What to make of radio silence in the Harper talks

Earlier this month, during the GM meetings in Carlsbad, Calif., news surfaced that the Nationals had extended an offer worth $300 million over 10 years to free agent-to-be Bryce Harper late in the regular season. The offer reportedly contained no opt-outs for the slugger, and was summarily dismissed by Harper and his agent, Scott Boras.

Since then, there’s been a ton of chatter about where Harper might wind up when he signs what could be the most expensive free agent contract ever. Daily rumors seem to have Harper suiting up in a different city. One day, he’s going to Philadelphia to mash balls into the power-friendly alleys at Citizens Bank Park. The next day, Harper is going to be converted to first base and play in Yankees pinstripes. Harper would look good in the retro powder blue uniforms that are going to be worn by the Cardinals in 2019, or in Braves home whites with a tomahawk across his chest.

But the Nats have been silent. And there’s been little talk from the Harper camp apart from last week’s videos of Harper with his flowing locks styled in a perm and an appearance Saturday as a celebrity prognosticator on ESPN’s “College GameDay” before Ohio State hosted Michigan in football.

Should Nationals fans be worried about the radio silence on both sides?

Not really. It’s just the way the free agent game is played. Pretty soon, we’ll be longing for the days when no one was wringing hands over Harper’s upcoming destination.

The offer by the Nationals, scoffed at by many as a futile attempt to get their prized player to sign before he hits the open market, was actually a shrewd business move engineered by general manager Mike Rizzo and ownership. Yes, both parties have to be on the same page when it comes to spending a princely sum that could break all records for a free agent deal.

The Nationals made an offer that is far and away more than they’ve paid any other player in their history (and makes the $210 million they shelled out for Max Scherzer in 2015 look downright reasonable). It wasn’t insulting - even if Boras has intonated that he expects Harper to eclipse the $400 million barrier - and it showed that the Nats want to be a serious player in terms of retaining Harper’s services.

But it was merely a starting point, a first volley fired over the waters to ensure that Harper and Boras understand that the Nationals aren’t interested in cutting ties with a player who has become ingrained with both their franchise and their city. Every negotiation starts somewhere, and if you’re Harper, $300 million is a pretty nice neighborhood to be considering - even if you expect to earn significantly more than that, with opt-outs included.

Bryce-Harper-Derby-arms-up-sidebar.jpgThere’s definitely mutual respect between the parties here. Perhaps not enough to entice Harper to re-sign at a hometown discount, but enough that Harper continues to say all the right things about wanting to stay and win in D.C., even though he knows full well he’s going to test the market. After all, he’s earned the right, just as any other player with enough service time to declare free agency.

Even if there have not been serious negotiations between Boras and the Nationals on Harper’s behalf, you can bet the sides have remained in contact. Maybe Boras is trying to work opt-outs into the deal (as he did for Stephen Strasburg in May 2016, when the right-hander inked an extension with the right to opt out after the 2019 and 2020 campaigns). Maybe Rizzo and the Nats are just checking in to see what Harper and his representatives are thinking. But there’s an open line of communication between the parties, which is good for both.

Look, it does Harper no good to limit his opportunities at this point in the process. Other teams are going to court him, and Harper is going to get used to being wooed with more dollars than anyone could imagine and contract perks no one’s ever dreamed of. That’s how free agency goes. Once it gets to this stage, especially with a player of Harper’s immense star power, things are tilted toward the player.

And it does no good for Boras to publicly announce who he’s talking to and how much they’re willing to pay. Well, not yet. At some point, when things get down to a few serious suitors, Boras will start playing all interested teams against one another. It’s a tried-and-true method guaranteed to extract the maximum number of dollars and/or years to his client’s benefit. Again, it’s the way the free agent game is played, and that’s the agent’s role. And an agent as calculating and as astute as Boras didn’t get to be the top agent in the game by not using every tool and tactic to his advantage.

(Keep in mind, too, that it’s not unusual for Boras clients to go deep into December or January before signing a deal. Yes, now and again, a Jayson Werth signs on the eve of the Winter Meetings, as he did in 2010. But the longer Boras draws out the process, the more money usually ends up getting spent on a contract, making things more profitable for both player and agent.)

And it does no good for Rizzo to broadcast what he’s doing to the 29 other major league clubs that might be looking for an edge in talks with Boras or the countless other agents who have free agent clients they are pitching to the GM. They don’t come more cagey and circumspect than Rizzo, who carefully metes out his words so that he answers questions by saying very little. This cat-and-mouse game has been going on for some time in baseball, and Rizzo understands that even if he has a Plan A (re-signing Harper), he’d better have a Plan B (bolstering the starting rotation) and Plan C (looking for offensive help elsewhere) in reserve.

How many plans does Rizzo have? Well, there are 26 letters in the alphabet and more numbers than anyone can count, so ...

Whether Rizzo and the Harper camp are talking isn’t really important. They have talked, they will talk and it wouldn’t be surprising if there isn’t some handshake agreement in place in which Boras and Harper won’t do anything without giving the Nats a chance to meet or beat the deal. Again, it does nothing to help either side if the lines of communication aren’t kept open - and because Boras at one point repped 10 players on the 25-man Nationals roster, he’s frequently in communication with the Nationals brass on all sorts of matters involving multiple players.

For now, silence doesn’t mean anything other than the process playing out. Trust me, in a couple of weeks at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, there will be a lot of talking going on - and not just because the annual confab is occurring in Harper’s hometown.

Rizzo will be talking daily with the media, trying his best to not confirm or deny talking to any teams or agents about anyone, but doing his best to directly answer questions with maddeningly indirect responses. Boras will talk, too - his annual media session at the Winter Meetings almost defies description. Think about 200 reporters, photographers and camera operators craning their necks and praying that tape recorders pick up every word Boras speaks. Not to worry, Boras isn’t averse to repeating himself, especially if doing so might benefit his clients.

Who knows? Maybe Harper himself will make an appearance at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Harper’s favorite NHL team, the Vegas Golden Knights, hosts the Dallas Stars on Sunday, Dec. 9 - the night before the Winter Meetings officially kick off - before embarking on a four-game road trip to the East Coast and Columbus, Ohio. You’d expect the Golden Knights’ favorite celebrity fan to be rinkside, right? But what’s Harper going to do when his team is playing in New York, New Jersey and Columbus?

The only silence that should be concerning is when it happens on the other end of the line if Boras is calling and giving the Nats a final chance to beat the best offer Harper has received. Until then, as long as the sides are communicating, there’s every reason to believe the Nationals continue to have an opportunity to keep Harper in the fold.

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