Where We Think Bryce Harper Will Sign
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As the baseball world waits on Bryce Harper's monumental free-agent decision, all we're left to do is guess. At SI we've made a case for all 30 clubs to make a run at 26-year-old slugger. We projected three possible tracks for Harper's inevitably record-setting contract.
Tom Verducci traced back to his initial interactions with a 16-year-old Harper to set us up for the next chapter of Harper's career, and Jack Dickey wondered aloud if Harper really isn't as transcendent as we thought he'd be. We even looked back at former pitcher Kevin Brown and the first nine-figure contract in baseball history.
Every angle and storyline and narrative surrounding Harper boils down to one question: Where is he going? We have some guesses.
(For reference, the most expensive contract via average annual value belongs to Zack Greinke [$34.4 million] and for total overall expense is Giancarlo Stanton's [$325 million].)
Nationals | 10 years, $350 million (AAV: $35 million)
The Phillies seem like the best fit, but they could wind up with Manny Machado before Harper's agent, Scott Boras, is done slow-playing the field. The Nationals already put $300 million on the table, so they need to find another $5 million per year (it may take creatively deferred money) to make Harper the highest paid player ever.
Yankees | 10 years, $330 million (AAV: $33 million)
I pegged the Yankees as the best fit for Harper in my recent Reiter 50, and nothing has dissuaded me from that conclusion, not even percolating rumors that New York is focused elsewhere. The Yankees have saved money–relatively, anyway–to make a splash this winter, and there would be no bigger splash than signing a 26-year-old superstar whose (many) best years likely are ahead of him. I don’t think they’ll ultimately resist a chance to win the Harper sweepstakes, with an offer that would make him the highest paid player, by total contract value, in the history of team sports.
Phillies | 10 years, $375 million (AAV: $37.5 million)
The Phillies are just now cracking into a fresh competitive window, and Harper would push that open all the way. They can easily make room in the outfield (Nick Williams loses his spot, or Rhys Hoskins moves back to first, or… they’ll figure it out, they have options), and they should have the money to make it happen. Philadelphia ranked 23rd in payroll for 2018 at $91 million, with $69 million already on the books for 2019. That gives the club plenty of space to make a big splash. The Phillies have been linked to Harper for a while here, and with good reason: It makes sense.
Phillies | 8 years, $250 million (AAV 31.25 million; with two or three opt-outs in the deal)
Harper's bat is big enough that he'd make pretty much any outfield better. (OK, maybe the Red Sox don't need him.) His personality is big enough that it should woo teams too, though that list would be somewhat shorter. Harper might mess with the Baby Bombers' mojo, and he might tick off rigid Redbird fans. In Philly, though, they need Bryce Harper. The team has money to spend—only Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta are earning eight figures annually—and, with apologies to Aaron Nola, a hole where the face of its franchise should be. Hence the slight overpay. Harper's edge will play well there; come next summer he'll have dethroned Gritty as Philly's de facto ruler. And more importantly, his bat will play well there too. Last year's Phillies were 10th in the NL in on-base percentage and 11th in slugging.
Phillies | 10 years, $355 million (AAV: $35.5 million)
Ordinarily, a player like Harper would be the target of the chosen few in this league—your Dodgers and Cubs and Yankees, the franchises whose coffers perpetually overflow and who buy up talent without a second thought as to the bill. Only a strange thing happened over the last few years: The big spenders got cost-conscious. With fists so tight that their fingers seem glued together, the easy prediction for this winter—that one of Los Angeles or New York would simply present Harper with a blank contract—is now an open question of whether those with the deepest pockets will actually dig into them.
That reticence to incur luxury tax penalties or expand payroll presents an opportunity for those who would be also-rans to take advantage. To wit: the Phillies, no one’s idea of a rich team, now in the running for Harper—and perhaps even the favorite. I don’t know if they’d go that far, given that other teams offer better chances for Harper in terms of both immediate title contention and exposure (depending on whether or not he has a LeBron James-esque desire to become a media mogul, or at least establish himself as his sport’s most famous face). But Philadelphia has payroll space aplenty, the need both for a corner outfielder and a middle-of-the-order bat, a young core that can grow alongside him, and is a contender both now and in the future. Harper fits perfectly in the City of Brotherly Love, and this new economic climate opens the door to his arrival.
Astros | 8 years, $280 million (AAV $35 million; opt-out after 2020)
I don't think Harper and Scott Boras are going to find a deal that meets their liking in both length and dollars. Brian Cashman won't be swooping in with a 10-year, $400 million miracle. So they'll have to "settle," which in this case means breaking the average annual value record, joining an uber-talented team and leaving open the possibility of hitting free agency again at 28.
As for the Astros' side of this deal, they're not thought of as possible suitors like the Phillies and Nationals. Neither were the Angels before signing Albert Pujols or the Mariners before snagging Robinson Cano. It only takes one owner to sip the Boras Kool-Aid. From a baseball perspective, what's not to like about a lineup with Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Harper? Harper's expensive addition likely means one or more core players ends up leaving in free agency, but an early opt-out from Harper could change that. Let the madness begin.