Why did the Nationals pick an unnecessary fight with Bryce Harper?

Jeff PassanMLB columnist
The <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/was/" data-ylk="slk:Washington Nationals">Washington Nationals</a> shouldn’t poke the bear when it comes to <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/8875/" data-ylk="slk:Bryce Harper">Bryce Harper</a>. (Getty Images)
The Washington Nationals shouldn’t poke the bear when it comes to Bryce Harper. (Getty Images)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – About seven miles north of this creepy little enclave of naked capitalism where the Winter Meetings have descended, Bryce Harper plays baseball. He is the star player for the Washington Nationals, a pretty good baseball team endeavoring to be great. The Nationals are known for Harper, Stephen Strasburg and a striking ability to soil themselves in October.

There are a lot of good things about the Nationals. Harper, even after a poor 2016, is the best of them. Which made Monday’s story in USA Today in which a Nationals executive essentially kneecapped Harper all the more curious. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Nationals were not prepared to meet Harper’s demands on a contract of at least 10 years and $400 million.

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Now, this would be a fair statement if the Nationals actually were discussing a long-term deal with Harper or his free agency was imminent. The issue, of course, is that Harper isn’t a free agent until after the 2018 season and his agent, Scott Boras, told Yahoo Sports: “I have had no discussions with the Nationals regarding Harp and a long-term contract.”

Saber rattling takes all sorts of forms, but this one – the two-year pre-emptive strike – was some kind of awesome. And it’s at least the second incident of hardline campaigning the Nationals have undertaken with the 24-year-old, who won the National League MVP award in 2015.

In 2010, when Harper agreed to his original contract after Washington took him with the No. 1 overall pick, last-minute scrambling led to a snafu: Harper wanted the ability to opt out of the original deal and into the arbitration system and the Nationals didn’t. After Harper refused to sign his contract, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association intervened and agreed that if Harper qualified for arbitration before the end of the deal, a grievance hearing would determine his fate. He did. At the grievance, they settled on a deal that would pay him $2.5 million for 2015 and $5 million for 2016.

Had Harper not agreed, he would’ve almost certainly received twice that amount in 2016. Regardless of the outcome, the fact that they butted heads did not sit well with Harper. When a “high-ranking” official, as USA Today deemed its source, goes popping off about Harper and, intentional or not, casting him as greedy and unworthy of a certain deal – well, that’s not exactly going to endear Harper, either.

It’s important to understand: This was not some declaration of war by the Nationals on Harper. This is something that can be undone with a phone call, an apology and a vow to keep any future negotiations quiet. Every deal has bumps. Deals of this magnitude have bumps, potholes, roadblocks, fender benders and other assorted such car-related metaphors.

The fact remains Bryce Harper, even after a .243/.373/.441 season, is one of the elite players in baseball, and the Washington Nationals, a team that harbors desires to win a World Series, would love to have him. It’s going to be costly, though, as it should be, what with revenues ticking over $10 billion a year and the idea of an annual salary in the $40 million range not at all far-fetched.

Zack Greinke is pulling in $34.4 million a year in his deal. The last three years of Mike Trout’s deal pay him a whit over $34 million. A player of Harper’s ilk reaching free agency just after his 26th birthday is the sort who destroys ceilings. Barring injury, he and Manny Machado both should quite easily surpass Giancarlo Stanton’s record $325 million deal. Ten years and $400 million may be too rich for the Nationals’ blood, but in no way is it out of the question.

In the meantime, perhaps it’s best the Nationals try their best to, you know, ingratiate themselves to their best player, unless they have designs on alienating him more than they have and practically buying his plane ticket to the Bronx. There can be a natural tension between player and team that’s healthy, but this wasn’t that. This was just dumb and reckless.

When Harper arrived in the major leagues, and even a few years into his career, there were questions about his maturity, his ability to handle certain situations. Those have vanished. The questions now, interesting enough, are about the Nationals and how much they really want one of the game’s best players. At least he now knows the answer: Not $400 million worth, even if that’s what in the end it may take.

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