Bryce Harper is one of the most coveted free agents in recent memory. The 26-year-old outfielder should absolutely be atop the Dodgers’ offseason priority list. We have not seen a free agent of his caliber (and Manny Machado‘s) in a long time. He’s truly an elite talent in his prime, as he just turned 26 on Oct. 15, and seems tailor-made for the Los Angeles market.
In his age 19-21 seasons (which is just ridiculous to say), Harper was solid (.816 OPS), but we all knew it was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. His age-22 season saw what we can safely assume is his ceiling. He won the NL MVP by hitting .330/.460/.649 with a 197 wRC+. He was worth 9.3 wins that season and established himself as an upper-echelon talent. He fell back pretty hard the following season (111 wRC+, 3.0 WAR) before picking it back up over the last two seasons (143 wRC+, 4.1 WAR average).
Now, many will point to the fact Harper has had only one truly elite season. That’s true. But he still owns a really strong career batting line: .279/.388/.512 with a 140 wRC+. For context, that’s a similar batting line to Jason Giambi (.277/.399/.516, 140 wRC+), and is among many other baseball greats and Hall of Famers. But all of those guys did that damage over the course of a major league career. Harper has done this through his age-25 season.
Harper possesses legitimate 80-grade power and, as he demonstrated in 2018, he can be successful even while posting below-average batting average. While he’s not a big batting average guy, he does know how to walk and has usually controlled the strike zone pretty well. A strikeout rate just north of 20% for his career is plenty acceptable for a guy who has 30-plus home run power, has a career ISO of .233 (.161 was league-average in 2018) and who walks at a nearly 15-percent clip for his career.
Besides, it’s safe to say he got a bit unlucky in 2018 anyway. He posted the second-lowest BABIP of his career (.289) despite having a career-best hard-hit rate (42.3 percent), and if you think it’s because he’s an extreme fly ball hitter, he isn’t. He owns a career 41.9 percent ground ball rate against a 37.1 percent fly ball rate, and his 22.2 line drive rate in 2018 was a bit higher than his career average, so it wasn’t like the BABIP dip is because he stopped hitting line drives. That suggests he could be in for a big rebound next season (and beyond).
Harper essentially does everything you could want at the plate. He has shown the kind of franchise-changing player he can be at his best, and even at his worst, he’s still above-average — 111 wRC+ at age 23, 115 wRC+ at age 21. It may be a reach to expect that he’ll ever get back to his 2015 numbers, but he’s so young and good that it would be foolish to bet against him and he certainly seems worth the risk of any down years.
Defensively, Harper has regressed a lot this past season. He posted a -10 DRS in center field (477 1/3 innings) and a whopping -16 in right field (860 2/3 innings). That was second-worst in baseball behind Nick Castellanos (-19 in 1,234 1/3 innings). One-year defensive splits aren’t the be all, end all, but it’s still rather alarming. If the Dodgers were to sign Harper, a spot in left field could be best for all involved. Yasiel Puig is one of the better right fielders in the game and has a superior arm to Harper.
Despite not playing left field since 2014, Harper profiles best there in a potential Harper-Cody Bellinger-Puig outfield alignment. He could be a mainstay in left field for the Dodgers for the next decade, and some of the game’s all-time greats have been left fielders (Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Manny Ramirez, Ted Williams), if you’re worried about pedigree or left field not being glamorous enough for Harper.
There’s also the less important but still relevant off-the-field stuff. Mainly, endorsements. Harper is one of baseball’s most marketable superstars. For a game that has incredible difficulty marketing its biggest and best, having Harper in Los Angeles could go a long way to helping that.
Harper is in the middle of a 10-year endorsement with Under Armour — believed to be the biggest for any MLB player ever — and he just completed an ad campaign with New Era. He also has endorsed for Gatorade. Having the ability to be the face of baseball in Los Angeles for the next decade could do great things for his pocketbook and help baseball be more marketable to a younger audience, which it is painfully struggling to do at present.
Additionally, he’s from Las Vegas. The word is, he would like to play closer to home, and the only other teams that fit that criterion are the Angels, Diamondbacks and Padres. The Angels have money issues of their own (Albert Pujols) and an owner unwilling to really open up his wallet, the Diamondbacks are talking about shedding some payroll after a poor finish to the 2018 season, and the Padres, well, they don’t seem like the best home for a power-hitting corner outfielder with aspirations of playing for a championship.
Now let’s talk contract. This ain’t gonna be cheap, nor will it be a short-term commitment. If the Dodgers want to land the next face of their franchise, they’re going to have to pay. Thankfully, they won the Luxury Tax Championship™ in 2018, so they’re in a prime position to back up the literal Brinks truck for Mr. Harper. MLB Trade Rumors predicted a 14-year, $420 million deal. Seems a bit extreme and my prediction won’t be that high, but it’s not terribly unrealistic. My prediction — or what I would offer — would be 12 years, $360 million.
At 26, Harper’s deal will likely contain multiple opt-outs. One after Year 3 (going into his age-29 season) and one after Year 5 make a lot of sense. If that’s the case, his contract might need to be structured to pay him more earlier in the deal than later. Maybe something like three years, $120 million in the beginning, with the next two years totaling $70 million. That’s $190 million over five years. That would leave a more manageable (for LA) $170 million over the remaining seven years, while still holding a $30 million competitive balance tax number. There will be other award-based incentives and other things, but we won’t get into that here.
It’d be the most lucrative contract in MLB history (barring Machado surpassing it), and though it wouldn’t be the longest (Giancarlo’s 13-year extension is still the standard), it’d be the longest free-agent contract in the game’s history.
The competition for Harper doesn’t appear to be as stiff as it could have just a winter ago. The Yankees are reportedly out. The Braves are concerned about the risk. That leaves teams like the Cardinals, Cubs, the aforementioned Diamondbacks (I’ll believe it when I see it), Giants (same), Nationals, Phillies and maybe the White Sox, as a sleeper team.
The Cardinals are expected to explore the Harper market, but they don’t seem like the team that would meet his financial demands. The Cubs have a lot of contracts that could prevent them from taking on Harper since their younger guys aren’t so cheap anymore (while the Dodgers’ youngsters still are). The Phillies could try for both Harper and Machado and realistically end up with neither of them, but they have a ton of uncommitted, guaranteed money in the next few years, so they’re in a great spot. The Nats are the only team Harper has ever known, and that has to count for something. The White Sox are much like the Phillies, minus the present talent to be a legitimate playoff contender.
With MLB players breaking in at younger ages, there might be more opportunities to sign guys like Harper in the future. But for guys like Ronald Acuna, Jr., Juan Soto and (soon) Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., they won’t be free agents for 5-6 years, and that won’t do anything for the 2019-24 Dodgers. Plus there’s no guarantee they’d actually be in a position to sign any of them when they become available. So this might be the last chance with this core of players for the Dodgers to land a free agent of Harper’s ilk. If the Dodgers don’t make a serious push to sign him, it will be a mistake. If they don’t end up with either him or Machado (not likely), then all that saving from this past season will give off the appearance of having been for naught.
The ownership’s excuse for wanting to reset the luxury tax penalties was that they wanted to put the Dodgers in position to land a generational free agent talent. Harper is the guy. He should be the top target. And he should be manning left field in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future.