With qualifying offer to Harper, Nats’ comp pick is set (updated)

The Nationals will submit a qualifying offer to Bryce Harper before today’s 5 p.m., a club source confirmed, the latest of several procedural steps that are set to be taken as the star outfielder enters free agency.

The qualifying offer - a one-year contract worth $17.9 million - is required if the Nationals want to receive draft-pick compensation should Harper ultimately sign with another club, though today’s move doesn’t change the likelihood of him either staying or going.

Harper has 10 days to decide whether to accept the qualifying offer or not. The vast majority of free agents decline it, recognizing bigger and longer deals will be available on the open market, and Harper will be no exception. Even with his first-half struggles this season, he’s still poised to emerge this winter with one of the largest free-agent contracts in professional sports history, perhaps even breaking Giancarlo Stanton’s record $325 million deal.

Harper-Swings-Gray-Sidebar.jpgAfter declining, Harper still will be allowed to re-sign with the Nationals should he choose. But he’ll finally be able to negotiate with 29 other clubs, evening the playing field for the first time.

The Nats were hoping to take advantage of the exclusive negotiating window they had up to this point, and though that did not include a face-to-face meeting with Harper in his hometown of Las Vegas, a source said the team was able to “maximize” this window of opportunity and get a head start on contract talks before anyone else could enter the fray.

Whether that ultimately helps the Nationals in their attempt to re-sign the 26-year-old star remains to be seen, but club officials appear to be satisfied they’ve done everything they reasonably can to this point to make their pitch.

Harper, of course, was never going to agree to a new contract before hitting the open market. Even though he has professed his interest in staying in Washington, he and agent Scott Boras have always known it was to their advantage to reach free agency and receive offers from multiple organizations.

Thus, now begins the highest-profile free agency extravaganza baseball has seen in several years. Big-market clubs like the Cubs, Dodgers and Yankees, plus rebuilding teams with plenty of money to spend like the Phillies and Giants, are expected to be in the mix along with the Nationals. This will be the No. 1 story of next month’s Winter Meetings, which just so happen to be taking place in Las Vegas.

The Nationals, who have several other significant roster holes to fill (starting pitcher, catcher, second baseman, left-handed reliever), will attempt to address those while staying abreast of Harper’s search. They’ll do so with an as-yet-unrevealed budget for the 2019 season, one that again figures to fall somewhere in the vicinity of Major League Baseball’s luxury tax threshold.

The Nats did officially surpass this year’s $197 million threshold, according to a source, which means they are subject to a 30 percent tax on any payroll that surpassed that number because this was the second consecutive year they exceeded it. If they exceed next year’s $206 million threshold, they would be subject to a 50 percent tax.

The Nationals’ luxury tax 2018 status also impacts their compensation for losing a top free agent. If Harper signs with another club for at least $50 million, the Nats will receive a 2019 draft pick that falls after the fourth round. Had they managed to get under the luxury tax this year, their compensatory pick would have come before the third round.

Update: The Nationals have officially extended the qualifying offer to Harper.

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