Magic Johnson denies meeting Bryce Harper in Vegas, as speculation swirls about where Harper will sign

Officials from multiple major league teams have traveled to Nevada to meet with Bryce Harper. (Getty Images)
Officials from multiple major league teams have traveled to Nevada to meet with Bryce Harper. (Getty Images)

The courtship of Bryce Harper likely means a journey to Las Vegas, the 26-year-old outfielder’s hometown and a place where one generally arrives with hope and cash and leaves with less of both. In recent weeks, Major League Baseball teams interested in perhaps the most sought-after free agent in nearly two decades road-tripped there with plenty more – a keen interest in getting to know him and a sales pitch on why he should sign with them.

Officials from the Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees are among upward of a dozen teams that have traveled or plan to travel to Nevada to meet with Harper, league sources familiar with the discussions told Yahoo Sports. Other meetings already are set for a site away from MLB’s winter meetings, which start Sunday at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

Originally, two sources told Yahoo Sports that Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Magic Johnson had joined a Dodgers contingent in Las Vegas to meet with Harper. Johnson on Tuesday insisted no such get-together had occurred.

“The only time I remember meeting Bryce Harper was on the field at Dodger Stadium two years ago when Dusty Baker introduced us,” he said.

While the extent of the Dodgers’ interest in Harper remains unclear, a wide swath of teams have shown at least cursory interest in the outfielder. The Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres are expected to check in. The Washington Nationals, with whom he has spent his seven major league seasons and who offered him a 10-year deal worth around $300 million toward the end of the season that Harper rejected, almost certainly will circle back. Harper’s affection for the Houston Astros is well-known, as is the St. Louis Cardinals’ for him.

Because the courtship of Harper is likely to require the backing of at least a third of a billion dollars, the market won’t extend to all 30 teams. And yet teams beyond the sport’s richest aren’t discounting the rarity of a 26-year-old free agent who three years ago unanimously won the National League MVP.

The White Sox, for example, enlisted the help of longtime star and Hall of Famer Jim Thome during their visit to Las Vegas, league sources told Yahoo Sports. They needed to pull out all the stops, with Phillies ownership admitting the potential to spend “stupid” amounts of money this offseason and others recognizing the impact of an in-his-prime power hitter.

Philadelphia, long considered a landing spot for Harper or the other 26-year-old star free agent, Manny Machado, cleared a place in its outfield Monday by trading first baseman Carlos Santana to Seattle, which allows Rhys Hoskins to return to his natural position, and filled Machado’s shortstop spot by acquiring Jean Segura. The Phillies, who Harper has tuned up over 110 career games, covet a middle-of-the-order bat, particularly one who would bring left-handed balance to a right-handed heavy lineup.

The Yankees are a wild card, or as much as a team with the highest revenues in the game can be a wild card for a player who may receive the largest contract in American sports history. Harper grew up a Yankees fan, always dreaming of playing in pinstripes, and no matter their ultimate interest, meeting with him was, at very least, an exercise in due diligence for a New York team playing extra coy with Harper’s actual appeal.

Face-to-face meetings, after all, do not automatically signify a team’s desire to sign Harper. It could be getting a sense of his personality. Or his market. Or his comportment in social settings. What the Nationals know teams like the Padres or even the Cubs – who have pleaded payroll constraints this offseason – would love to learn.

The Dodgers, with their financial might, are like the Yankees prone to industry-wide speculation about the potential pursuit of Harper. In the past three seasons, they’ve trimmed $80 million from their payroll, to a still-healthy $188 million. The club seems reluctant to assume the risks of long-term, high-dollar contracts and made a point in 2018 to remain under the league’s competitive-balance tax threshold. That number, in 2019, is $206 million. President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman in recent seasons has paid $93 million over three years to Clayton Kershaw, $80 million over five years to Kenley Jansen, $64 million over four years to Justin Turner and $48 million over three years to Rich Hill, but nothing close to what Harper – or, for that matter, Machado, who spent the final three months of the season with the Dodgers – would require over a decade or more.

The Dodgers have the money for Harper. They may not have the interest. That will grow clearer as the market further develops through December and perhaps into the New Year.

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