First and foremost let me apologize in advance for the incredibly cliche and soon to be way over used title to this post. But hey in about a month’s time when the former number one overall pick of the 2010 draft inks his inevitably ridiculous contract and ESPN/Bleacher Report/Daily News/Buzzfeed (idk do they do sports now too?) use this same headline, you can all know that I did it first!
How is it that a former NL MVP and long time alternative to the incomparable Mike Trout has become the unsung man at the dawn of this year’s free agency? Sure the Washington Nationals proved to be 2018’s greatest let down, and Harper himself had a pretty sub par year…but does that really mean the man once suspected to command baseball’s first $400 Million deal might not see an absurd paycheck after all is said and done?
Oddly enough, I’m inclined to believe that’s exactly the case. Washington’s struggles in 2018 won’t be pinned squarely on the muscular shoulder’s of their prized slugger. But he’ll definitely hold some level of contempt for a team that was unable to live up to lofty expectations. This was by no means an anomaly either, 2018 only served as the pit of an abysmal tenure for a frequently flailing Nationals squad. In Harper’s 7 years with the team that drafted him, the club in our nation’s capital has captured 4 divisional crowns. Impressive as that may seem, the NL East in his tenure has been one of the least competitive divisions in baseball. That theory proven by the lack of postseason success that the Nats managed to accrue, losing in the first round in each of those seasons, and on two of those occasions dropping the series as the NL’s best team to the Wildcard winner.
It will be Harper’s reluctance to return to Washington that will cost him that legendary contract. No team will be willing to toss money at the outfielder quite like Washington will. Their desire to cling to their homegrown star will go beyond reason and will know no boundaries. Regardless of what other teams are offering, GM Mike Rizzo will undoubtedly be willing to shell out more. The franchise understands that despite limited success (if any) during his tenure in Washington, they’ll be far worse off allowing their prized-asset to walk with no return on investment.
So if Bryce is planning on walking away from the Nationals despite their promises of riches beyond his wildest imagination, then it’s time to take a look at teams who might potentially be in the market for a guy like Harper. Now in order to be deemed a legitimate contender in the Harper sweepstakes, you sort of have to meet a pair of qualifications: Willingness to spend money (he’s turning down a jackpot but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still expect a paycheck) and a legit shot at winning (believe me, for a guy making twice his salary in endorsements winning has to be the motivating factor).
So I’ve comprised a list of obvious contenders and some dark horse candidates who could swoop in and come away with the reigning Home Run Derby champ:
- Chicago Cubs – This is the organization we’ve all heard floating in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes since his brief stint on the trade block near the July 31st deadline this season. For many reasons, the Chicago Cubs make so much sense. They’re a big market team both willing and able to spend the money necessary to win in today’s game. They’re in desperate need of a Right Fielder who can be for them what Jason Heyward was supposed to be, a legitimate left-handed power threat in their order. Harper has made his shared interest in the franchise no secret, frequently making headlines by liking and sharing their social media posts. Imagine how formidable the Cubs lineup would be, now boasting another middle of the order slugger alongside the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Javier Baez.
- Philadelphia Phillies – Could you imagine the scorn and shame that would befall the Nationals if their pride and joy ended up moving within their division? That’s a very real possibility. The Philadelphia Phillies head into the off-season as the betting favorites to land Bryce (and Machado but we’ll get to that later). The Phillies were something of a surprise contender for much of 2018, only tailing out of the playoff hunt around mid-September. Their collection of young talent and savvy veterans has made them something of a legitimate threat for the foreseeable future in the NL East. Again, this is a big market team with the means to spend big to win. Philadelphia is one or two big bats away from taking that leap into the playoffs, so it’s hard to imagine them not going all out for arguably the biggest star to hit free agency in quite some time.
- New York Yankees – Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, Clint Frazier (bet you forgot about him), Jacoby Ellsbury (sadly we can’t forget about him…), Andrew McCutchen (possibly?)…I know what you’re thinking, the Yankees really don’t need Bryce Harper. But to be fair this is also a team who went out and got the aforementioned Stanton a year ago just because they could. The Harper to the Yanks rumor can be traced back for years now, the flames only quelled last winter with the acquisition of Stanton. But whether a Yankee supporter or detractor we can all agree that the franchise’s longtime mantra has been ‘Ain’t no kill like overkill’. We’re all aware that they can and will spend the money. We can all admit that Harper desperately wants to be in New York, remember when he completely shaved off the semi-famous beard this season during a trip into the bare-face accustomed audience in Yankee Stadium? He could very easily slot in either corner outfield spot, and one could only imagine the damage he’d unleash at the dish when teeing off towards Yankee Stadiums short porch in Right Field. You thought this year’s Yankee home run totals were impressive? Just wait till you see what the addition of Bryce Harper might do to this team…
- Cleveland Indians – I think it’s safe to say that the Indians only tie with the Atlanta Braves for most forgettable stint in the 2018 postseason. That’s with very good reason too. They were the best team in the AL Central, which is sort of like asking someone to pick their most pleasant nightmare. The division was horrendous, and the big fish in the little pond found out that when they hit the open ocean there were plenty of bigger fish waiting in the wings to gobble them up. They got swept out of the playoffs in short order by the Houston Astros, and now have a lot of questions to answer. Despite having a pair of MVP candidates among their ranks, they still weren’t nearly at the level of the other top teams in baseball. Cleveland salivated over Harper when rumors swirled that he would be available at the trade deadline, and that appetite for Bryce likely still very much remains. And why wouldn’t it? He’s the perfect fit for a team in desperate need of a power bat in their outfield. They might not be able to match payrolls with the other teams listed, but sheer need will likely push them to make this move at all costs. This is an Indians team who, barring catastrophe, will cake-walk to a divisional crown again in 2019 due to the state of the rest of the division. But without a serious injection of talent this is a team who will end 2019 with another first round exit from the playoffs.
- St. Louis Cardinals – Here’s the biggest Wild Card of them all in both the Harper & Machado free agencies. A year ago the Cards went after everybody they could in the hopes of making a run at the division crown. They struck out on nearly everyone, with the exception of a trade acquisition of Marcell Ozuna from Miami. Still though this team managed to come within a game of a playoff birth in 2018, and you’d be crazy to think that the red birds aren’t setting themselves up to be players again this winter. Outside of the Nationals, I have the Cards willing to go toe-to-toe with any of the other teams on contract offers. The question will simply be about whether or not Harper wants to be ‘the man’ in his new home. All of the other options either boast pre-built superstars with track records of success when asked to bare the brunt of offensive duties, or a sizable ensemble of star-adjacent talent who can carry the load when the others falter. In St. Louis it would be the Harper show yet again, with a sizable drop off to the likes of Matt Carpenter or Ozuna as the teams “other stars”.
One thing that will remain true of Bryce Harper’s impending contract, it won’t nearly be the type of money we thought he might see. Last season we saw a dramatic shift in the thought process of many front offices. Teams, tired of being burned by lengthy deals and over-sized payouts, undersold a lot of big leaguers who would’ve received those massive deals in years past. Even guys like Eric Hosmer and JD Martinez were forced to settle for shorter contracts and thus less long-term insurance, in order to join the clubs that they truly wanted to be apart of.
Harper will definitely get more money than anything we saw last year, and his age (still just 26) means clubs will be far more inclined to play the long game with him, but without a return to Washington that super-sized payday might not come across Bryce Harper’s plate this winter…