- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2014


It’s not my money. And the Lerner family clearly knows a lot more about making it and spending it than yours truly.

Perhaps if I was a billionaire real estate developer who owned the Washington Nationals, the team’s stance against Bryce Harper would make sense.

But I’m not and it doesn’t.

In case you missed it in November 2013, The Washington Post reported on a potential contract dispute between the Nats and their blooming superstar. Well, the squabble came to fruition this week, with Fox Sports reporting that the sides will square off in a grievance hearing this month.

There’s no question that Harper is under the Nats’ control for four more seasons. The issue is how much the Nats will have to pay him.

The difference could amount to $10 million or so before he reaches free agency in 2019.

That hardly seems worth the acrimony in haggles when a team and player sit across the table.

Such contentiousness is an accepted part of the game in salary arbitration cases, which have existed for 40 seasons. But the Nats are opting for a preliminary fight before the main event, attempting to delay Harper’s eligibility for arbitration … for one measly season.

He wasn’t listed Tuesday among the 10 players Washington offered arbitration, because the team considers him signed. However, Harper and agent Scott Boras contend they have a clause that allows them to opt out of the last-second, five-year deal reached in 2010. They want arbitration — and the annual pay raises it brings — to start now.

Washington didn’t include the opt-out clause in the written contract, but Boras claimed it was agreed upon during the hectic moments as the midnight signing deadline approached. After refusing to sign the deal as-is, Boras and Harper accepted a compromise:

If Harper had enough service time to qualify for arbitration before 2015, there would be a grievance hearing to determine whether he can opt out.

“We reached an agreement with MLB and the [players’ association] memorializing that Bryce only signed with the Nationals on the condition that his rights were preserved,” Boras told The Post 13 months ago. “So, as planned when the issue arises, we will proceed under the terms of that agreement.”

Which brings us to a place the Nats should have steered away from. Dickering with Harper in this instance is a bad look.

Harper signed a major-league contract when the Nats made him the No. 1 pick in 2010. Those contracts were rare then and are no longer permitted under baseball’s collective bargaining agreement. But opt-out provisions were virtually standard. In fact, Nats third baseman Anthony Rendon — the No. 6 pick in 2011 and a fellow Boras client — has an opt-out in the major-league deal he signed.

So the Nats wants us to believe that in the midst of frantic, desperate negotiations to sign one of baseball’s greatest prospects ever, they balked at a clause that was essentially universal. A clause that they turned around and included in another player’s contract the next year. A clause that Boras — who never leaves one penny on the table — had every reason to expect and hold out for.

The Nats might get an arbitrator to buy that.

Good luck with anyone else, especially players in their clubhouse and elsewhere.

One could argue that Washington has nothing to lose. Alienating Harper and Boras isn’t a concern, because “goodwill” doesn’t mean a thing to them. Boras clients don’t do hometown discounts or team-friendly deals. They are fierce proponents of the free market and accepting anything short of their maximum possible value is considered treasonous.

There will be no long-term, less-than-premium extension that delays free agency, like the six-year, $144.5 million pact Mike Trout signed with the Angels in March. If anything, Harper and Boras have their eye on something like the 13-year, $325 million contract Giancarlo Stanton signed with the Marlins last month.

The Nats probably figure: If Harper is going to seek the last dollar in any case, why not try to save $10 million or so over the next four years?

Because it makes you look like petty small-timers.

It wasn’t long ago when the Nats understood that appearances matter. It was 2010, the same year they drafted Harper.

They didn’t sign outfielder Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126 million contract because he was worth that much on the field. He was worth that much in changing MLB’s collective psyche, a crucial step in improving the impression of Washington’s baseball team.

Since then, the Nats have grown into one of the sport’s top franchises, in the win-loss column and on the list of largest payrolls. Washington has become a market that can compete for World Series titles and premier free agents alike.

No one is laughing at the club anymore.

But digging in against Harper, on this issue, sounds like a bad joke for a cheap thrill.

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