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3 possible motivations behind the Nationals’ 10-year, $300 million offer to Bryce Harper

This is a record-setting offer. But what was their motivation behind it?

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The first major known offer of Bryce Harper’s long-anticipated free agency came from ... the team he’s been on for his entire career. This isn’t a surprise, nor is the offer they put on the table. According to Washington Post reporter Chelsea Janes, the Nationals presented a 10-year, $300 million bid to Harper and his agent Scott Boras on the final day of the regular season. Also according to Janes, the offer was not considered insulting but was turned down regardless.

None of that is really surprising. The Nationals have made sure to keep themselves in the Harper sweepstakes simply by not acting like complete idiots so far, and that deal would be highest AAV of any position player free agent ever (Alex Rodriguez is the current record holder at $27.5 million AAV for his 10-year contract with the Yankees). But Harper and Boras were also never going to accept that, historically high AAV or not.

This is Harper’s one big shot at free agency, he’s only 26, and Boras has been very clear that he’s aiming at least $100 million higher. It’s not like the owners don’t have that money and that Harper isn’t worth it. So, knowing all of that, what were the Nationals trying to do here?

The “well ... we tried” offer

The Nationals have been smart to keep their discussions with Harper respectful throughout his final season and his entry into free agency. So far, they’ve played fair and kept as much of the behind the scenes discussion that must be going on to themselves. As much as that is possible with the media constantly asking about the latest updates from both sides.

Everyone knows Harper loves D.C. and that the Nationals, in theory, would love to have him back because he’s Bryce Harper. But at the high asking price from Boras? Or for that length of time? When they don’t know what other top pieces they can really put around him at this point in the team’s success cycle? When you take that into account, this could be an offer they knew would get rejected but still looked good, optics-wise.

The “not insulting” qualifier is important here, because if they’d thrown out a 7-year, $200 million something or other, gotten rejected, and then threw up their hands and said “Well that’s it! Goodbye, Bryce! Sorry to our fans!” that would have been far too transparent. If this was indeed an offer to save face as they let Harper go, they had to make it believable and they did.

A legitimate final offer

If this was the first and last offer the Nationals were planning to extend to Harper with the genuine belief that he would accept it then that is when it could veer into the insulting region. Armed with the knowledge that Boras was asking far more, and a season’s worth of understanding between the two sides that even though Harper loves the city it would still take a lot to keep him there, putting this deal on the table and expecting it to be enough would be genuinely idiotic by Washington.

Giancarlo Stanton has the record for most guaranteed money at $325 million and Zack Greinke has the record for AAV at $34.4 million, and both those deals happened three seasons ago. Acting like they wouldn’t reasonably have to top one or both of those things is borderline delusional.

That’s why it’s the most unlikely case, and credit for the Nationals that their front office managed to keep the Evil Owners Colluding To Drive Prices Down hats off for the time being. There would be no quicker sign that they were punting on the chance to re-sign one of the most desired free agents in years because they didn’t want to pony up the money than if they were putting the messaging out there that they considered this the end-all, be-all of offers. But that doesn’t look like the situation at this point.

A starting point offer

The deal contained no opt-outs, whether player or team. Along with the timing, before Harper entered free agency and had a chance to start looking at other offers, the lack of opt-outs and the record-breaking AAV yet technically low offer by Boras standards points towards the Nationals wanting to be in but not show all their cards so early.

Washington knows that no matter what Harper was testing the waters of free agency. It’s his one chance to do so. So it wouldn’t make sense to reveal their final offer first thing, nor would it make sense to not make one at all. A $30 million AAV over 10 years shows Harper’s camp that they are willing to aim high on this deal, and it forces other teams to either beat that AAV by quite a bit or give Harper the god level offer he wants to secure him.

Most importantly, this offer means that both sides stay in touch while other teams get involved in the conversation. Not including the opt-outs means that they can start negotiations from an open place that has both sides stating their preferences on money, years, and the trickier details like team and player options and when those fall in the contract.

Washington’s front office put their money where their mouth is and backed up a season of Harper love with a reasonable opening offer that didn’t ruin their negotiating position or drive their star away from the table. It also guarantees the first goal here, not angering fans who want to see their team actually try to keep winning instead of tanking for the next few seasons.

Harper might not return to Washington — the money may eventually get too out of hand for the Nationals to stick with the negotiations at all — but this at least ensures that the team looks good if he leaves. As far as a first offer goes, they managed to play this one right if they want to keep the channels of communication open.