The Cardinals should sign Bryce Harper. I know that’s not a particularly novel or bold statement. The Cardinals have a desperate need for a star, middle-of-the-order hitter and a pretty glaring hole in right field. The team has vast amounts of money to spend. It has a new TV deal that began this season and promises the team a billion dollars – literally, a billion dollars – over 15 years and the team’s payroll has been lower than the team expected to pay since they’ve been unable to woo some of the high-dollar players they’ve been chasing.
This is not to say that management has been cheap or is too abstemious to spend money to improve the team. Three years ago they tried to give David Price and, then, what that failed, Jason Heyward $200 million but each chose other ventures. Last offseason the team tried to take on nearly all of Giancarlo Stanton’s $300+ million contract – offering the most money and the best prospect haul to the Marlins – but he, too, refused. It’s not like management hasn’t tried. But it’s also not as if management doesn’t have money to spare. Not only could the team afford to pay those huge salaries but the team has been able to save and earn interest on the money it hasn’t been able to give to Price, Heyward, or Stanton. Make no mistake, the Cardinals are flush with cash…and the team needs Harper.
It’s reasonable to ask if Harper is the right guy to give a huge salary to, to make the team’s cornerstone player for the next decade or so. In my opinion, he definitely is. First of all, he is a terrific baseball player. He did have a bit of a down year in 2018, but he’s a no doubt superstar. Second, he would be a fan favorite. He’s gotten a lot of flak from media and fans alike for his “That’s a clown question, bro” stuff but on the field, Harper is a balls-to-the-wall, down-in-the-dirt true baseball player. He’s got no problem hustling from 1st to 3rd or trying to turn singles into doubles and going flying face-first into the bag with his locks flying in the breeze as his helmet bangs along the ground. Cardinal fans would love him. Imagine Harrison Bader with an eye for walks and the power to send the ball flying into the Mississippi (albeit with less inherent defensive skill). Harper has been too often labeled a prima donna when really he wants to be the best baseball player to ever play the game.
There will be lots of competition for Harper, of course, as he is a tremendous player but that shouldn’t discourage team management from going after him. I’m sure he wants to win, so that’s going to exclude about half the teams. Boston’s got no room in the outfield or the payroll for him. Ditto, the Yankees. In fact, I can only see 3 AL teams as even being in the conversation for Harper – the Indians, the Mariners, and the Astros.
The Indians and the Astros, however, probably have the money available but they also have superstars already on their team whose bill is about to come due. Players like Alex Bregman, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Jose Ramirez, and Francisco Lindor right now earn a pittance of what they’re going to receive when it’s time for them to become free agents. Do they really want to spend what it’s going to take to sign Harper or do they want to save some of that coin for their own homegrown stars? Also – and this is just a feeling I have; it’s nothing I’ve heard or read – but I’ve sort of got the feeling that Harper wants to be “the man.” He wants to bat 3rd or 4th and be the team’s cornerstone. If he signs with the Indians or Astros, is he that guy? He’s just another guy there.
What about the Mariners? Are they even close enough to contention for Harper to consider them? Are they on TV enough? After spending a ton of money on Robinson Cano will they spend another armored car for Harper and, even if they would, does it make sense to? Does he close the gap with the Astros enough to make that investment worthwhile? I wouldn’t discount the M’s but I also wouldn’t consider them the favorites.
I would bet that Harper ends up somewhere in the NL. Like the M’s, I wouldn’t discount the Nationals, but I sort of get the feeling that both they and Harper would probably prefer to part amicably. The Phillies? Maybe, but how close are they really? Harper could be “the guy” in Philly and they’re surely flush with payroll but that team still has a lot of holes to fill. The Braves? Perhaps. But Freddie Freeman is a star. Acuna soon will be. They will have a hole in RF with Nick Markakis’ free agency. They might be a contender for Harper.
In the West, the Dodgers and Giants have to be considered. Yes, the Giants stink and that won’t help them and they may try saving some money to give to MadBum when he’s a free agent in a year but they tried to give a ton of money to Stanton last offseason as well and have a solid pedigree as one of baseball’s great franchises. Still, they’re more than a Bryce Harper away from challenging the Dodgers. The Dodgers have tons of money – as long as they don’t mind paying the luxury tax – and Harper could definitely be that cornerstone player for them. As good as they are, their best players – Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger – are great players but not exactly thought of as superstar, MVP candidates just yet. They do have to come up with a boatload of cash to give to Clayton Kershaw this offseason and were already brushing up against the luxury tax in 2018, so there’s reason to believe they may not be huge players for Harper.
The Cubs are probably seen right now as the favorites for Harper but they have potential luxury tax problems of their own. The luxury tax threshold for 2019 will be $206 million and the Cubs presently have about $180 million already allocated. Now, they could reduce that by not picking up some options on players like Cole Hamels and Brandon Kintzler but they’re going to have to keep paying Jose Quintana and they’re going to need some pitching if they want to compete. Moreover, they’re going to owe Baez and Bryant bigger salaries in arbitration and, if they intend to extend their biggest stars in Bryant and Rizzo, they’re going to have to set aside some dollars to pay them. Where are they going to get all the money it’s going to take to fix their pitching, save money for their stars, pay Harper, AND stay under the luxury tax threshold? And even if they can, does Harper want to go to Chicago and just be “one of the guys?” I’m skeptical. The Cubs are obviously an historic franchise with a great opportunity to win but is Harper really the right fit at the right time for this team? I’m not convinced.
So it seems to me that the Cardinals are in as good a position as anyone to convince Harper to join them. The question, then, is “what is he worth?” Make no mistake, Harper is going to get paid. Those who think he’s not going to get many millions of dollars because he struggled for part of the season last year or because he hasn’t already won multiple MVP’s are kidding themselves. We’re talking about a guy who is just barely 26 years old, has already won an MVP and hit nearly 200 home runs, and probably hasn’t yet hit his prime. He’s going to get a 10-12 year contract. He’s going to get a no-trade clause. He’s going to get multiple opt-outs built in to the contract. (Hell, Jason Heyward got 2. Harper will get at least that!) The Cards just have to figure out how to structure the opt-outs to make the most sense for the team.
If you’re thinking $200 - $250 million, you’d better think again. In his 7 years in the game, Harper has nearly 4000 PA’s (3957) and a 140 wRC+. This means that from his age 19 to age 25 seasons, he has been 40% better than the average major league hitter. In 2018, only 10 hitters in the game had a 140 wRC+ or higher. Bryce Harper has AVERAGED that over his first 7 seasons in baseball when he hasn’t yet reached his prime.
In the history of baseball, only 21 players have averaged a 140 wRC+ or greater in 3500 or more PA’s prior to turning 26 years old. One is Bryce Harper. 16 of those other 20 players are Hall-of-Famers. We’re talking about names like Mantle, Cobb, Dimaggio, Aaron, Hornsby, Robinson, etc. Some of the best hitters to ever play the game. Of the other 4, 2 are named Trout (future Hall-of-Famer) and Pujols (future Hall-of-Famer) and the 3rd is Alex Rodriguez, a guy who should be a future Hall-of-Famer and may eventually get there. The 4th is Shoeless Joe Jackson whose career was cut short and who will never be a Hall-of-Famer because of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal. Basically, Bryce Harper’s 1st 7 seasons in the game compare with 20 other players in the game, all of whom turned out to have Hall-of-Fame careers. Make no mistake, this guy has Hall-of-Fame level talent and is off to a Hall-of-Fame level career.
The key, however, is not what Harper has done the first 7 seasons, but what he will do over the course of the remainder of his contract. The table below shows how those other 20 hitters performed between the ages of 26 and 38, if we assume a 12-year contract for Harper. You’ll notice that nearly all of them performed extremely well. This shouldn’t be surprising considering the names on the list. I took the average and median wRC+ and WAR for all of them except Trout since he’s only had 1 year between the ages of 26 and 38. The average wRC+ for those 19 players was about 147 and the median was 151. The average WAR over this 12 year period was nearly 56 and the median was nearly 57 – almost 5 WAR per year for 12 years. Mind you, this is the 12 year period AFTER the initially great 6 years. There’s a reason most of these guys are considered inner circle Hall-of-Famers. Only 5 of them had less than 40 WAR over the next 12 seasons. Even Pujols, who is far past his prime, has achieved more than 50 WAR since he turned 26.
It’s reasonable, therefore, to see Harper as a 40-60 WAR player for the next 12 years. In the table below, I assumed Harper would be a 5-win player for 4 years and then falling by 0.5 WAR each year through his age-38 season. That amounts to 42 WAR. To me, that’s a reasonable number to project. It may not work out exactly as it’s outlined – there maybe a couple of 8 WAR seasons and a couple of 2 WAR seasons among that first group – but a 42 WAR total seems perfectly reasonable. I’m also assuming that the value of a win increases by a half million dollars per season – about what it has increased over the last several. You could play with the numbers a little if you like. Maybe you see him as projecting to be worth 35 or so WAR over the next 12 seasons or maybe you see the value of a win inflating by a little less than a half million a year, and, if so, that will affect Harper’s total value. That said, we also know that the value of a win for teams in contention is considerably higher than for teams not in contention. Since the Cards expect to contend every year, and since that’s the purpose for signing Harper in the first place, it’s reasonable to suggest that the actual value of a win to the Cardinals is higher than what’s projected in the spreadsheet.
Look at the number in the bottom right hand corner. Yeah, that’s $507 million. Now, will Harper get $500 million in free agency? No way. The 12 year guarantee is worth something and probably deflates the total contract value by about 10%. The no-trade clause has value. The opt-outs have value to Harper as well. All of those things will reduce the salary the team has to pay. Nevertheless, it is reasonable for the Cardinals to offer Harper $400 million over 12 years in order to acquire his services. Even if we think he’s “only” going to be worth 34 WAR over the next 12 years, he’s still going to be worth ~$400 million. There’s just no way he doesn’t get at least $350 million.
Can the team afford it? Yes. Will it push them into luxury tax territory? It will not because of all the young players the Cards have. There is, therefore, absolutely no reason for the Cardinals NOT to go into the $350 - $400 million territory in order to procure Harper’s services. He’s that good and that young.
If the Cards actually do that, there’s little doubt that they will be pilloried by members of the media and even fans of the team, talking about how ridiculous it is that one player will get $30+ million per year or $300 - $400 million. (It’s odd that none of these people ever talk about how ridiculous it is that the team’s owners make that kind of coin EACH SEASON, but I digress.) Who cares? He’s worth it. The team needs it and the Cards become instant contenders, not just for the NL Central division title but for the National League pennant if they add only Bryce Harper.
The team was willing to offer up nearly $300 million PLUS prospects for Stanton who, let’s be honest, not only isn’t as good as Harper, but is also nearly 3 years older than Harper. Lots of teams will be interested in signing Harper. In order to get it done, the team will have to be aggressive. There is absolutely no reason not to be.
Stats come from fangraphs.
Thanks to the always great @nchill17 for the great Harper pic and thanks to all of you for reading.