Is there any way for the #Nats to re-sign Bryce Harper and keep payroll under $206 million?

Photo by Marlene Koenig for TalkNats

For those fans who are still wishing for the Washington Nationals to re-sign Bryce Harper, you must consider that money and desire are two driving forces that are not necessarily mutually exclusive for the Nationals. While the Nats are dealing with a finite CBT cap of $206 million, they have made it clear through sources we have spoken to that they absolutely are not going to exceed the CBT in 2019 but, but, but, that comes with the caveat that Ted Lerner ultimately could decide to add Harper and blow through the cap.

Since the Nationals have blown through the CBT in two consecutive years, the penalty as a third time offender is a lofty 50% assessed on every dollar over the $206 million CBT making a $30 million deal for Harper potentially a $45 million commitment with the $15 million penalty going to the MLB coffers. While the billionaire Ted Lerner personally has the money, spending it like he has $522 million in annual revenue like the Los Angeles Dodgers is something Lerner clearly does not have due to a meager and complicated regional TV deal with MASN. The Dodgers have so much more revenue than the Nationals that the difference is more than the Nationals spent on their entire 2018 team payroll (nearly $205 million). 

Maybe the only thing holding the Dodgers back from signing Harper now is some fiscal responsibility because the team reportedly had been doing investor solicitations and conveyed to potential investors that they would be staying under the CBT cap with a target payroll at $185 million for 2019 according to the L.A. Times report. For the Dodgers, they still need a frontline catcher and possibly a second baseman, but they have a surplus of outfielders whereby they could clear “cap space” by trading Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig along with pitchers like Alex Wood and/or Hyun-Jin Ryu, but keep in mind that these are not dollar for dollar payroll decreases as Kemp and Ryu would almost certainly require cash or a bad player contract going to the acquiring team to even some of the dollars out . The Nationals are not in that same situation where they could clear out highly compensated players like the Dodgers which is why the Nationals needed a commitment from Harper by the end of October before they started spending money in this off-season. The Nationals went on quite the spending spree committing $140 million on just Patrick Corbin but also millions in salaries in 2019 on Kyle Barraclough, Trevor Rosenthal, Kurt Suzuki, Yan Gomes, and Matt Adams.

Of course all of this could just be a masterful charade by Harper just to use the Nationals to drive up his price with no desire to actually return to the team. Towards the end of the season, Harper made many references to the media as he wondered whether he was in the Nationals future “plans” as if that was ever in question.

“Of course [Bryce] is in our plans,” general manager Mike Rizzo said before the season ended. “He’s a guy we would love to have. He’s a part of our family. He’s a big part of this roster, performance-wise. Like I’ve always said with these type of deals, you’re not betting on the baseball player, you’re betting on the person. He’s a person we’d like to have with us.”

Rizzo made that statement knowing that they just made a substantial offer to Harper that he walked away from according to reports in an amount of $300 million over 10 years that we had previously reported in October from a source close to Harper that the true value was near $280 million due to deferrals using present value amortization. That number last week was confirmed by Bob Nightengale of USA Today at the Winter Meetings. If Harper really wanted to stay, he had the door wide open in September when he received the offer. The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side.

“…we just couldn’t afford to put more than that in [an offer for Bryce Harper] and still be able to put a team together that had a chance to win the NL East or go farther than that,” Mark Lerner said recently.

Affording to re-sign Harper is multi-dimensional. While the Lerners are billionaires, they also must run this baseball business soundly as they have partners who are not billionaires, and they have a fiduciary responsibility to those partners who you can see listed at the top of the Nationals website. The Nationals revenue is over $200 million below teams like the Yankees and Dodgers who are the behemoths of MLB. Based on Forbes numbers for the Nationals in 2017, they were close to a break-even ($11 million) based on EBITA, and it is entirely possible they lost money after their interest payments on debt. Payroll has only been increasing while revenue could take a dive after the All-Star season windfalls. The money to sign Bryce Harper along with the desire comes with a big price tag — the CBT cap cannot support a Harper reunion due to all the recent signings unless the Nationals and agent Scott Boras get über creative.

Because the Nationals still need more starting pitching as well as a left-handed second baseman, they will most likely spend more money this off-season. Those acquisitions could eat-up what is left on the budget and right to the precipice of the CBT cap at $206 million. But what if the Nationals, Boras, and Harper worked out a deal that paid him the $330 million that would set the all-time baseball record for a single contract that was for 15-years? That would put the Nationals at $22 million a year straight-line and with a a 50% penalty for 2019 he would effectively cost the Nats $33 million.

If you ask yourself, why would the Nats want to pay Harper into his age-41 season, the answer is simply they do not but you do this to essentially defer the dollars over a contract that could end earlier with a pay-out like the Yankees had with Alex Rodriguez. You do this for “now” so you keep your AAV low. If the Nationals were willing to pay Harper for 10 years at $30 million a year, we are adding on 5-years at only $6 million a year above the original reported offer while lowering the average annual value by over $8 million from that original $30 million a year. If Harper has any residual value in those outlying years it is a bonus. Barry Bonds played into his age-42 season in 2007 and had a 1.045 OPS in the 126 games he played.

While that type of number would hurt the Nationals payroll for 2019, it would allow the Nationals to restructure their payroll after the 2019 season when the team could part ways with Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick, and possibly even Anthony Rendon who will be a pending free agent after next season. On top of that several players will have options and opt-outs like Adam Eaton, Yan Gomes, Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Adams, and Stephen Strasburg. While most fans want it all, this could come down to what the Nationals want more — Harper or Rendon? Keep in mind that the word “could” is the key word here. There are many moving parts at play here and for the future.

The Nationals still have other avenues open to them to get even more creative on their payroll by extending and renegotiating Ryan Zimmerman‘s current deal as well as trading Michael Taylor which could save the Nationals about $10 million in AAV. In the same strategy, the Nationals could also look to their highest paid player in Max Scherzer who only has 3-years remaining on his contract and look to extend him into his age-38 and 39 season at much lower dollars. Maybe it is still possible to re-sign Harper and stay under the CBT cap for 2019 with some über creativity.

In the NBA and NFL, players have renegotiated deals to help their team get below the “cap” and star quarterback Russell Wilson recently did this for the Seattle Seahawks. When Clayton Kershaw was contemplating an opt-out on his contract, the team and Kershaw worked out a 2-year extension at a lower value bringing his AAV down a few million dollars. There are some other MLB players who have done similar renegotiations and while these are complicated, there is some precedence.

“I’ve talked to Ted Lerner and Mike Rizzo, and from our standpoint, their door is very open to us and our door is very open to them, and we’ve always had a great working relationship,” Scott Boras said. “We continue to do so and continue to have dialogue on the subject. The Lerners and Bryce collectively will do what’s best for them. It could be his last day of wearing the [Nationals] uniform or potentially it could go on for the eternity of his career. It is not one where the door is closed…”

They say that when one door closes — another one opens. The door metaphors have been flying open and shut and what matters is that this is not a unilateral decision — it takes two to tango or metaphorically two doors open with an embrace in the middle. Nobody knows for sure what each side wants yet according to Boras. Again, Harper may have no desire to return to Washington, D.C., and that is his choice as a free agent and the same goes for Rendon who has said he is open to returning. As we learned from Ian Desmond, saying and doing can swing like a dual hinged door, and when the door closes and fans feel that pain from the separation — it is sometimes for the best — you just don’t know it yet.

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