CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Bryce Harper is the final superstar standing for the Phillies.
The pressure to sign him intensified Tuesday, when they learned that Manny Machado agreed to a 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres. The Phillies had pursued Machado since July, when they tried to acquire him before the non-waiver Trade Deadline. They continued that pursuit in the offseason. They hosted Machado and his wife at Citizens Bank Park in December. They made him at least one official offer. But in the end, the club would not beat San Diego's offer for the All-Star third baseman, even though sources indicated for months that they preferred him over Harper.
"If the reports are true, then this contract will exceed our valuation and sometimes you have to be willing to walk away," Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said at Spectrum Field. "We made our bid, put our best foot forward and he ended up signing with the Padres."
The Phillies were not completely crushed by Tuesday's development. They had some misgivings about signing Machado, following his "Johnny Hustle" comments last fall in the National League Championship Series. If the club was going to give somebody $300 million, they wanted to feel confident that he would not be booed on Opening Day.
Harper would be cheered. He has been the people's choice all along.
Harper's agent, Scott Boras, will expect his client to sign nothing less than a 10-year, $300 million contract. The Phillies can make that happen, if they wish. But if they were unwilling to offer Machado more than $300 million, is there a chance they will be unwilling to spend more than $300 million on any player on the current market?
"I won't comment on that," Klentak said. "I'll say this, every player is different. They bring different strengths, weaknesses, risks, rewards, etc."
Klentak said last week that the Phillies had an "objectively excellent offseason," following acquisitions like J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura and David Robertson. The club genuinely believes that, but they also know Harper would catapult them from a team projected to finish third or fourth in the National League East to NL-title contenders.
Their interest in Harper is real. A source told MLB.com on Sunday night that the Phillies and Boras have been talking more regularly lately and making progress, but that they were not close to a deal. Another source said Tuesday that the Phillies had a second face-to-face meeting with Boras early last week in Florida.
That is good news for Phillies fans.
But like Machado, the Phillies have a walkaway point with Harper. Nobody other than the Phillies and maybe Boras know that number, but Boras probably should not expect the Phillies to cut Harper a check for $375 million or more.
Internally, the Phillies might believe they are the team best positioned to land Harper. The White Sox have expressed interest in him, but The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal reported that Chicago made Machado an eight-year, $250 million offer. If that holds true with Harper, that bodes well for the Phillies. There are also indications that the Giants are not willing to offer $300 million for Harper.
The only wild card here might be the Nationals or the proverbial mystery team. Depending on the day, the Nationals are waiting on the periphery of the Harper sweepstakes or totally out and have moved on. But there continues to be speculation that the Nationals' ownership could make a last-second final play for Harper.
The Phillies know the risks here, but they see Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rendon possibly hitting the free-agent market following the 2019 season (Arenado seems likely to sign an extension with the Rockies); Mike Trout and Mookie Betts possibly hitting the market following 2020; and Francisco Lindor possibly hitting the market following '21 and see future ways to spend money, if Harper doesn't sign.
A source indicated that Trout's comments Monday about playing in Philadelphia reverberated through the offices on the executive-level at Spectrum Field.
"I don't think I went a day this offseason without someone asking, 'Hey, when are you coming to Philly?'" Trout said. "I can't predict the future. The fans are passionate about their sport. Basketball, like you said, football, baseball especially. … I grew up in Philadelphia. I'm an Eagles fan. I know how we are. When they're going good, you love 'em, but I think fans appreciate hustle all the time. They like 100 percent effort. Even if you're struggling, I think if you go out there and show them you're giving 100 percent, I think they see that and respect that."
So when does the Harper saga end? Logically, one might think now that Machado has set the floor for Harper that things will speed up. But people thought the same thing about Jake Arrieta last year. Yu Darvish signed a contract with the Cubs in February, so everybody thought Arrieta would fall off the board quickly.
He signed a month later with the Phillies.
But between Tuesday and the day Harper finally signs, the Phillies know the pressure will not end. Neither will the questions.
"We have to remember that there will be other free agents after this offseason," Klentak said. "There will be plenty of opportunities in the future to spend money and to make our team better. We cannot allow ourselves to be put in a position where we have to do something at all costs. There's a significant cost that we're willing to pay to add, but we have to be willing to walk away at some point."
They showed Tuesday that they will.