WASHINGTON -- The Nationals extended Bryce Harper a qualifying offer before Friday's 5 p.m. ET deadline, a procedural move that will give Harper 10 days to decide whether to accept the one-year, $17.9 million deal.
Considering Harper made more money last season ($21.625 million) and will be one of the marquee names in this year's free-agent class, he will almost certainly decline and do so quickly. By declining, Harper will put his free agency into full swing and allow the Nats to receive Draft pick compensation should Harper chose to sign with a different team.
• Qualifying offer explained
Washington was one of two clubs subject to the Competitive Balance Tax -- or the proverbial "luxury tax" -- with a payroll that exceeded $197 million in 2018. It also penalizes the Nationals during Draft pick compensation. Should Harper sign elsewhere after rejecting their qualifying offer, they would receive a compensation pick after the fourth round (usually in the mid-100s).
No other Nats player received a qualifying offer. Even if Harper declines, he could still negotiate a deal to return to the Nationals, but their exclusive negotiating window is over. Harper is free to negotiate with all 29 other clubs, with a chance to see how much he can earn on the open market. Speculation has swirled that it could approach or surpass the biggest contract in MLB history, so Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, were always going to test the market. It will be one of the biggest free agencies in recent baseball history, especially considering the annual Winter Meetings next month are in Las Vegas, Harper's hometown.
Harper has expressed interest in returning to Washington, and general manager Mike Rizzo made it clear Harper is "in the Nats' plans" going forward. The question remains, at what cost?
Although no direct mandate has been handed down by ownership to cut payroll, the Nationals would prefer to be under the luxury tax and will operate this offseason with the intent to do so.
Washington is shedding about $80 million worth of payroll from 2018, including some of the players it traded away before the end of the season, meaning the Nats do have some financial flexibility even if they do re-sign Harper. But Rizzo will be operating under some sort of a budget as he looks to fill holes at starting pitcher, second base and catcher while also building a bench and a bullpen, although he has already started with the relievers.
But first, the Nationals made a crucial step on Friday to ensure some return in the event they cannot re-sign Harper.