When the offseason began, it appeared the Nationals had little chance of bringing back Bryce Harper.
When they signed Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract, the possibility of re-signing Harper seemed even slimmer. It pushed their payroll to the $200 million range - though that's a bit deceiving. More on it later.
The way the offseason has played out, I now believe Harper will end up back in Washington after all.
It's not what any Phillies fan wants to hear, but there are several reasons to think the Nats are the favorite as we enter February.
Washington's initial offer
It's been widely reported that the Nats are still in the race for Harper. Let's assume their 10-year, $300 million offer to Harper in late September, as reported by the Washington Post, was legit and is still on the table. When that offer was reported the first week of November, much of the baseball world thought it was far too little to entice Harper.
How 'bout now?
Those $400 million projections for Harper and Manny Machado no longer look realistic. So how exactly could a team like the Phillies, Padres, White Sox or whoever else, pry Harper away from his comfort zone with an offer that isn't so much higher than the one from his former team? Especially when that former team is the best of the bunch by a pretty wide margin.
If the Nats' 10-year, $300 million offer is still on the table, you'd think the Phillies would need to beat it comfortably to entice Harper. Washington is better positioned to win in 2019 and a few years beyond. Harper knows the situation and has had regular-season success there, just not the kind that matters most. The 2019 Nats, with Corbin and the other $45 million they spent, have as deep a roster as they've had throughout Harper's run in D.C.
That extra 10 percent
Another reason I see Harper returning to Washington: When you're talking about a contract exceeding $300 million, how much of a difference does $30 million over the life of it really make? That same $30 million disparity is much more pronounced when you're weighing, say, $50 million vs. $80 million. But when the number gets this high ... the player is still walking away with $300 million.
"But Harper and Machado want to beat Giancarlo Stanton's $325 million," you might say. Harper could still do that by signing a 10-year, $300 million contract. Stanton's deal is for 13 years. So a deal paying Harper $30 million per year would still give him the higher annual average salary.
Harper's uber-competitive, as you've seen during his seven big-league seasons and 110 games against the Phillies. His allegiance has been with Washington. That rarely deters a free agent from switching sides in a rivalry for the right price, but it's naïve to think it won't be a consideration in Harper's case, especially if the dollar amounts are similar enough.
Jayson Werth switched sides in this rivalry, but that happened because the Nationals offered Werth a lot more than the Phillies were willing to pay. If the Phillies really want Harper, they're going to have to offer a lot more than the Nationals are willing to pay.
I also wonder about the DeAndre Jordan factor. Remember that situation with the Mavericks and Clippers back in the summer of 2015? Mark Cuban and the Mavs wanted Jordan badly and thought they had him, and then Jordan's Clippers teammates locked themselves in Jordan's house until he was convinced not to change teams.
Don't you think that at some point this offseason, guys like Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg have had a discussion with Harper about how their window is still open, about how they can be even better in 2019 with Harper and Corbin, about how Washington is where Harper belongs and how strange it would be for him to pick the other side of the rivalry?
I know, I know, depressing thoughts for the Phillies fan. But the Phils just aren't on the Nats' level yet. The Phillies are not yet a true destination. This team's best offer is the most money and a chance to be a part of an ascending organization.
If money is Harper's only consideration and the Phillies offer the most, he'll come here. If his priority is the best combination of money and winning, advantage Washington.
Why not go over the top, if you're the Phillies?
The natural question then would be, why wouldn't the Phillies just offer $350-plus million, make some sort of Godfather offer?
The answer would be they feel they can get Machado on a better deal, or they consider it a bluff from Harper and Scott Boras and don't call that bluff in time.
The Nationals' payroll is extremely high and no team has spent as much as they have in this year's free agency. The Nats have committed $189 million this offseason alone, to Corbin, Brian Dozier, Anibal Sanchez, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Adams and Trevor Rosenthal. The Phillies have spent the sixth-most money in free agency, $73 million for Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson. (This excludes the trade market.)
Bringing back Harper on a contract paying $30 million per year would put the Nats $25 million or so above the luxury tax threshold this season. But after 2019, the Nationals will shed the salaries of Ryan Zimmerman, Sean Doolittle, Dozier, Adams and Howie Kendrick. That's just under $40 million. If they choose not to bring back Rendon (a stud), that's another $18-20 million. You'd think the Nats would bite the bullet and pay the penalty in 2019 and then figure it out from there, if it meant bringing Harper back to a team that would be a World Series contender with him.
From the Phillies' perspective, it makes Washington a scary suitor. Even more so, obviously, because they play in the same division. This Nationals roster with Harper back in the fold would be the team to beat in the NL. Gulp.
There's still Manny.
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