Bryce Harper’s free agent suitors should include the Phillies, Giants, and ... Brewers?
All 30 MLB teams should be interested in signing Bryce Harper. Here’s a look at the teams with the best shot. Baseball history is usually useful when it comes to the MLB offseason and free agency because it’s very good at reminding us that free agents are usually a double-edged sword. Thinking of signing a good player for five years? If you can accept the idea that they’ll be bad for the last two, you’ll be fine. Most small-market teams aren’t worried about paying All-Stars a lot of money; they’re more concerned about paying former All-Stars just as much money. But baseball history is also useful in the case of Bryce Harper and other hyper-young free agent superstars. It reminds us that, yes, please, give players like this a lot of money. They’re rare freaks, and the odds are great that they will help your team for years and years and years. The last comparable case was Alex Rodriguez, and for all of his, uh, delightful quirks, he was absolutely worth the money on the field. He built on what will (eventually) be a Hall-of-Fame career, just like he was expected to. When a super-duper star becomes available in free agency, and all he wants is money? Give it to him. It’s usually the smart bet. Don’t make me pull out the Baseball-Reference tables again and ah okay ha ha you got me, here’s a Baseball Reference table of players who were this good for this long at this age: OPS+ is adjusted OPS, which includes league, park, and era adjustments. It’s a fine shorthand that allows us to compare hitters from different times, and it’s telling us that Harper is in some incredible company. Let’s say that you’re worried about Harper’s sketchy defensive metrics from 2018, and that your primary concern is that he won’t hold his value for long. That would, in a worst-case scenario, make him comparable to Rusty Staub on that list. The same Staub who hit .280/.365/.444 with a 125 OPS+ throughout the entire 1970s, who averaged two-and-a-half wins every year despite fielding like a two guys in the same horse costume. Then you remember that Harper has been a much better hitter before his 26th birthday, and he’s also more athletic and capable in the field. But the point is that on that list, Staub is something of a bogeyman. He would have been fine, just fine, under a long-term deal. Orlando Cepeda is your comp, then. A Hall of Famer who did most of his damage before turning 26 and shouldn’t have been in the outfield in the first place. He was often injured in his 30s, and his last great season came when he was 32. He still averaged 473 plate appearances with a 129 OPS+ in the decade after his 26th birthday, though. He still averaged two-and-a-half wins every year for 10 seasons, including an MVP season. That isn’t to say that Staub or Cepeda would have been worth the equivalent of $35 million a year after turning 26. It’s that they would have been modest disappointments, not abject disasters. Then you get to the other players on the list. Al Kaline! Frank Robinson! Miguel Cabrera! Alex Rodriguez! These are Harper’s peers as a 25-year-old hitter in baseball history. Even if you stretch to include Ken Griffey, Jr., just to include another player who didn’t age well, you’re still getting six incredible seasons before the breakdown. Every team should at least consider Harper. Every single danged team, from the Marlins to the A’s, should explore the idea. The Miguel Cabrera Theorem tells us that when you have a chance to acquire a freakishly young and talented player like Miguel Cabrera, you do it. Here is that chance, just without a lot of prospects involved. Now it’s our job to figure which teams will believe in this strategy. The Likely Bob Nightengale wrote that the Phillies are the overwhelming favorites for Harper. I’m sorry if you’re a Phillies fan who was hoping to get Harper. This doesn’t look good. But the Phillies almost certainly make a lot of sense. Not only do they have plenty of room in their budget, but they’ve been putting money under their mattress for a couple of years now. Their attendance has been hovering near the bottom of the league for five seasons, and they would love a big ol’ neon sign to erect outside of Citizens Bank Park that reads, “TRYING AGAIN. PARDON OUR DUST.” Last year’s run at the NL East title was a great start, but beating out 29 teams to get one of the most coveted young superstars over the last couple decades would really hammer the point home. The Dodgers are supposedly trying to get under the luxury tax now, and both the Yankees and Cubs are saying that they want to stay under. I’m assuming that they’re a bunch of liars for now, using their public statements as a negotiating tactic, but there’s a chance that they’re serious, the big dummies. The White Sox are reportedly very interested, and they’ve becoming the pundit-perferred dark horse. It’s an idea that makes sense, for sure. The Giants have been long rumored to be in, but just Wednesday, their CEO said this at the introductory press conference for Farhan Zaidi: “A $300 million player in a vacuum, it’s hard to see how that’s smart if you don’t feel like there are other pieces,” Baer said. “We don’t want to be reckless. This (payroll) has gone pretty high. We’ve been nipping the CBT, but the team’s not performing, so that’s not a good formula. We don’t want to be there. We don’t want to be finishing 26th, 27th, 28th in overall record and be third highest in payroll.” So it’s the Phillies that are still the most likely. But which team is the ideal home for Harper? The Ideal The Rockies. For science. But if that doesn’t happen, allow me to get a little weird. The last time there was a chance to get a young player with a sweet left-handed stroke, the Brewers elbowed their way to the front of the line because that’s exactly what works at Miller Park. That player was Christian Yelich, and he’s going to win the MVP. The Brewers should sign Harper and create an outfield bookend of the gods. What would happen to Ryan Braun in this scenario? No idea. Not my concern. Second base, maybe. For science. Or, more realistically, something of a rover who can fill in at both outfield corners, with Yelich moving to center if Lorenzo Cain needing a day, or starting at first when Jesus Aguílar needs a day, and picking up the bulk of the high-leverage pinch-hitting opportunities ... there are always injuries, after all. Braun would still get 400 at-bats if he’s healthy, I’m sure, and he hasn’t done much over the last two seasons to justify more than that. Is this likely? Oh, heck no. I’m just looking at teams with a lefty-friendly ballpark that could really thrive with a young superstar over the next 10 years, and the Brewers look like a pretty sweet fit. Prediction Nationals, 10 years, $340 million with an opt-out within the first four seasons. Ah, right, the incumbents. We haven’t mentioned them, and they happen to be the only team that’s actually offered Harper a huge contract. Their ownership is one of the few in baseball that doesn’t shy away from Scott Boras, regularly signing his clients to huge deals. And for all the dreams about a Yelich-Harper super-outfield to rule the seas for 10 years, the Nationals can do even better with Juan Soto (and Victor Robles). They have designs on contending. They have designs on becoming a Washington institution for the first time in the city’s baseball history. The contract offer suggests that they’re serious about keeping Harper, and for his part, it’s not like his time with the Nationals has been unsuccessful. There has to be at least some appeal in staying. All I’m saying about it, though, is think about it, Brewers. Just think about it.