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If the Cardinals are going to sign Harper, they have to be aggressive from the start

The Washington Post reports that potential St. Louis Cardinals target Bryce Harper was offered an “aggressive” contract offer by the Washington Nationals before he hit free agency — and he turned it down.

Although we don’t know the exact terms of the deal other than that it was a long-term offer worth about $30 million a year, it certainly seems that the bidding for the star outfielder isn’t going to be for the faint of heart. If the Redbirds were hoping the highest-profile free agent on the market this year was going to fall through the cracks and land in St. Louis on the cheap, that ain’t gonna happen. But that doesn’t mean the Cardinals can’t win the race. They’re just not going to come up with a no-brainer deal that they would be foolish to pass up.

It was likely a face saving move on the part of the Nationals to show their fan base they tried to keep the biggest superstar the franchise has ever known. But Washington remains a force to be reckoned with in the Harper derby because he has history and a level of comfort there. Meanwhile, Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, continues to try to stoke the fire underneath the feet of bidding teams. He publicly claimed at the General Managers Meetings this week that Harper could switch positions to fit into the roster of the deep-pocketed New York Yankees as a first baseman. Wait a minute. Didn’t Boras claim during the World Series that Harper already made up his mind where he wanted to play and had a deal hammered out?

It just goes to show how much smoke and how many mirrors are involved in a high profile free agent campaign.

I don’t know how much it’s going to cost to sign Harper. But I think it’s a mistake to suppose the reason he didn’t accept an extension from the Nationals was because of the money. One thing is certain: Harper is going to get paid more than he could possibly spend in a lifetime, no matter where he plays. One detail about the Washington proposal that emerged is that it didn’t contain any opt outs. So, maybe he isn’t convinced that the Nats are going to be as competitive as he would like them to be over that time. Maybe he doesn’t have confidence in the front office. Or maybe opt outs were a priority to him because he wants to have more control about where he plays in the future.

Regardless of the dollar figure that is ultimately attached to the deal, it’s fairly obvious that Harper wants to land the richest contract in the history of Major League Baseball which currently stands at the $325 million pact handed to Giancarlo Stanton by the Miami Marlins and taken over by the Yankees. If the Redbirds are serious about Harper, they need to expect to shell out a minimum of $350 million. That shouldn’t be a shock. It’s the going rate for top talent and it’s something the team can afford. It should be less of an issue for the Cardinals to fit the biggest contract in MLB history into their budget than it would be for the Yankees to shoehorn both number one AND number two onto the same roster. Harper and Stanton are likely to command $60-70 million a year between them. Including Masahiro Tanaka, Aroldis Chapman and Jacoby Ellsbury, New York would have just five players combining to earn $120 million.

If there is anything for the Redbirds to take away from the Nationals contract offer being rejected, it’s that they know they need to be serious and aggressive right from the start. This isn’t the time to play coy, look for bargains or try to outsmart everyone else.

The Cardinals can’t fool around like they did with Albert Pujols in 2011 and try to sell a player who could get a 12-year deal on a 3-5-year contract. They need to show that they’re serious about paying the going rate. And they need to do it without blinking because, even if they offered Harper $400 million, he isn’t going to want to go to a team that can’t afford to put a competitive club on the field around him.