The Nationals had a deal in place to send Bryce Harper to Houston at the trade deadline in July before Mark Lerner killed it. Whether the Nats let Harper walk in free agency is one of biggest questions of the offseason. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Sports columnist

You can listen to what Mark Lerner said Friday about Bryce Harper — “I really don’t expect him to come back at this point” — and believe Lerner spoke honestly. The managing principal owner of the Washington Nationals — that title is now important, and we’ll get to why — rarely speaks expansively in public, so when he did Friday on 106.7 the Fan, it resonated.

The problem: I don’t believe it. Not for a minute.

Now, that doesn’t mean Lerner lied or even bent the truth. That’s not how he operates. The feeling has been trickling through all levels of the Nationals for, oh, maybe even six years: Bryce Harper enjoyed his time in Washington, but he ultimately will move on. That moving on may even occur this week in, of all places, Harper’s hometown of Las Vegas, where baseball’s winter meetings began in earnest Monday.

We can all agree that both Harper and the Nationals have handled their (potential) separation flawlessly to this point. Here’s where I dissent: That separation hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it will this week. But it hasn’t happened. Not close.

A quick review of what Lerner said Friday in his candid interview with Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier: He talked about the Nationals’ 10-year, $300 million offer to Harper and not only framed it as the best the Nationals can do but also reasoned that there would be “just too much money out there that he’d be leaving on the table” should Harper accept what would be the richest contract ever issued a free agent.

“We just couldn’t afford to put more than that in and still be able to put a team together that had a chance to win the NL East or go farther than that,” Lerner said.

Um, how to put this? I disagree.

We know the Nats figured they could afford $30 million a year over a decade for Harper. They couldn’t afford $35 million annually, particularly with the way they kick the financial can down the road with their penchant for deferring money in their largest contracts? Of course they could.

Lerner and the Nats would say, with justification, that such a vast amount of money committed annually to one player limits how much you could commit to others. With nine-figure contracts already issued to right-handers Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg as well as new lefty Patrick Corbin — not to mention a hoped-for extension with third baseman Anthony Rendon and perhaps even shortstop Trea Turner — is there enough money to go around? My gosh, the competitive balance (luxury) tax!

To the Lerners’ credit: They generally don’t scrimp on payroll, particularly the big-ticket items. According to spotrac.com, over the past five seasons, the Nats have ranked eighth, fifth, 15th, seventh and fifth in total payroll. They’re not the Dodgers or the Red Sox, but they’re not the Rays or the Royals, either. They will spend to win.

When the Nationals traded veterans such as Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez in August, much was made of the fact that they didn’t get back under the luxury-tax threshold. That may have been a gaffe. But here’s a secret. Shhhhh, don’t tell ownership: The competitive balance tax doesn’t really matter.

The threshold for the tax, which is meant to keep big-market teams from spending their way to championships, rises from $197 million last season to $206 million in 2019 and $210 million by 2021, the last year covered by the current collective bargaining agreement.

Exceeding the luxury tax sounds scary, right? That’s what MLB wants it to sound like. But keep in mind: A team is only taxed for every dollar it spends over the limit. First-time offenders pay 20 percent on the overage. Break the limit in a second consecutive year, and it’s a 30 percent charge. And if you’re a consistent big spender, you’re paying 50 percent on that overage because you have exceeded the threshold for three or more consecutive years.

A couple of things: First, a team that spends a single season under the threshold resets its clock. That’s important. But this is more important: Say a team spends $220 million on payroll in 2019. It sounds like an extravagant sum, and — given only the Red Sox exceeded that amount in 2018 — it is.

But the tax on that: 20 percent of $14 million (the amount over the $206 million limit). That’s all of $2.8 million — not even enough to buy a quality veteran reliever in free agency.

My point: In evaluating the financial ramifications of signing any player, at least diminish — and perhaps even dismiss — the impact of the competitive balance tax. A team whose public rationale for failing to procure a player was because it would have been pushed over the threshold is making a choice. Nothing more.

Which is a long-winded way of getting back to Harper and saying: The Nationals could do this. Still.

From the perspective of Harper and his agent, Scott Boras: Why, at this stage, would they eliminate any team? It’s not in their interest — at all — particularly because there is only a finite number of potential suitors. Saying “goodbye” to anyone further limits the candidates to drive the market up.

It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario in which Boras and Harper get a good, solid offer on the table from another team and they don’t come back to the Nats to say: “Here’s what we have. What say you?”

Maybe, as Lerner suggested, they will say, “We’re sorry; we can’t make it work,” and the two sides will indeed walk in opposite directions. That’s entirely possible.

But know this, too: When General Manager Mike Rizzo put in place a deal to trade Harper to the Houston Astros at the July nonwaiver trade deadline, he needed ownership to approve it. Several members of the Lerner family, which works by consensus, signed off. The person who didn’t, according to two people with knowledge of the team’s inner workings: Mark Lerner. He killed the deal.

Lerner is newly in control of the Nationals, having taken the title of managing principal partner from his father, Ted, over the summer. It took him exactly one trade deadline to flex his muscle within the family, keeping Harper when baseball operations had signed off on trading him.

So what if Harper’s camp comes back to the Nats and says, “The Phillies are offering 10 years for $350 million”? This is an outfit that’s going to let its homegrown star walk to a team within the division over $5 million a year?

Maybe. But maybe not.

Harper may not spend the next decade in Washington. It’s probably more likely he signs elsewhere than here. Maybe someone brings to the table a sum that makes us all think, “Well, the Nats would be crazy to match it.” I get all that.

But count me as skeptical that Lerner’s words in a radio interview — an excellent radio interview, at that — mean the discussions are over. If Harper plays elsewhere, it will be the Nats’ choice to allow him to do so. Can the owner who already killed one such deal really stomach watching the kid this organization raised do damage against his old team for the next decade?

I just don’t think it’s that simple. And I don’t think it’s over.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.