LAS VEGAS - Mark Lerner’s surprising, if honest, revelation last week that he expects Bryce Harper to sign with another club this winter was met with understandably strong emotions from all those invested in the most significant free agent storyline of the offseason.
But within the Nationals front office, it was viewed less as a firm declaration of the club’s resignation to move on from Harper and more as an off-the-cuff remark from the man wielding the most power in the organization.
So the message other club officials are now projecting as the Winter Meetings play out here in Las Vegas is far less definitive than the message their owner projected on Friday.
“I’ve been doing this way too long to speculate what is done and what’s not done,” general manager Mike Rizzo said today in an on-camera interview with “MASN All-Access.” “I don’t know. Mark Lerner doesn’t know. Bryce Harper doesn’t really know where he’s going, what team he’s going to sign with.
“Bryce is a terrific guy who I have a great affinity for. He’s been with me a long time and he’s been a part of the real core of the Nationals. But Mark was asked to speculate on the radio station. He speculated, and he shot from his heart and said what he thought. But it’s just speculation. I’m not going to speculate, and I don’t think anyone can speculate until you’re in Harp and Kayla’s head. And maybe they don’t even know where he’s going to end up yet. It’s still early in the process. But I never close the door on those type of things. And we haven’t yet.”
The actual market for Harper has been tougher to discern than most would have hoped at the outset of the offseason. The Nationals made a formal offer to the 26-year-old slugger - confirmed to be 10 years for $300 million - in late September. Harper, who wouldn’t officially become a free agent for another six weeks, unsurprisingly declined the offer.
Since then, multiple teams have set the stage to meet with the Harpers and agent Scott Boras, and more face-to-face meetings are expected here this week (though not on-site at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino).
At the same time, potential suitors from the Dodgers to the Cubs to the Yankees to the Giants have been spreading messages that suggest they’re not as interested as originally thought. To that list you can now add the Phillies, the team widely assumed in position to submit the largest bid for Harper.
Though they still “maintain interest” in Harper and plan to meet with him this week, NBC Sports Philadelphia reported today that the Phillies “at the moment seem to be more on Manny Machado than Harper.”
There’s a long way yet to go this winter, and who knows how the Nationals might still fit into this delicate dance of teams trying to show interest - but not too much interest - in Harper. But does anyone really believe Boras won’t come back to the Nats before this is all said and done and give them another opportunity?
“Harp loves Washington, he loves playing there,” Rizzo said. “The fan base loves him. It would be speculation to answer that, but I don’t see why he wouldn’t.”