Column: Nats offer to Bryce Harper wasn’t serious, and that’s OK for everyone

WASHINGTON — “The Washington Nationals offered Bryce Harper the biggest free agent contract in the history of the four major North American sports …”

That, from The Washington Post, is a lede that will certainly make Mike Rizzo and the Lerner Family happy, but it’s also a bit misleading.

The offer was made on Sept. 26 while Harper was still under contract, even if only for a few more weeks, and was withdrawn once the free agent period actually opened. Despite the unusual timing, it was, for all practical matters, an extension offer. Because no other teams were able to bid against it, meaning the Nats were never in a position to have to jockey against a counter-offer. And with Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million extension a few years back, the offer to Harper isn’t really a record anything.

That’s why the Nats knew they could get away with making it, and that Harper and his agent Scott Boras would never take it. But thanks to some positive press, they can, at the very least, make it look like they’ve made a “record” effort to try to retain him, while still being able to negotiate if the free agent market truly collapses.

Making the terms of this deal quietly public is, obviously, no accident. Neither is the framing.

There were no details on any potential deferrals, but given the club’s history, the safe bet is that there were (it would also explain Boras’ vague dispute over the exact value). None of that will probably get reported, because it doesn’t really matter now. The big, round number — $300 million — and the length of the deal is now the de facto opening bid for ostensibly the remainder of Harper’s MLB career.

But it’s only the very beginning of the bidding war.

This is what Boras does. It’s why clients hire him. Even more than for his first professional contract, way back when he was drafted in 2010, this is why Harper hired him. To paraphrase the movie, $9.9 million isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? $400 million.

Obviously, the higher that target goes, the fewer the clubs willing or able to take aim. You can add the Phillies and maybe the White Sox to the list we put together last December, and there’s always a good chance that a “mystery team” — whether real or contrived — will emerge in a Boras negotiation.

Anytime Boras has a major free agent, he turns the Baseball Winter Meetings into his own carnival. The last time the Winter Meetings were held in Harper’s hometown of Las Vegas was more than a decade ago, when he was a sophomore in high school, still six months from being introduced to the nation on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The meetings just so happen to land there again this December, and if you think Boras is letting Harper sign anywhere before he has the chance to co-opt the entire five-day affair into his own personal dog-and-pony show, I’ve got a slugger just three years removed from a 47-homer season to sell you.

Those Winter Meetings? They’re still more than a month away. But you know the team that eventually signs Harper is going to want to get the most bang for their truckload of bucks. They’re going to want him on stage at the Mandalay Bay, in his new jersey, smiling for the cameras. That’s the image Boras will be selling and leveraging over the next five weeks.

And if he hasn’t found the deal he wants by then? He’ll wait. Max Scherzer didn’t sign until late January, Matt Wieters until late February. Exactly when Harper will sign is anyone’s guess, but don’t bet against Boras getting what he wants.

A friend of mine suggested that if the brand-savvy Harper can’t command a truly staggering sum, he might be ripe to sign a deal with his own numbers forever embedded into it: 10 years, $340.7 million; $34.07 million per year, probably with multiple opt-outs. That feels like a pretty good over/under line if we’re handicapping what to expect. And if that (or more) is what it takes to sign Harper, the Nats can say they tried, and most everyone will nod along and call it prudent that they didn’t take the risk.

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