During the 2018-19 offseason, there was no question that former Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper was the most prized free agent available on the market. Free-agent spending across MLB was down, but that didn’t stop several teams from making a pitch to lure the former MVP to their respective cities.
There were six clubs, in fact, that made some kind of offer to Harper that winter. Even though he ultimately decided to sign a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, they weren’t the only team that piqued his interest during his first-and perhaps last-taste of free agency.
On Barstool Sports’ podcast Starting 9, Harper broke down the pitch he received from each team that made him an offer and explained what he liked and didn’t like about the fit within those organizations.
The Nationals made a $300 million offer to Harper at the end of the previous season just before he hit free agency. Although, according to Harper, the contract would’ve deferred payments all the way until he was 80 years old-something he said he wasn’t interested in-the initial meetings made him feel optimistic that a deal would get done.
«I sat there with my wife and said, ‘Babe, we’re going back. We’re going back to D.C.,'» Harper said. «If they offer me anything close-I want real money though. I don’t want deferred money. I wanted them to understand that. If they would’ve deferred a little bit of it, I would’ve been fine with that.»
But as the offseason progressed and the Nationals filled up their payroll with signings of Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, Aníbal Sánchez and Trevor Rosenthal, Harper and agent Scott Boras realized a deal with Washington wasn’t likely and decided to turn to the rest of the league after the New Year.
Coming in strong were the Chicago White Sox. Although he had always enjoyed the idea of playing in Chicago, Harper had always envisioned himself playing for the Cubs instead of their cross-town rivals. With a young core and «blue collar» fan base, the White Sox looked like a solid contender for his services.
«So they had a lot of good guys and I was like, «Hm, who’s going to hit behind me?’ And I was like, ‘Shoot, big old first baseman [Jose Abreu],'» Harper said. «That’s huge for me because he’s very-just goes about his business, hits .280 every year with 25 [home runs] quietly and nobody really talks about it but he’s a very good guy to hit behind me.»
But after the White Sox fell short in the bidding for fellow free agent Mann Machado, Chicago reportedly pulled out of the Harper sweepstakes. Although no reason for why was included in the report, Machado’s 10-year, $300 million deal with the San Diego Padres served as a benchmark for what Harper was looking for and the White Sox have never signed a player to a deal of that size.
Then came the San Francisco Giants, who offered Harper 12 years and $310 million to come play in the NL West, according to NBC Sports Bay Area. The star outfielder considered their offer but decided he didn’t want to be a part of a rebuild that was still in its early stages.
«My fear with San Fran was, all their guys are kinda done,» Harper said. «[Buster] Posey was going to be gone possibly or he was going to move to first base. [Brandon] Belt only had two years left so he was going to be gone possibly. [Brandon] Crawford, where was he going to be?»
Two teams were interested in making the kind of long-term commitment that Harper was looking for but tried to go a different route to entice him to sign: short-term deal, high average annual value.
The Houston Astros, who tried trading for Harper at the deadline earlier that year, made an early one-year offer for a «stupid» amount that made Harper ask Boras, «Why not?» After all, Harper would’ve set himself up for a great year surrounding by so much talent and playing in the hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park.
However, that idea didn’t last long and with the scandal that’s since ensued, Harper is glad he didn’t make that decision.
At the end of the offseason, the Los Angeles Dodgers offered Harper a reported four-year deal worth $180 million. But while that $45 million salary would’ve easily been the highest in baseball, Harper didn’t want to go through free agency again in four years.
«You never have a guy walk in there and go, «I want to be here for 13 years and I don’t want to leave,'» Harper said. «I think everybody was thrown off like, ‘What? You’re a Scott Boras client. You want opt-outs, you’re a liar.’ And it’s like, ‘No I don’t. That’s my big thing.’ And I let that be known, I want 11 to 13 years…I don’t care if [the salary is lower] because I want you guys to be able to bring guys in and play on my contract as well.»
In the end, only the Phillies were left standing as the match for Harper. Even though Harper understood that Philadelphia might not win in his first year, he felt good about the young core it had built up during its rebuild process that had spanned nearly the entire 2010s decade. Plus, it helped that the Phillies were willing to meet his record-setting asking price.
One year in, the Phillies don’t appear to have any regrets over giving out that deal-and neither does Harper. Things have worked out pretty well in Washington too, where the Nationals won their first World Series title in franchise history last October.
Meanwhile, the White Sox are on the cusp of contention after signing Dallas Keuchel, Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnación last offseason, the Giants are all in on their rebuild, the Astros made it all the way to the World Series but are enveloped in a scandal and the Dodgers won 106 games last season before trading for Mookie Betts and David Price this offseason.
The landscape of MLB would look a lot different had Harper decided to sign elsewhere. But he and the Phillies are now tied together for the next 12 seasons. Only time will tell who ended up being the true losers in the entire sweepstakes.
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Bryce Harper breaks down the free agency pitch from each team he met with originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington