And how smart-plus-lucky do the Nationals look right now?
The Nats' offseason Plan B — to rebuild their roster on the assumption free agent Harper would leave — now has a chance to become an amazing A-plus.
This winter the Nats have added Patrick Corbin, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Trevor Rosenthal, Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Barraclough, Matt Adams and, this week, Brian Dozier. What if Harper comes back to Washington, too?
What was unthinkable when the season ended, and kissed off as irrational by Nats principal owner Mark Lerner just five weeks ago, is now on the table.
Hold off on that thanks-for-the-memories scoreboard video tribute to Harper when he comes back to Nationals Park this season as a Dodger, Yankee or Cub.
All the unexpected twists in this offseason free agent world suddenly have turned electric — for baseball, and especially for Washington.
For complex interlocking reasons, including (apparently) tepid interest from the glamorous big-market teams, the price for Harper and Machado may be $50 million to $100 million less than seemed likely in September when Harper turned down $300 million from the Nats.
Mr. Market, for reasons that seem silly or suspicious to me, has said, "Meh."
Now, the big-dollar players for Harper appear to be the White Sox, a franchise for which Harper won't want to play because he's sane. And the Phillies, who have absolutely nothing to offer that Washington can't match or exceed, except perhaps a mountain of money. Harper already says he loves D.C., and knows he's loved back. In Philly, they booed Santa.
On Friday, every Philadelphian of distinction, except Ben Franklin, reportedly went to Harper's home in Las Vegas to woo him, including owner John Middleton, who has said that he's prepared to pay "stupid" money to land Harper or Machado.
What if the Phillies offer $425 million, with opt-out years, earplugs for home games and right of first refusal if Philadelphia ever decides to sell the Liberty Bell?
Well, the Nats tried. They stayed in the game and maintained good relations. And they still can face their future with a big, fat grin with the team they now have. Their outfield would include prized rookie Victor Robles, a full year of Juan Soto and a fully-recovered right fielder in Adam Eaton who has hit .300 as a Nat. And they can still add an economical fifth starter and one more decent reliever.
If, however, Harper looks at his old familiar Nats team, suddenly refurbished, and decides that he'd like to come back to D.C. for something on the order of $325 million to $350 million for 10 years, then that's a deal that probably can get done.
Before the ink is dry, the Nats will be looking to trade Eaton, and his team-friendly contract, plus "others," for one more significant pitching upgrade.
Oh, brother. If all that falls in place, we can start designing the statues of Ted Lerner and Harper that will probably be placed in front of Nationals Park someday, near Walter Johnson, Josh Gibson and Frank Howard.
Oh, yeah, this would be a statue moment. Right now, Nats fans face an alternative of two states of baseball grace: "Wow, what a winter," and flat-out OMG!
Lerner deserves bronze already for buying a team for his hometown in 2005 and helping to catalyze the birth of the Southeast waterfront by building an organization that, just seven years later, won the first of four NL East titles.
But even more folks will nod toward Lerner, decades from now, if the 92-year-old busts his own wallet - not egregiously for a multibillionaire, but not insignificantly either — so that Nats fans get a chance to see the first 17 years of Harper's career. Oh, and the first 14 years of Stephen Strasburg's career, too.
Did anyone imagine that was possible in June 2010, when the Nats drafted Harper a year after they'd gotten Strasburg?
Harper, who has won an MVP award, may not have to reach Cooperstown to get his statue, though that would ice it. Just by being Bryce, re-upping for another decade as a Nat and bringing so much fun, plus the occasional D.C. Strangler attack, may be enough. In time, he may merit comparison to three-time MVP, seven-time top goal scorer and Stanley Cup winner Alex Ovechkin.
If Harper, who hasn't lifted the Nats beyond the first round of the playoffs, is ever part of a World Series champ — and, remember, Ovechkin started off 0-for-9 — he'll get to see a Pennsylvania Avenue parade that may make last June look calm.
So, as you see, there's no real reason to get excited.
The Nats have reached a point, probably to their own surprise, where all their "cases" — best, worst and in-between — are cheerful.
If the Nats don't re-sign Harper, there's no way they'll lose Anthony Rendon because of money after this season. The Nats are within a few million dollars of the luxury tax threshold of $206 million for 2019 right now.
Nobody is as smart as the Nats now look. They've been lucky, too.
How did the Nats get here? And is this a case of too-good-to-be-true?
I still wonder if the Dodgers, Cubs and Yankees — any or all of them — are playing possum. The buzz, meaning the propaganda, is that the Cubs have far too much payroll tied up in too many outfielders to be chasing Harper. The Yankees supposedly spent their outfield allocation when they traded for Giancarlo Stanton last season. GM Brian Cashman even says to stop speculating about Harper.
The Dodgers have too many key left-handed bats to want another one, even Harper. Their trade of Yasiel Puig, whose reverse splits make him, in effect, a lefty hitter, was done to reduce this vulnerability to southpaws, not to open an outfield spot for Harper.
Many of us have analyzed every player who's been roughly comparable to Harper (and Machado) through their age 25 seasons and concluded that a 10-year deal at big dollars is a big risk - but also basically sane, too.
Slice and dice it however you want — I prefer comparing every player in their age 22-through-25 seasons to Harper, who ranks 57th on that list — and you'll reach similar conclusions. On a 10-year deal, you're more likely to get a future Hall of Famer, maybe even a Frank Robinson, than you are to get the age 26-through-35 stats of one of Frank's best friends, Vada Pinson, an identical Harper comparable (in WAR) at age 25 who wouldn't have been worth the mega-money.
You can't know you'll get great Frank instead of good Vada — and the risk is huge — but you are more likely to be generally right than brutally wrong.
The reason Harper and Machado are still available a month before spring training is not because the sport fears long deals for extremely young stars.
The reason, supposedly, is that "they don't fit" the needs of many of the top teams who would have the money for an immense contract. After last winter's salary carnage, and speculation that the analytics generation of executives has radically devalued every season by every player past his 30th birthday, it's reasonable to wonder if MLB owners simply enjoy the new direction in their game. There's safety, and profit, in groupthink.
Whatever the confluence of forces, the Nats now find themselves, it seems, in the Harper Market of their fantasies: facing the (oh, please) White Sox and Phillies.
There's a limit to what any player is worth. And the Phillies, or Chisox, may take the price tag past that limit. It's the Nats business how high they think they can go and remain a contender indefinitely. Visions of statues in front of Nationals Park will — and should — tempt them out of their comfort zone.
Just remember, never look a gift horse in the mouth. Especially if it answers to "Bryce."