By Terry Cushman – @cushmanMLB
Whether Washington Nationals fans want to admit it or not, Bryce Harper’s future will be the biggest story of the season for their market and fan base. Possibly even bigger than a potentially successful play off run they may be involved in.
His agent, Scott Boras, is coming off the worst free agency season of his career. J.D. Martinez signed with the Boston Red Sox for only $110M of the $210M he initially asked for. Jake Arrieta sought a $200M deal, but maxed out at $75M with with Phillies. And lastly, Mike Moustakas was projected to land a multi year deal around $85M, but is returning to the Kansas City Royals for a meager $5.5M.
With some projections on Harper as high as $400M, or an annual value somewhere between $30M-$40M, only a handful of teams will have the means to sign a deal of that magnitude. So lets narrow it down:
Boston Red Sox
Boston typically does not make a splash of this caliber when looking for offense. You would have to go all the way back to Manny Ramirez in 2001 when he signed an eight year $160M deal to find a successful contract which actually worked out. A contract that size would still be considered huge by today’s standards. In 2010 Boston took on large contracts with Adrian Gonzales and Carl Crawford, but both were pedaled to the Dodgers once the front office realized their roster wasn’t sustainable with huge money tied to only a couple of players.
Considering the Red Sox coming into 2018 already $35M beyond the luxury tax threshold, mostly due to the fact they recently committed big money to J.D. Martinez, the chances of them making a move on Bryce Harper are close to zero.
I was a huge proponent of bringing in Martinez purely because he will put up similar numbers to Harper at a very big discount.
New York Yankees
The Bronx has long been considered a possible landing spot for Harper. However, the Yankees have put forth a massive effort to finally get below the luxury tax threshold after hovering above it for several years. Once they made the commitment to acquire Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins, they likely scrapped any plans to pursue Harper.
Eventually the Yankees will have to explore signing some of their young talent to extensions. Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, and Aaron Judge to name a few.
I expect they will focus their concentration on upgrading their starting pitching. Masahiro Tanaka, and C.C. Sabathia are relatively short term at this point. As is Sonny Gray with only a couple years left before free agency. Jordan Montgomery is a complimentary middle to back end starter who is controllable for a long time.
I just don’t see this scenario panning out with the Yankees bringing in Harper for what he is “projected” to earn. This would tie up roughly $70M between he and Stanton alone. A few teams in the league do not currently have that much money invested on their ENTIRE payroll.
The defending World Series champs have an even shorter window than the Yankees currently have. Their priorities are likely focused on trying to retain Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Dallas Keuchel.
Certainly the Astros won’t be able to keep them all. But it’s highly unlikely they will handcuff themselves with a huge salary on a small area of their team. They won the World Series without Harper in 2017, and I believe they will be content to keep it that way. Houston is simply not an obvious fit for Harper.
The Angels have one of the worst front offices in Major League Baseball. Similar to Jerry Jones with the Cowboys, their owner Art Moreno gets too involved in his team’s transactions, and should be leaving these decisions up to experienced baseball executives. So basically, I would not put it past them to make a move on Harper.
Having said that, I do not view them as a potential fit either. They still have several years committed to Albert Pujols, which we could all agree was not a smart contract to offer. Mike Trout will be coming up on free agency in the next few years, so my suspicion is they will do everything in their power to make sure he remains with their organization for the rest of their career. This cannot happen if a Harper signing takes place.
I would consider the Phillies as a strong potential front runner to sign Harper. The 2008 World Champs are certainly one of the better positioned teams who are near the end of a long rebuild. They have a low payroll. After recent signings of Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, it certainly appears they are about ready to load up and become a perennial contender again.
Philadelphia hasn’t forgotten about losing Jayson Werth to the Nationals after the 2010 season, I’m sure they would love to settle that score by snagging Harper.
New York Mets
Here is another organization I believe is one of the worst in the league. They already have big money committed to Yoenis Cespedes. And are likely going to make an effort to retain both Jacob DeGromm and Noah Syndergaard, so they are not quite an obvious fit.
It appears as of late they are focusing more on “value” type signings such as Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier. I expect from an offensive stand point that the Mets will likely keep this course, and avoid a huge mega deal on a player like Harper.
The 2016 World Champs don’t strike me as a potential fit, but it would be tough to rule them out entirely. Theo Esptein isn’t afraid to spend money if he has the blessing of his team’s owner. However, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant will have to be priorities as far as extensions.
Chicago has already been burned by Jason Heyward’s $184M contract, and I very much get the impression the biggest emphasis will be to acquire pitching. Especially since they lost out on Yu Darvish (which might have been a blessing). Jon Lester isn’t getting any younger either.
It’s a popular theory that because Bryant and Harper are such great friends, it’s almost a certainty that Harper will end up on the North Side. But I personally doubt Epstein will sign Harper just so the two of them could sleep on bunk beds together. That definitely does not sound like a recipe for success.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals seem like they are always in play for most top free agents. I would not be surprised at all to see Harper land in St. Louis. Their current payroll sits at $145M which leaves plenty of room to sign a player to a big contract. Their front office was also very active on the Giancarlo Stanton up until he agreed to be traded to New York.
