It’s Day 117 of Harper Watch, and the jokes are pouring in. Check out this knee-slapper: Bryce Harper’s free agency has dragged on for so long that next year’s free agents are starting to sign. (Cue the laugh track.)

It would be funny if it wasn’t true. Within the past few days, Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks, Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, and Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas — all of whom were eligible to hit the open market after this season — have agreed to terms on extensions with their respective teams. Yet Harper, and by extension, the Phillies, wait and wait.

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Bryce Harper, right, will help set the market for fellow superstar Mike Trout, who isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season.
Bryce Harper, right, will help set the market for fellow superstar Mike Trout, who isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season.

Future free agents paying attention to Harper negotiations

Last week, a few hours after the news leaked that Manny Machado had agreed to a $300 million contract with the Padres, reporters stationed in Red Sox camp sought Mookie Betts’ opinion.

“It’s not just about me,” said Betts, the reigning American League MVP, who remains two years away from free agency. “The guys behind me, you want to do things for them. As players, we’re all kind of one. We play the game. You just have to kind of pass the baton to the next guy and think about their family.”

Machado’s deal made him the highest-paid free agent ever in terms of overall value, eclipsing the $275 ;million contract signed by Alex Rodriguez after the 2007 season. But Machado accomplished more than that. He raised the bar for potential future free agents, such as Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon next year and Betts and Angels star Mike Trout in the winter of 2020-21.

It stands to reason, then, that Bryce Harper’s ongoing contract talks are of interest to players everywhere, not only in the clubhouses of the Phillies, Giants and perhaps Dodgers, his primary suitors. It also explains why Harper’s decision most likely will come down to money, plain and simple.

For all the chatter about his preference to play on the West Coast or his desire to get an opt-out clause after three years rather than four or five, he still figures to sign with the team that makes the best offer because that’s what is expected of him as one of the sport’s biggest stars.

After back-to-back offseasons in which the free-agent market has been historically slow-moving, tensions between the players and owners are simmering. In any climate, but especially this one, the union wouldn’t take kindly to a player of Harper’s stature leaving money on the table in favor of a shorter-term deal. Even if the Dodgers offered $35 million per year, a record average-annual value, Harper would be hard-pressed to forgo a Phillies offer that could be worth $330 million or more.

For most of the winter, the Phillies have expressed confidence that they will wind up with Machado or Harper. They walked away from Machado knowing that Harper was still available. And while their confidence might have been shaken by the Dodgers’ meeting with Harper last Sunday in Las Vegas, their ability to outspend every other team still makes them the favorite to sign him.

Regardless, Harper’s peers will be watching.

The rundown

Nolan Arenado’s decision to sign a contract extension illustrates why passing on Harper and waiting for a future free agent, including Mike Trout, is a dangerous game for the Phillies, as Matt Breen writes.

Like it or not, Harper is going to get an opt-out clause. The question now is whether the Phillies can strike a compromise with agent Scott Boras over when that provision would kick in.

Hey, it’s the latest edition of Extra Innings, the Podcast. Matt Breen, Bob Brookover, and I got together to talk about the Harper saga (what else?) and more.

Bad news for reliever Tommy Hunter, who has been shut down because of a strained flexor muscle.

Outfield prospect Adam Haseley, the Phillies’ first-round draft pick in 2017, won’t make the big-league club out of spring training. But he has made an impression on manager Gabe Kapler.

Remember Kyle Abbott, who went 1-14 for the last-place Phillies in 1992? Two decades later, his life is completely different, as Frank Fitzpatrick writes.

Rob Tornoe has your guide to watching, listening and streaming Phillies spring training games.

Important dates

Today: Phillies vs. Twins at Spectrum Field, 1:05 p.m.

Tomorrow: Split-squad Phillies host Orioles, visit Blue Jays in Dunedin, 1:05 p.m.

Friday: Phillies vs. Pirates in Clearwater, 1:05 p.m.

Saturday: Zach Eflin starts vs. Rays in Port Charlotte, 1:05 p.m.

Sunday: Jake Arrieta makes spring debut vs. Twins in Fort Myers, 1:05 p.m.

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler communicating with coaches last week during a game against the Rays in Port Charlotte.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler communicating with coaches last week during a game against the Rays in Port Charlotte.

Stat of the day

Last September, after a Phillies loss to the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park, Kapler offered this unsolicited opinion: “Bryce Harper might be the best player in baseball.”

Hyperbole? Perhaps. It’s difficult to make the argument that Harper — or any player, for that matter — is better than Mike Trout. But if Harper isn’t the best player in the game, he’s certainly in the top 10. And at age 26, he likely hasn’t reached his peak, even though he’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

Consider this: In baseball history, only 10 players have accumulated at least 3,300 at-bats and a .900 on-base plus slugging percentage through their age-25 season. Six of them are Hall of Famers (Mel Ott, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, and Jimmie Foxx); one is not yet eligible for the Hall (Alex Rodriguez); two are still playing (Trout and Miguel Cabrera). And the 10th is Harper.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Question: I don’t how management is comfortable with the last three starters. They show signs but are too inconsistent. Vince [Velasquez] has to go to the bullpen where he pitches 2-3 innings. I would overpay on a three-year deal for [Dallas] Keuchel. If not, how about a two-year deal for [Gio] Gonzalez? They need some maturity on the staff.

-- Ed A., via e-mail

Answer: Wait, this isn’t about Bryce Harper. Is that allowed? Just kidding, Ed. Thanks for the note.

I’ve been writing for some time that the Phillies should add to the rotation. But after getting outbid by the Nationals for Patrick Corbin and making a somewhat tepid pursuit of J.A. Happ, team officials haven’t considered any other free-agent pitchers, including Gonzalez and even Keuchel, to be upgrades over Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and Zach Eflin.

At this point, perhaps unless Keuchel is willing to settle for a one-year deal, the Phillies are more likely to find rotation help via a trade before July 31. A few pitchers who might be available: Madison Bumgarner (Giants), Alex Wood (Reds), Marcus Stroman (Blue Jays), Matt Harvey (Angels), Alex Cobb (Orioles), and lefty Mike Minor (Rangers), in whom the Phillies expressed interest during the offseason.