- - Sunday, December 4, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Nearly 10 years ago, New York Yankees president Randy Levine and Washington Nationals owner Ted Lerner — both George Washington University alumni — took part in a forum at the school to discuss the economics of the game.

Levine told the crowd because of the pressures on the Yankees, it was their goal to win the World Series each and every year.

Lerner got a few laughs with his response, “I might add, we’re not concerned with winning the World Series this year.”

I thought of that exchange when I saw Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper in a Yankees uniform on the back page of Saturday’s New York Daily News, with the headline “Bats to the Future.”

Harper and Orioles star Manny Machado were photo shopped into Yankee uniforms as part of a projection of the franchise’s financial position following the 2018 season — when both players become free agents — in the wake of the new labor agreement reached last week that runs through 2021.

Is everyone still chuckling about the notion of the Nationals competing with the Yankees?

Washington has become one of the standards of excellence in baseball under general manager Mike Rizzo in the past five seasons, outdistancing the Yankees in wins (458 to 435) and division titles (three National League East titles for Washington, one American League East title for New York and one wild card).

Yet most people believe it is a foregone conclusion that Harper, who has made it clear his love for the Yankees as a young baseball fan, will replicate that Daily News back page some day.

That makes Bryce Harper pretty much untradeable.

Trade Bryce Harper, you say? Are you serious?

It’s a possibility Nats fans better get used to.

The 2018 All-Star Game could take place in Washington with baseball’s Minister of Fun in another uniform.

The Nationals have just two years left before Harper would become a free agent, which opens the door for either negotiations or trade talks for both.

But how much would Washington get in any deal, though, if the trading partner believes, like most, that Harper is New York Yankees property-in-waiting? Why would you trade for Harper if you will be facing the same challenge as the Nationals — a player with an agent in Scott Boras who will likely be determined to take his player to free agency, where Harper is expected to set contracts records. A $400 million player, or maybe a $500 million player?

If the Nationals believe they have little, if any chance to convince Harper to stay with Washington, then he will never have more value than now ­— when another team can get at least two more years out of him — and should be one of the topics of discussion at the winter meetings underway this week just a few miles from Nationals Park at National Harbor.

Now, you could say Washington can enjoy the benefits of those two years themselves, and, if they cannot resign him and he goes to the Yankees, the Nationals will get draft choice compensation. But that is diminished under the new labor agreement. Teams over the luxury tax threshold have the biggest burden of compensation — which would likely include the Yankees — but that compensation is only a second and fifth round pick.

Nationals fans can look for a sliver of hope with the long-term contract that Boras’ other high-profile client, Stephen Strasburg, signed with Washington last year, but these are two different players. One likes comfort and familiarity. The other loves the spotlight, and, based on the profile in ESPN The Magazine, Harper sees himself as a historic player who will change the game.

Harper told USA Today last spring, “I’ve got three years to play,” Harper said. “I’m a National. I’m very humbled to put a W on my chest every single day. I love the nation’s capital. I love D.C. I get chills just thinking about it right now. It’s such a monumental town. I look forward to playing there every single day for the next three years. That’s on my mind right now.”

Now it’s two years.

Rizzo and Boras have had conversations about a long-term Harper deal, but nothing on the level of true negotiations. The Washington franchise has one of the most successful ownership groups on and off the field,” Boras told USA Today in February. “They certainly have the ability to conduct whatever form of business they see fit.”

Yes, they do. Don’t buy the storyline from the Nationals that the MASN conflict would handcuff them from making a Harper deal. The money is there.

The question then, is — are the Nationals the same franchise that drew laughs nearly 10 years ago about comparisons to the Yankees? Or is Ted Lerner ready to do battle with his GW alumni brother?

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.


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