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Here's why Nats could still reunite with Harper

January 2, 2019

WASHINGTON -- As the calendar flipped to 2019 and with the start of Spring Training rapidly approaching, one of the biggest looming questions in baseball continues to hover. It's not just that there are no answers to "Where is Bryce Harper going to sign?" and "For how much?" It's also

WASHINGTON -- As the calendar flipped to 2019 and with the start of Spring Training rapidly approaching, one of the biggest looming questions in baseball continues to hover. It's not just that there are no answers to "Where is Bryce Harper going to sign?" and "For how much?" It's also that his market still appears so uncertain.
The market for Manny Machado -- the other 26-year-old prized free agent of the winter's class -- seemed to receive some clarity before the holiday season arrived. The consensus appears to be he will sign soon, almost certainly with one of the three teams he met with in person -- the Yankees, White Sox or Phillies. But the end of Harper's free agency remains difficult to forecast.
Some of this is by design. Even as Harper's agent, Scott Boras, stood in front of a giant Christmas tree one month ago at the Winter Meetings to opine about a robust market for his client, he declined to get into specifics about teams. Harper's suitors have kept their intentions quiet as well. But speculation has continued about a potential reunion between Harper and the Nationals.
The latest Harper free-agent rumors
On Wednesday, ESPN's Jeff Passan wrote Harper has met with Nationals representatives "many times" this winter, and a source told him he could see Harper's free agency stretching into February. The Washington Post reported Harper and his agent met with Nats owner Ted Lerner on the Saturday before Christmas for five hours. The Lerner family, general manager Mike Rizzo and Boras have a close relationship from a number of deals they have worked on in the past, and Boras views Harper's contract as an ownership decision because of the kind of long-term commitment it will require. And it has been Boras' practice to go directly to ownership with Washington -- perhaps most famously in a meeting that brought Max Scherzer to D.C. and most recently with Matt Wieters.
This meeting does not necessarily mean a deal is close or will happen. Several Nationals officials declined to confirm these meetings to MLB.com or comment on the team's recent contact with Harper. But Washington has tried at times this winter to remain tight-lipped about its pursuit of the star free agent. If the Nationals are interested in bringing him back, they do not want to increase an already expensive price tag. And if they have moved on, they do not want to be seen as out of the running and let another team -- say, the division-rival Phillies -- sign him at a discount.
The other teams interested in Harper remain unclear. The Dodgers have cleared salary and outfield space, but then quickly downplayed anyone jumping to conclusions about Harper. The Cubs do not seem interested in adding significant payroll, and the Yankees have focused on Machado and dismissed Harper rumors. Only the Phillies and White Sox have emerged as serious potential destinations.
Yet since the Winter Meetings, the Nationals have been adamant that they had not closed the door on Harper -- even though they did not meet with him during the week in Las Vegas, because as Rizzo said, "They know where we stand." The 10-year, $300 million contract offer at the end of the regular season is the only contract offer Harper has been known to receive, so perhaps Boras and company were circling back to that.
In the meantime, the Nationals have been among the most active teams in addressing their needs, electing not to wait around for Harper's decision. But with each passing day of Harper's free agency, the potential for a reunion lingers.

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.