The courtship of Bryce Harper likely means a journey to Las Vegas, the 26-year-old outfielder’s hometown and a place where one generally arrives with hope and cash and leaves with less of both. In recent weeks, Major League Baseball teams interested in perhaps the most sought-after free agent in nearly two decades road-tripped there with plenty more – a keen interest in getting to know him, a sales pitch on why he should sign with them and, in one case, even some Magic.
Officials from the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees are among upward of a dozen teams that have traveled or plan to travel to Nevada to meet with Harper, league sources familiar with the discussions told Yahoo Sports. Other meetings already are set for a site away from MLB’s winter meetings, which start Sunday at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
The Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres are expected to check in. The Washington Nationals, with whom he has spent his seven major league seasons and who offered him a 10-year deal worth around $300 million toward the end of the season that Harper rejected, almost certainly will circle back. Harper’s affection for the Houston Astros is well-known, as is the St. Louis Cardinals’ for him.
Because the courtship of Harper is likely to require the backing of at least a third of a billion dollars, the market won’t extend to all 30 teams. And yet teams beyond the sport’s richest aren’t discounting the rarity of a 26-year-old free agent who three years ago unanimously won the National League MVP.
The White Sox, for example, enlisted the help of longtime star and Hall of Famer Jim Thome during their visit to Las Vegas, league sources told Yahoo Sports. They needed to pull out all the stops, with Phillies ownership admitting the potential to spend “stupid” amounts of money this offseason and the Dodgers, with the second-highest revenues in baseball, calling upon a minority owner to potentially help score his second free-agent coup of the year.
Not five months ago, in his role as president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson led the recruitment and signing of LeBron James, perhaps altering the course of that franchise, definitely drawing a star to a city that breathes them. Recently, according to sources, Johnson and other Dodgers officials traveled to Las Vegas to meet with Harper. Johnson in 2012 bought into the Guggenheim Partners’ $2.15 billion purchase of the Dodgers with $50 million of his own, a 2-plus percent investment that is more significant for his name, reputation and L.A. credibility.
As the league’s owners begin the process that is Harper’s free agency – measuring his cost, his impact, his Q-rating, his on-base percentage, his durability – all beating a path to Vegas, the Dodgers, like the Lakers, led with Magic.
Philadelphia, long considered a landing spot for Harper or the other 26-year-old star free agent, Manny Machado, cleared a place in its outfield Monday by trading first baseman Carlos Santana to Seattle, which allows Rhys Hoskins to return to his natural position, and filled Machado’s shortstop spot by acquiring Jean Segura. The Phillies, who Harper has tuned up over 110 career games, covet a middle-of-the-order bat, particularly one who would bring left-handed balance to a right-handed heavy lineup.
The Yankees are a wild card, or as much as a team with the highest revenues in the game can be a wild card for a player who may receive the largest contract in American sports history. Harper grew up a Yankees fan, always dreaming of playing in pinstripes, and no matter their ultimate interest, meeting with him was, at very least, an exercise in due diligence for a New York team playing extra coy with Harper’s actual appeal.
Face-to-face meetings, after all, do not automatically signify a team’s desire to sign Harper. It could be getting a sense of his personality. Or his market. Or his comportment in social settings. What the Nationals know teams like the Padres or even the Cubs – who have pleaded payroll constraints this offseason – would love to learn.
The courtship of Bryce Harper and his prime baseball seasons is, if past negotiations for players of his status remain the same game, performed not with middle management or department heads but among those with stakes in their franchises. Owners went, in this case, to Las Vegas, where they saw a six-time All Star who’s already hit nearly 200 home runs and won’t faint under the first bright light cast upon him.
Harper’s situation better resembles that of the stars in other sports, where in-person trips are standard. On June 30, in the first moments of NBA free agency, Johnson knocked on LeBron’s door. For two hours, they talked life and stardom and basketball and what that all looks like as a Laker. Twenty-four hours later, the Lakers were into James for four years and $154 million. They were relevant again.
The season changes, the sport changes, and Johnson can’t talk baseball the way he can basketball. He’s still Magic. He played his first NBA game two months after his 20th birthday, and the public expected greatness and championships. Harper played his first major league game six months before his 20th birthday. The public expected the same. Over 13 seasons, Magic delivered, and then some. The Nationals won four NL East titles in Harper’s seven seasons, yet not so much as a single postseason series. The two would have plenty to talk about.
In the first weeks of free agency, it remains unclear how committed the Dodgers might be to pursuing Harper. In the past three seasons they’ve trimmed $80 million from their payroll, to a still-healthy $188 million. The club seems reluctant to assume the risks of long-term, high-dollar contracts and made a point in 2018 to remain under the league’s competitive-balance tax threshold. That number, in 2019, is $206 million. President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman in recent seasons has paid $93 million over three years to Clayton Kershaw, $80 million over five years to Kenley Jansen, $64 million over four years to Justin Turner and $48 million over three years to Rich Hill, but nothing close to what Harper – or, for that matter, Machado, who spent the final three months of the season with the Dodgers – would require over a decade or more.
The Dodgers have the money for Harper. They may not have the interest. But, just in case they did, they started with capital-M — Magic – the same thing other teams are hope to capture, lowercase, as the recruitment heats up and barrels toward a historic free-agent payday.
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