LAS VEGAS — It was Santa Claus standing under the Christmas tree Wednesday, with nearly 200 reporters and camera crews huddled around, trying to get a glimpse, a sound bite, and if lucky, a conversation.
It was powerful agent Scott Boras, who has an annual tradition of holding court on the final full day at baseball’s winter meetings, but never before has he drawn such a huge audience, with a gaggle of fans standing on the perimeter, including Marlins Man.
Then again, Boras hasn’t had a free agent player like Bryce Harper, who not only is expected to eclipse Alex Rodriguez’s record 10-year, $275 million contract as a free agent, but obliterate it.
Harper already flatly rejected a 10-year, $300 million offer from the Washington Nationals in September, and is expected to receive a deal that may eclipse $400 million.
“The qualifications to be young, to be extraordinary, to have the valuation they bring,’’ Boras says, “there just aren’t many players that get to that place. It’s rare air.’’
There were no hints where Harper was leaning during Boras’ hour-long chat, but he did say how much he respects Philadelphia Phillies owner John Middleton and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who just so happen to be the two who aren’t blinking at the price tag.
Reinsdorf and Boras have already spoken twice by phone about the 2015 NL MVP.
Boras didn’t say that the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals were trying to be deceitful when they’ve publicly said they have no interest in bidding for Harper, but instead dropped this beauty of an analogy:
“When the nurse walks in the room with the thermometer, the issue is not what the thermometer says that day,’’ Boras said, “the issue is what’s the health of the patient when they’re ready to leave the hospital.’’
Boras certainly wasn’t about to reveal who’s really in or out on the Harper sweepstakes, or what teams Harper has met with in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, but the picture is becoming clear.
The Phillies remain the favorites. They plan to make the largest offer, unless free agent infielder Manny Machado decides to take their money first.
The White Sox also are deeply invested to make their franchise relevant again, but questions remain whether they seriously will make a bid in the $300 million range. Their last marquee free agent signing was Adam Dunn, to a 4-year, $56 million contract in 2010. And the next mega contract with a Boras client will be their first.
Still, the White Sox are making it known they want to be big-time players, meeting in person with Harper for five hours on Nov. 19, with White Sox vice president Ken Williams, general manager Rick Hahn and Hall of Famer Jim Thome in attendance. Yet, Reinsdorf was not at the meeting, and still has not granted permission for Williams and Hahn to negotiate a contract.
“I’m sure Jerry will do whatever’s good business for him,’’ Boras said.
And it’s great business for the White Sox, Boras reiterated, for them to bring in one of the finest drawing cards in the game to a franchise that hasn’t drawn two million fans since 2011.
The White Sox lost 100 games last season, haven’t had a winning season since 2012, and their last playoff berth was 10 years ago. Yet, Boras says that as long as the organization is committed to winning over the long haul, Harper is willing to take October off for a year or two.
“I think the effectiveness of ownership in meetings,’’ Boras said, “is their ability to create a winning modality that is consistent with what a club may do over a 10-, 15-year period.’’
The White Sox aren’t convinced they are the only Chicago team interested in Harper, but there’s no indication from the Cubs that they’ll be involved. They didn’t have room in their budget to sign free agent outfielder Billy Hamilton to a one-year, $5 million contract, so how are they going to suddenly find room for a player making at least $35 million a year? And the last the Cubs checked, no one was calling to take Yu Darvish and his $126 million contract or right fielder Jason Heyward, who has five years and $136 million left on his deal.
Really, perhaps the team to watch during these proceedings are the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Sure, they already have a surplus of outfielders. Dodgers president Andrew Friedman has never signed a free agent to a contract worth $100 million. And they certainly proved they really don’t need Harper by winning back-to-back National League pennants.
But they love their stars in L.A., with Boras marketing Harper as a LeBron James in spikes.
The Dodgers are being creative in trade talks at these meetings, discussing a complicated deal with the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians in which they could trade outfielder Yasiel Puig and pitcher Alex Wood to the Reds, get back a slew of prospects, and send those along to Cleveland in a deal for ace Corey Kluber.
The Dodgers, who also are actively shopping Matt Kemp, suddenly would have a hole in the outfield for a certain All-Star right fielder.
Little wonder why Boras smiled when asked if teams are asking him to deliberately slow down the free agent process to provide them more time to make trades.
“That would be a common thread to a lot of clubs,’’ Boras said.
Some teams, like the Phillies, insist they don’t plan to wait. The Phillies grabbed a shortstop in Jean Segura last week, and then turned around Tuesday and signed Andrew McCutchen to a three-year, $50 million contract.
And they’re still in the Harper and Machado sweepstakes, only now with extra inventory to move, including the likes of Odubel Herrera, Nick Williams, Maikel Franco and even prized prospect Sixto Sanchez.
“If you see rumors connecting us to good players either through free agency or trade,’’ Phillies general manager Matt Klentak told reporters Tuesday, “they’re probably true. That doesn’t mean we’re going to do them, but we’re in the business of trying to get better.”
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