WASHINGTON -- A new team has reportedly surpassed the Nationals as the presumptive favorite to land Bryce Harper, and with just about a month to go before the start of Spring Training, the market for the 26-year-old former National League Most Valuable Player Award winner has taken yet another turn.A
WASHINGTON -- A new team has reportedly surpassed the Nationals as the presumptive favorite to land Bryce Harper, and with just about a month to go before the start of Spring Training, the market for the 26-year-old former National League Most Valuable Player Award winner has taken yet another turn.
A meeting between Harper and the Phillies in his hometown of Las Vegas this past weekend went well, two sources told MLB.com's Todd Zolecki. So well, in fact, that the Phils might be shifting their focus from Manny Machado to Harper. USA Today's Bob Nightengale went even further, calling Philadelphia the "clear favorite" to land Harper after a five-hour meeting between the two sides Saturday in Vegas.
Although it remains unclear whether Harper has a formal contract offer in hand from the Phillies, this is a shift in perception from the previous weeks, after it appeared there was momentum toward Harper's eventual return to Washington.
Speculation had increased lately about a reunion in D.C., after a meeting between Nationals owner Ted Lerner, Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, just before Christmas. The meeting revealed that the Nats are more interested in bringing back Harper than they had previously let on publicly. Washington is still the only team believed to have made the superstar any sort of formal contract offer, the 10-year, $300 million contract extended at the end of the 2018 regular season, according to the Washington Post.
Still, the market for Harper appears to be more clear now than it has been in weeks. The Phillies and Nationals have presented clear interest in signing Harper and are the two presumed frontrunners, while the White Sox still loom in the background.
Both Philadelphia and Chicago have also had meetings with Machado, the market's other free-agent slugger. The low interest league-wide for these two superstars has made the Phillies optimistic that they will land one of the two, just as it caused the Nationals to jump back into the mix for Harper, after cloaking interest in their homegrown star for much of the offseason.
Instead of waiting around for Harper's decision, the Nationals began to address the rest of their offseason checklist. They added Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki at catcher, relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough to the bullpen, revamped their starting rotation with Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez and then re-signed Matt Adams to improve their bench and made James Dozier their new second baseman. The front office built a roster capable of returning to the top of the NL East division, regardless of Harper's future.
With Harper continuing to linger on the market, however, the Nationals should not be counted out. Harper's relationship with the organization, as well as Rizzo and the Lerner family, is strong. A few front office members have wondered if eventually ownership will find a way to make it work to keep Harper in D.C. long term, even if doing so would almost certainly put the Nats over the luxury tax threshold again.
After signing Dozier to a one-year, $9 million deal, the Nationals' projected payroll for 2019 is at about $195 million, according to estimates from Cot's Baseball Contracts, giving them roughly $11 million to work with before they exceed the competitive-balance tax threshold of $206 million. Last season, the Nats exceeded the luxury tax for the second consecutive year and it cost them $2.4 million. The club would prefer to remain under the threshold this season, and signing Harper would perhaps be the only reason it would blow past it. Because the Nats want to leave room for potential incentives and a midseason acquisition, adding Harper might be the only major remaining move the Nationals could make this winter.
This Nats roster should be capable of contending within a crowded NL East without Harper. With him? They would become instant World Series contenders in the NL. They just may have to outbid a division rival to land him.
Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.