With a stalled free agent market, a single-season contract could boost Harper’s value even higher heading into 2020.
This has gone on long enough—the offseason that just won’t end. It’s hard to believe players like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are still unsigned, still waiting for those huge projected paydays. In the current free agency climate, with teams reluctant to hand out the big, long-term deal, maybe players like Harper should shift gears and consider taking a short-term deal with a contender.
Harper was projected by MLB Trade Rumors to land a $420 million contract that spanned 14 years. I’m sure a deal like this would be a little more complicated than that, with opt outs and so on, but you get the idea—the basic assumption was that Harper would get a long-term deal at a rate of $30 million annually.
Seeing those numbers, why would Harper sign a one-year deal?
Generally thought of as the number one free agent this year, Harper hasn’t quite been the “super elite” version of himself of late. That’s not a knock on the young slugger—we all know what he’s capable of (see his 9.3 fWAR in 2015, for example)—and a “down year” for him still places him among the best in the game.
Harper, though is coming off a 3.5 fWAR season, ranking him as the 46th most valuable position player (among qualified batters) in 2018. Drilling down a bit further and comparing only outfielders, Harper was the 17th most valuable outfielder in baseball last year.
Those rankings are good, but are they $30 million per year good?
The Astros signed Michael Brantley this offseason for $32 million, but spread over two seasons, for an average annual value of $16 million. Brantley had a 3.5 fWAR in 2018, same as Harper. Why would a team give Harper twice that amount per season? Look, I know comparing Harper to Brantley is not quite apples-to-apples. Harper is a generational talent capable of a 10 fWAR season—Brantley, on the other hand, is not.
While capable of great heights, though, Harper’s last three seasons have seen him post fWAR’s of 3.0, 4.8 and 3.5 for an average 3.76 fWAR. The potential benefit to Harper signing a one-year deal is that he could have another MVP-type season in 2019. If you were a team looking to make a 10-plus year investment, would you be more comfortable investing in a 3.5 fWAR Harper, or a Harper who produces more like he did in his 2015 MVP season?
What would a single-season salary look like for Harper? He’d be foolish not to shoot for the moon. He’d be risking a lot by shunning a long-term safety net. FanGraphs came up with a value of $11.7 million per win (or per fWAR) for players in free agency. So a player with an fWAR of 3.0, for example, would be worth $35.1 million in free agency.
It doesn’t quite work out that way in real life, but you get the picture. Harper, with his average of 3.76 fWAR from 2016-2018, could ask for a deal based on that number, placing his value as a hired gun at $43.99 million—we’ll just call it an even $44 million.
If Harper were to announce tomorrow that he wanted a one-year deal at $44 million, which teams could conceivably sit at the table and negotiate? Let’s rule out current suitors like the Padres, who would be looking more at the long-term value of Harper. I’ll also throw out teams who would go over the luxury tax threshold with such an investment. We are looking only at teams who can win now and have some financial wiggle room.
Taking all this into account, I narrowed the field down to Cleveland, Los Angeles Angels, Colorado, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Tampa.
The Angels would be pushing it to stay under the threshold, which is $206 million this year. Signing Harper at the $44 million price tag would push them over the mark by more than $5 million, but come on, Harper and Mike Trout in the same outfield? If they explained to Harper they can’t possibly pay him more than Trout, ($33,250,000), the numbers could work. Harper could take a salary equal to Trout’s and the Angels would come in at $200,600,999. They’d also have a team everyone would want to watch, and one that could overtake Oakland (though probably not Houston) in the AL West.
The Indians could easily fit under the threshold while clearly upgrading from Tyler Naquin in right field. The Tribe should already win the weak AL Central, but adding Harper would make them a more formidable postseason foe. Imagine a lineup that featured Harper, Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor—that’s a threesome that could take over a short playoff series.
Atlanta just signed Nick Markakis at a reasonable price, but let’s be honest, if you can add Harper you don’t sweat turning Markakis into a fourth outfielder. Dropping Harper into the middle of a lineup that includes Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna, and the newly signed Josh Donaldson could push the Braves over the top in 2019.
The Phillies are already in on a potential Harper deal, and that could be where Harper lands with massive multi-year deal. He would be an upgrade over Nick Williams and would give Philadelphia an outfield of Andrew McCutchen, Odubel Herrera, and, of course, Bryce Harper. Not too shabby.
The Rockies will be in a fight with the Dodgers for the NL West, with Arizona selling off key pieces, the Giants on a downturn and the Padres not ready to contend. Colorado would probably give Harper the best chance to boost his value, too. Playing in Denver, Harper would potentially set some high water marks at the plate. The Rockies finished just a game behind the Dodgers last year, making the playoffs as a wild card. Harper could be enough to push them past the Dodgers for the 2019 NL West crown.
Tampa has the lowest payroll in baseball, giving them plenty of wiggle room for a one-year expenditure of this magnitude. Would ownership see the investment as worthy though? That’s hard to say, and I’m not sure Harper would be enough to push Tampa into the playoffs. They finished 18 games behind the Red Sox last year in the AL East and 7 games out of the second wild card spot. That’s a pretty tall order.
My pick? If I were Bryce Harper, seeking a one-year deal, and all these teams were interested—I’d choose Colorado.
In all likelihood, Harper is going to get his big, long-term payday any day now. If he got tired of waiting though, and went on to hit 50 home runs for a team like the Rockies, his value could rise even higher (if you can believe that) heading into the 2020 season, and that’s something that’s at least worth considering if you’re on Team Harper.
Bob Ellis is a lifelong Royals fan. He has written in the past for Kings of Kauffman and Statliners. Follow him on Twitter @BobEllisKC