has no team. He is, as agents like to say, “going through the process” of figuring out where he will work. The process should have been over long ago.
Will it end with the Nationals? Until Harper signs elsewhere, that question hangs over the opening of the club’s spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla. But know this: The baseball operations department of the Nats, led by General Manager Mike Rizzo, has moved on. They built their club to contend in the National League East without Harper. They added two starting pitchers , two key bullpen pieces, two catchers and a second baseman. They believe in what they have. Let’s go.
This isn’t to say Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, and Ted Lerner, the patriarch of the family that owns the Nats, won’t come to some sort of agreement. That’s how Max Scherzer became a National, after all (not to mention Rafael Soriano).
But what we’re doing right now is guessing, guessing when we should have certainty. We don’t know where Harper will play. We don’t know where Manny Machado will play. Here’s what we can agree on: This is bad for baseball.
Naturally, this plight has caught the attention of players, who are worried that the increased revenue in the sport — it’s a $10 billion business these days — isn’t showing up in increased contract values. Why, here’s former American League Cy Young winner and MVP Justin Verlander on Twitter on Monday:
“100 or so free agents left unsigned. System is broken. They blame ‘rebuilding’ but that’s BS. You’re telling me you couldn’t sign Bryce or Manny for 10 years and go from there? Seems like a good place to start a rebuild to me. 26-36 is a great performance window too.”
And that’s reasonable. I have written about it before, and I still believe it: Teams should make an honest effort at trying to win. Players should receive a fair share of revenue — particularly because the alternative is that the money stays with the owners.
But I also have spoken with three general managers, and they describe an environment that doesn’t necessarily align with what the players are describing.
First off, what’s the pool of players with value? Not Joaquin Benoit or Chris Tillman. Players who could help you win.
“There aren’t 100 free agents out there who anyone would want,” one GM said. He looked at the board in his office and said there were “maybe 10” who had real value — at any price.
This makes some sense. Yes, as camps open across the sport, there are nearly 100 free agent players who are seeking work. Harper and Machado are the headliners. But look at it this way: Last year, the average on-base-plus-slugging percentage for non-pitchers across the majors was .740. Other than Bryce and Manny, how many of the remaining free agents had at least 100 plate appearances and posted an OPS better than that number in 2018? That would be five: Derek Dietrich (.751), Carlos Gonzalez (.796), Robbie Grossman (.751), Mike Moustakas (.774) and Denard Span (.760). (Four, now that Grossman reportedly has signed with Oakland.)
There’s more depth remaining in the pitching market, where beyond the front-line starter (Dallas Keuchel) and closer (Craig Kimbrel), 14 other players, mostly relievers, beat the MLB average ERA of 4.15. So, yeah, a team could be helped by bringing in Bud Norris or Tony Sipp or Sergio Romo (who reportedly has agreed to a deal with Miami). But it’s not like there are 100 game-changers out there.
Another issue, described by all three GMs: agents who aren’t serving their clients well. Now, this is an incomplete evaluation, and maybe Harper will get north of $300 million and Machado will end up with more than $250 million, and then who’s to say the agents didn’t perform well?
But what these three general managers describe are agents who come to teams saying their clients are worthy of everyday roles when the clubs see them as platoon players. Or the agents argue that their player in his early 30s is ascendant, when the clubs, in general, believe that the mid-30s represent a point of decline.
The point the GMs make: The agents are trying to define the market by sheer will, not by what the market is saying.
The market for all those players, though, doesn’t hang over Nationals camp. Harper does. Because until he signs elsewhere, you can’t say with 100 percent certainty he won’t sign here. The Nats’ 10-year, $300 million offer to Harper is the only real offer we know of. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t exist anymore.
According to people with knowledge of the Nats’ thinking, they made their push to retain their own player before Harper entered free agency — when they were the only team allowed to negotiate with the star they drafted and developed. But the Nats had to know Harper’s intentions then so they could go about building their roster.
Harper wanted to check out free agency, which was his hard-earned right. So the Nats went about building a team without him, which was theirs. In short, it’s highly unlikely that the Nats would have signed lefty Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million deal had they owed Harper $30 million a year for the next decade.
There’s a side issue for the Nats, too: Anthony Rendon. The third baseman is entering his final year before free agency. People within Washington’s organization believe signing Rendon to an extension is a priority this spring, and it’s hard to argue. Since Rendon came to the big leagues in 2013, he has amassed 25.8 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. Harper’s WAR in that time: 26.3.
Could the Nats afford both? Probably not.
Spring training is starting. Bryce Harper is unsigned. The system may be broken, but the Nationals are not. Maybe, over the course of the next week or so, we will start focusing on who’s in camps rather than who’s not, which is the way it should be by mid-February anyway.