Houston Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow has confirmed a long-standing rumor — that his team came close to acquiring Bryce Harper from the Washington Nationals at the July 31 trade deadline in the 2018 Major League Baseball season, according to a report by the Houston Chronicle. But the Astros have also been rumored to be a “mystery team” in the race to sign the 26-year-old free agent Harper.
The Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants are widely believed to be the leading contenders to sign Harper, as the race gets down to the wire, with spring training opening games now just one week away. But whoever signs the superstar — who has compiled a career OPS of .900, seventh-best among active players, per Baseball Reference — the value of his contract is likely to set a new record, according to SI.
“There was an agreement in principle in place and it didn’t get over the finish line for whatever reason, out of our control. But, yeah, we had interest,” Luhnow told the Chronicle in a report published on Thursday. “We had worked out an agreement with players both ways.”
Luhnow also noted that the prospective Harper deal was not unusual. Numerous trades, he said, are worked out each season but never completed and never make it into the media.
“I think fans would be surprised at the types of players at times we’ve gone after and how close we’ve come on some of ’em,” Luhnow said.
But by confirming that the Astros had strong interest in Harper, Luhnow appeared to add credence to an earlier rumor, reported by Richard Justice of MLB.com last month, that the Astros were involved as a “mystery team” in the hunt for the free agent.
“Mystery teams” exist in most high-profile free agent signing dramas, Justice wrote. In some cases, they can be used as leverage by player agents to drive up their clients’ prices with teams that have openly expressed interest.
In other cases, mystery teams “lurk in the shadows,” waiting to swoop in with last-minute offers once they know how the market for a specific player has been established. Perhaps the most notorious “mystery team” signing came in 2000 when the Texas Rangers inked Alex Rodriguez to a then-record deal, after the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, and other teams had openly courted the star shortstop, as Sports Illustrated documented.
“To acquire a left-handed-hitting right fielder — that would be Harper — might make the Astros favored to win their second World Series in three seasons,” Justice wrote in his report that the Astros may be a mystery team in the running for Harper. “Team owner Jim Crane has said he’s prepared to spend big.”