As we transition into offseason mode around here, we’re going to spend a few days looking at the most pressing offseason storylines for the Nationals. And there’s no debate that the single most pressing storyline involves the guy who was the pre-eminent storyline of the entire season.
You know the deal with Bryce Harper by now. No sense rehashing his wild 2018 campaign. Or trying to read the tea leaves from what he said over the last week as he simultaneously gushed about the only professional franchise he’s ever played for while also making it clear he may well be playing for another one next spring.
Let’s instead try to map out how this process will now play out, because it’s almost certainly not going to be quick or simple.
The pertinent ground rules: Harper, like every other major league veteran whose contract expires, won’t officially become a free agent until the conclusion of the World Series. That’s at least four weeks from now, four weeks during which only the Nationals are allowed to negotiate with him. (With regard to that: Two sources said over the weekend the front office, led by ownership, was making plans to meet with Harper and agent Scott Boras in Las Vegas before he hits the open market, though a third source said no meetings have been scheduled at this point.)
After the World Series ends, teams have a five-day window to make qualifying offers to their free agents. We don’t know the exact amount for this year’s offers, but it’s the mean of the top 125 salaries in baseball. Last year, that was $17.4 million. This year, it should go up a bit.
Players then have 10 days to either accept or decline the qualifying offer, though keep in mind they are also free to begin negotiating with other teams during this period. There won’t be any drama here, because there’s no way Harper (who made $21.625 million this season) is going to accept a one-year deal to return to the Nationals for less money.
Once Harper declines the qualifying offer, though, the Nats ensure they get some compensation if they lose him to another team. That compensation may not be so great. The new system included in the most recent collective bargaining agreement is complicated, but it boils down to this: If the 2018 Nationals stayed under the luxury tax, they’ll get a compensatory pick just before the third round of next year’s draft. If they went over the luxury tax, the compensatory pick won’t come until after the fourth round.
It hasn’t been officially determined yet if the Nationals went over the luxury tax this year - the trades they made in August moved them close to it, but even club officials didn’t know if it would be enough - but even in a best-case scenario, they won’t get anything better than roughly the 75th pick in the draft in exchange for losing Harper.
Does any of that mean the Nationals are going to be more motivated to re-sign Harper than they would if they got a higher draft pick? Probably not. There are far more significant factors going into this eventual decision.
The Nats front office - and in this case, it really means ownership more than the baseball operations department - has to decide just how much it’s willing to offer Harper. We’ve heard all kinds of numbers thrown out there for several years now, all of it speculation. We don’t truly know what it’s going to take to sign Harper, because it all depends on how many teams get into the bidding and how high any one of them is willing to go.
Here’s an important thing to keep in mind, though: Don’t obsess too much over the big number that represents the total value of the contract. Boras is almost certainly going to insist that there is at least one opt-out included in the deal, maybe two. This is how he tends to negotiate for his top-tier free agents. For example: Stephen Strasburg’s seven-year, $175 million deal gives him the right to opt out after either year three (2019) or year four (2020).
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing from the Nationals’ perspective. If the Lerners are wary about committing a record amount of money to Harper over a decade, they could agree to an opt-out and hope to get three or four of Harper’s peak seasons in their uniform at a more reasonable price and then let him walk away after that. The risk, of course, would be Harper suffering a major injury or underperforming to the point he’s better off sticking with the original contract, leaving the Nats on the hook for the whole thing.
What will the market this winter look like for Harper? Again, up until now there’s been plenty of speculation about pursuers, but it seems safe to say there will be several of them, and the majority will be the elite, big-name franchises of the sport.
The Cubs, Dodgers and Yankees probably top the list, though in each case there is some question whether said team will be fully invested in pursuing Harper, either because of the roster already in place or disinterest in giving him a record-setting deal over someone else (in-house or free agent). All three would be appealing destinations for Harper, whose priorities will include the opportunity to win, the opportunity to have more big-name bats around him in the lineup and the opportunity to create a long-term home in a city that is appealing to him and his family.
The Giants and Phillies, by all accounts, are going to be very interested in Harper, with plenty of money to spend and serious need for a big bat to anchor their lackluster lineups. The question is whether Harper wants to go to a franchise that isn’t guaranteed to win right away. That could be a significant drawback in his mind.
The Rangers, Diamondbacks and Braves also have been spitballed as potential suitors. Any of those warm-weather cities might be appealing to the Harpers, but nobody’s confusing those for iconic franchises (at least not on the level of the others in the mix) and all would be seen as gambles on Harper’s part. (Plus, can you even imagine Atlanta fans and broadcasters, after finding every excuse in the book to hate on Harper for the last seven years, suddenly falling in love with him?)
And then there are the Nationals. The affection between the organization and Harper is genuine. Both sides have treated the other exceptionally well over the years. And if there is a breakup, it probably won’t be a nasty one. But maybe there doesn’t need to be a breakup. Maybe Harper will decide this is where he wanted to be all along, that Washington offers him the only opportunity to become the rarest of the rares in modern baseball: the superstar who spends his entire career with one franchise.
But would that be the smartest move for the Nationals? Forget about how anyone feels about Harper and consider this purely from a baseball perspective. This team has multiple holes that need to be filled (starting pitching, catching, second base, relief pitching). The money that would need to be spent to keep Harper could be spent to address several of those other needs. And with Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Adam Eaton and Michael A. Taylor (plus Howie Kendrick returning from injury), the team is well-stocked with outfielders.
No, nobody else can offer the Nationals what Harper can offer, both on and off the field. But is it possible they’d be in a better position to win a championship - something they obviously haven’t done the last seven seasons - by devoting the resources that would go to Harper to other areas of greater concern?
Nobody said this was going to be easy.