Bryce Harper was always choosing the money.
If that sounds salty, I assure you it’s not. It’s just a fact. Most players approach free agency that way–they have a limited time to make money and they want to maximize it. There are exceptions of course–Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg decided to stay in DC and instructed their agents accordingly. Other players look for the security of an early-career contract extension.
Bryce Harper was not that guy. He was gunning for the money from day one. Well, actually before day one–before he was even a professional baseball player. Harper graduated high school two years early to get drafted one year early. MLB ordinarily doesn’t allow high schoolers to graduate early to enter the draft, but there are are no limitations on junior college players. So when Harper left high school at 16, there was no way to keep him out of the draft a year later. He was always about starting the clock as early as possible.
And the clock here has always been the biggest factor. The reason Harper’s free agency has always been a thing is because Harper’s early draft entry got him to the majors at 19, ensuring he’d hit the market at 26. Alex Rodriguez did that and he broke the bank. That was 2000. There was every reason to believe this phenom would do the same–and more–in 2019 when tv revenues have been escalating for decades.
This was the moment Harper and Boras have been planning for since he was a skinny teenager living in Las Vegas. The Nationals were, and have always been, a place to incubate until that happened.
There was little reason to think otherwise. Harper spoke platitudes of loving DC and the fans, but he gave no indication that he wouldn’t simply take the most money available when he finally got to test the free agent market.
(As an aside, I always felt Harper and Boras’ act that Bryce didn’t want to play in Philadelphia was always a ruse to squeeze more money out of the Phillies. It never made sense that he’d get that far in negotiations and then pull the plug. It was always a desperate ploy to get more money when there’s only one legitimate bidder. And it was well done.)
Harper didn’t choose DC. We chose him with the first overall pick. He was a national celebrity before he got here. He was on the cover of sports illustrated when Manny Acta still manned the Nationals dugout. Harper didn’t waste his time in Eastern Motors commercials; he has a Gatorade campaign. And when he wanted to get the word out, he didn’t speak to Post beat reporters. He called up Tom Verducci or Keith Law. When the season ended, he went back to his real home–Las Vegas.
Yeah, Harper was a National. But he was national. It didn’t matter where he played. He was a Coast-to-Coast brand–maybe the only one in a sport with declining star power.
So the time came to get paid and the home town team found itself without a home field advantage. They were 1 of 30 (or maybe 1 of 8 since most MLB clubs don’t spend to acquire talents like Harper). To the Lerner’s and Rizzo’s credit, they stayed in. They made a large offer and allegedly kept tabs on the bidding. They wanted him back, but that feeling was always a one way street. The Nationals had a chance–but no more than that.
There is plenty of time to debate whether the Nationals were crazy for letting him sign elsewhere or sane for not paying the money he wanted. But the next stage in this process is acceptance. Bryce belonged to us for 7 years. Everything after that was a long shot.