Photo: Rob Carr (Getty)

When last we left the Bryce Harper Derby ... absolutely nothing was happening, or so we were led to believe. The 26-year-old superstar outfield has been taking his time, sitting on (as far as we know) a single formal offer, $300 million over 10 years, from the Washington Nationals. The offer was made while the regular season was still going on, and later leaked by the Nationals’ front office, for motives both self-serving and potentially nefarious. It also, as presented, had the ring of a final offer, appearing to signal the end of Harper’s career in Washington.

But this week’s news brings word that not only has the Harper Sweepstakes been playing out, if quietly, but that the Nationals may still be in the thick of it.

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ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports:

Harper has met multiple times with representatives of the Washington Nationals, according to a club source, and the possibility of a return to the place he spent the first seven years of his career persists[.]

The Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes gives a little more context:

According to a person with direct knowledge of Harper’s process, the 26-year-old and his agent, Scott Boras, met with Nationals owner Ted Lerner for five hours on the Saturday before Christmas. Asked to confirm that this meeting happened, multiple people with the club refused to do so, a departure from their relative openness about their status with Harper this winter. On the record and off it, club officials have been willing to discuss the Harper situation because it seemed relatively uncomplicated until now: They made their offer. They put forth a legitimate effort to sign him. And he didn’t take it.

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That last point warrants some expounding. One reason the Nationals publicized their offer (via Janes and the Post) was to send a message to their fans: We tried. If he leaves, blame him, not us. Whether or not fans will accept and believe that message—given that we don’t know the shape of the market for Harper, and if $300M/10 years represents a truly competitive offer compared to other teams—is up in the air.

Another purpose of that initial leak was to publicly set the market for Harper. There’s no other proper word besides “collusion” for that.

So how to take this new information that Harper and the Nationals are back at the table? The most obvious one is that the Nats’ “final” offer might not have been so final. (This is based on nothing but informed speculation, but it’s possible the Nationals might not budge from their $300 million offer but still “raise” it by including an opt-out, which would allow Harper to again seek a big free-agent payout while still in his prime.) Scott Boras has undoubtedly been collecting offers from other teams, formal or preliminary, and would be remiss if he didn’t circle back to the Nationals with those offer. And the fact that the sides have reportedly met multiple times, including a five-hour session, would seem to indicate that what’s happening between Harper and the Nats are real negotiations. No one wants to sit around for five hours just for show.

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Not unless ... well, it’s time for some game theory. There is the distinct possibility that the Nationals are by this point less interested in signing Harper than they are in driving up his price for his other suitors, including the division rival Phillies. As Janes notes in her column, if this were the plan, you’d expect the Nationals to publicize these meetings. And if the plan were to actually try to re-sign Harper, the Nationals would try to keep these meetings quiet, to hide their interest and keep his price down. (Boras would want the news out either way.) So which is it, given what we know about how and when this information came out? That’s complicated. The ESPN report cited “club sources.” The Post report cites, initially, “a person with direct knowledge of Harper’s process”—that’s Boras, undoubtedly. And the Post report says that team sources initially refused to confirm the meeting—which, n.b., happened nearly two full weeks ago and had remained secret since—but eventually did so later on, after ESPN’s report was published. It’s enough to make your head hurt, and you can add in that both sides are trying to read the same tea leaves you and I are, and making their decisions and leaking their leaks with the full knowledge that the other side is trying to parse them too.

Then consider that, according to another source of Passan’s (again, almost assuredly Boras), Harper is so set on waiting for what he considers a fair contract that there’s a very strong possibility this process lasts into February. We’re going to be doing this for a while.