- Bryce Harper will have plenty of options during this free agency. Are the Yankees a feasible one?
When the Yankees acquired reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton and the $286 million remaining on his contract in December 2017, most assumed Bryce Harper would never wear pinstripes. With Stanton complementing Aaron Judge and a payroll nudging against the luxury tax threshold, GM Brian Cashman was likely comfortable with a lineup that featured the two top power hitters of 2017 surrounded by the best young hitting catcher in the game (Gary Sanchez) and two budding long-term infielders (Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar). Before the season started, the Yankees were betting favorites to win the pennant,even over the defending AL champion Astros.
Then the rival Red Sox bounced the Yankees in the ALDS and claimed their fourth World Series since 2004. New York fans can still croon about the franchise’s 27 rings, but a more uncomfortable reality is seeping in: Boston has won two championships since the last time the Yankees won the pennant, and baseball’s most spoiled fan base is getting restless.
Yankees postmortem day is one of the most entertaining and ridiculous days in sports media, and the takes were aflame the morning after New York’s ALDS ouster: Trade Stanton to the Dodgers. Sign Manny Machado. And the spiciest one of all: Sign Bryce Harper.
Sources within the organization insist that Harper is not in the Yankees’ plans to the baseball media’s most prominent reporters. Cashman said in a press conference this week that he doesn’t want to exceed the luxury tax threshold, which the Yankees are only $49 million away from reaching.
But history—from the acquisitions of Reggie Jackson to Alex Rodriguez to Stanton—tells us never to rule out the Evil Empire. On Wednesday, it was reported that Harper rejected a 10-year, $300 million deal from the Nationals. So let’s deconstruct it: Are the Yankees a fit for Bryce Harper, or as Scott Boras puts it, “Harper’s Bazaar”?
Routinely near the top of the MLB payroll, the Yankees have four major financial commitments entering 2019 within their team payroll of $101.8 million (sixth in MLB). The most onerous contract belongs to Jacoby Ellsbury—owed $21 million next year and a total of $47 million over the final three seasons of his contract. After that is Stanton ($26 million in 2019), Masahiro Tanaka ($22 million) and Aroldis Chapman ($17.4 million).
Cashman is all but stuck with Ellsbury, the perpetually injured 35-year-old outfielder who hasn’t played since 2017. It’s unlikely any team wants him as a starter, and certainly not at his price. Cashman is revered for his ability to win trades. His best recent work was when he unloaded Chase Headley and his $13 million salary to the Padres one day after acquiring Stanton in exchange for minor league outfielder Jabari Blash; San Diego would cut Headley in May after he hit .115 in 27 games. If Cashman can get anybody to take even half of Ellsbury’s contract, he’ll re-confirm that he’s more sorcerer than front office executive.
Signing Harper would send the Yankees soaring over the luxury tax, which Cashman indicated he’d like to stay under this year. That’s likely bluster; Boras cited the Yankees’ public lack of interest in Mark Teixeira before they signed him to an eight-year, $180 million deal in 2008. But remember that this is a different ownership group, one with more fiscal restraint and greater focus on player development. What was one of the league’s most barren systems a decade ago has now produced a wealth of top talent—Judge, Sanchez, Andujar and Luis Severino for starters—now that they spend less freely on free agents.
The difference is that Harper is a generational player whose ceiling is as high as anybody’s (including Mike Trout) in the game. His 2015 MVP season is one of the greatest offensive accomplishments ever, and he’d be hitting in one of the most hitter-friendly environments in baseball. If there’s a player worth the big money, Harper seems like the ideal gamble even if it ties up payroll for the foreseeable future.
Boras suggested that Harper would be open to playing first base for the right team and that he takes grounders just to keep the option open. It’s hard to imagine a player with Harper’s arm and range moving to a position he’s never played, but this is a speculative column, so we’ll consider it. But since he’s an outfielder today, let’s see if there’s room for him there.
With the emergence of Aaron Hicks as the everyday centerfielder, with Brett Gardner returning and with Judge and Stanton handling rightfield and designated hitter, there isn’t an open spot for Harper. Add Ellsbury and regarded prospect Clint Frazier to the outfield depth and there’s a strong chance that Cashman will move one outfielder even if the team doesn’t sign Harper.
But there isn’t a logjam, and the number of outfielders doesn’t preclude New York from signing Harper. Hicks is one of the Yankees’ most valuable assets: he has established himself as a worthy everyday starter through his defense alone, he hit 27 homers last season and he is estimated to make only $6.5 million in arbitration. The starting centerfielder is a great bargain for the Yankees and would be for any team willing to trade for him. As Jon Tayler noted earlier this week, the Yankees need to bolster their starting rotation before considering a splash move like signing Harper or Manny Machado. Hicks is the kind of centerpiece who could help execute that kind of trade.
An even more valuable trade chip is Frazier. He’s just 24 years old and showed some of his top prospect flashes in 39 games during 2017. Stanton’s arrival functionally boxed the young slugger out of New York’s immediate plans and limited him to just 15 big league games in 2018, but he still projects as a player with 30-homer power. The problem for Cashman is that other general managers know Frazier is a superfluous piece, so they know they won’t have to surrender their best assets to get him.
The team had the opportunity to decline Brett Gardner’s team option, but Cashman signed the career Yankee (and one of his personal favorite players) for another season, meaning the veteran will hold down leftfield. With Judge as a fixture in right, Harper would either replace Hicks in center (unlikely) or move to first base.
First base? It’s probably the only spot for Harper on the team.
The chronic injuries hounding Greg Bird, long considered the first baseman of the future, forced the Yankees to find at least a first-base platoon during the second half of last season. They landed on Luke Voit, the beefy Cardinals export who thrilled the Bronx with his mammoth power and torrid second-half performance. There’s no reason to punt on Voit yet: he hit .333/.405/.689 with 14 homers in just 148 plate appearances with New York before adding big hits in the Wild Card Game against Oakland and Game 1 against the Red Sox. Whether he’s a long-term fit is unclear, but he earned another shot at the starting job with his remarkable performance.
The prospect of Harper at first is tantalizing. He’s young enough that learning a new position isn’t an entirely radical idea; the Dodgers morphed Cody Bellinger from a first baseman and part-time outfielder into a decent centerfielder this season because of his raw athleticism. Harper is capable of playing the position, and the thought of him bopping homers over the short leftfield wall is a terrifying prospect for any opponent.
In short? He can learn to play first base. And the Yankees are definitely going to look into the idea of moving him there.
With Judge, Sanchez, Torres and Voit still in their pre-arbitration years and Severino reaching arbitration for the first time this year, the Yankees are benefiting from some incredible talent without too much spending. Contrary to many fans’ wishes, Stanton won’t be going anywhere with his massive contract, and Ellsbury’s deal will be even more difficult to move. Judge isn’t a free agent until 2023, but he’s already the most popular player the team has featured since Derek Jeter. The front office must start budgeting for him, and Sanchez is another blossoming player who will eventually command a big contract.
Harper isn’t the most sensible move for the Yankees right now, and the likelihood that they sign him is low. Nobody, however, thought they would emerge as a player in the Stanton negotiations either.