St. Louis does seem somewhat conscientious about over spending, however. They wanted the Marlins to agree to eating a portion of Stanton’s contract. And didn’t make an aggressive effort to retain Pujols once he finally reached free agency.
Lately the Cardinals have been very active on the trade front. Most notably acquiring Marcel Ozuna, and may very well not pursue Harper. It’s anyone’s guess as to the direction they take.
San Francisco Giants
There’s no telling what the Giants will do in the longterm. I personally felt that with their weak farm system, and the reality in which the Dodgers are going to be atop the NL West for the next few years, that San Francisco might look at this scenario as an opportunity to tear their team down and rebuild. But then they shipped what few prospects they had for Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen.
San Francisco was also very active on the Giancarlo Stanton front, and even had a tentative deal agreed to by the Marlins before Stanton nixed it. The Giants also came up short in the Jon Lester sweepstakes a few years ago. For some reason it’s just not a preferred destination by top players despite the fact the team is willing to spend money, and has three fairly recent world championships.
It wouldn’t be a smart move for them to invest a lot of money in a player such as Harper. But that doesn’t mean they won’t.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The reigning national league pennant winners have some of the deepest pockets of any team in the sport. That being said, I don’t forsee them pursuing Harper. The Dodgers are pretty deep with talent behind guys like Corey Seager, Justin Turner, and Cody Bellinger for next few years. Also have complementary players like Chris Taylor, Yasmani Grandal, and Yasiel Puig.
Whether or not Clayton Kershaw decides to opt out could majorly influence their decision on future spending. However, if Kershaw goes on the DL for an extended period of time for the third year in a row due to back issues, I highly doubt he will risk leaving $30M a year on the table by testing free agency.
Los Angeles’ payroll is currently at $185M with not much flexibility before the luxury tax. That epic Red Sox trade from from 2012 put them over the threshiold for several years, with no World Series wins to show for it.
It should also be noted that their GM, Andrew Friedman, was the brains behind Tampa Bay’s stellar run from 2008 through 2013 with an extremely limited payroll. So it’s fair to say he has a shrewd understanding of value to go with his strong ability to develop young players, as we are currently seeing with that organization. I don’t see them signing Harper.
It’s always possible a team will come out of nowhere to make a play on a top free agent. No insiders predicted that the Diamondbacks would land Zack Greinke, or the Mariners would sign Robinson Cano. Despite any minute possibilites, it’s especially doubtful a smaller market team will make this type of move. The only reason this might remotely make sense is that Harper could possibly help a team’s marketability with their fans.
Front offices across the league are a lot smarter than they used to be. They look at contracts like those of Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Jason Heyward, Giancarlo Stanton, Alex Rodriguez, and realize that they very seldom work out in the long run, and some of them not even in the short run.
Only once in the history of the world series has it been won by a team with a player on it’s payroll making north of $200M. That was the New York Yankees in 2009 with Alex Rodriguez. It should also be noted New York also had C.C. Sabathia and Mark Texeira, both of whom were each making $175M+. The Yankees at the time were looking to recreate the dynasty they had from the 1990’s, but came away with only one World Series win, which was actually their only appearance in the fall classic while those three players were on the roster.
There is simply no value with a $400M contract on a team’s payroll. For $40M a year, you can sign Jay Bruce, Wade Davis, and Mike Moustakas, and get tons more production for doing so.
The Twins embraced the word value much more than any other team this off season. They shored up their rotation with Lance Lynn, who I personally throught presented the best value of any starting pitcher. Proven relievers Fernando Rodney, and Addison Reed will pitch out of their bullpen. And 1B/OF Logan Morrison, who had a break out 2017 with 38 home runs will be in their lineup.
The Red Sox did not have a single player on their 2013 World Series winning roster making more than $17M. They brought in veterans such as Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, and Koji Uehara. While many of us debated on whether Jon Lester was truly an ace, Detroit was trotting out Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. But the experienced Red Sox playoff veterans prevailed and won a championship.
It’s a tricky market coming off this current off season, one like we have never seen before. After listing off several teams up above which theoretically could sign Harper, I believe he will stay with the Washington Nationals. He will fall well short of the $400M that is currently being hyped, but here’s how I see it:
A. His deal will be between $175M-$250M over six-eight years (he’s currently 25 years old).
B. Will likely contain multiple opt outs after the second year.
C. It will be front loaded so that his salary be around $30M+ the first few years.
The Nationals will likely gain leverage late in next year’s free agency season when the projected mega deal does not materialize for Harper. Another factor which could make the Nationals an easy landing spot is that Scott Boras has a good relationship with them. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are both represented by him, and had good success with Washington. I also believe there will be strong mutual interest between Harper and his current team.
Another final scenario to consider: Boras doesn’t want to face the embarrassment he felt this free agency season with many of his clients falling well short of their asking prices. If an early offer with a high annual value presents itself, Boras will agree to it. I would not even be surprised if an agreement is reached mid-season as uncharacteristic as they might be for a Scott Boras client.