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The case for signing Bryce Harper is easy: He’s an elite generational talent available in the prime of his career and he'll cost nothing more than money (albeit nearly as much as the GDP of France). No matter where your team is in the contention cycle, the argument to add him is that he makes you better for a long time, being that he just turned 26 in October.
The case for each particular team, though, is different. Even though Harper would be a game-changer for all 30 franchises, he’s not a realistic option for the great majority of them. Several factors—money, the roster, distance to contention, location—all have to be taken into account before plopping Harper onto a team.
While you can argue that every team could use Harper, I’ve decided to break the league down into tiers—essentially dividing all 30 squads into groups ordered by factors of likeliness. Consider this a kind of Bryce Harper Power Rankings, working our way from the already eliminated to the favorites but posturing all the while that each team on this list could use him, in some way or another.
Tier 7: No Chance, No Choice
There are about equal odds of you becoming president as anyone in this group signing Harper. Each squad here is a last-place team in the first stages of a rebuild. These are also some of the cheapest teams in the game, with no way (or desire) to meet Harper’s contract demands.
But even with everyone here trying to be bad, Harper makes a certain kind of sense. The argument against a bottom-feeder signing a star in free agency is that, by the time the roster around him is good, he’ll have already aged out of his prime. Not so with Harper, who’s young enough to still be productive when these teams are ready to contend. In other words, he’ll be good for several more years—a can of delicious soup that you can leave in the cupboard without worrying about the expiration date as you gradually stock the rest of your pantry.
Still, it won’t happen, if only because these teams are so far away that there’s a chance they never develop the players necessary to form a supporting cast around Harper. Nor are they going to spend real money to go from 65 wins to 69. But let’s go ahead and make the case for each anyway.
Hey, Orioles fans need something to cheer for in 2019, right? (And 2020 … and 2021 … and 2022…)
I want a pairing of Joey Votto and Bryce Harper to create the best WWE team ever: the OBP Boys, who refuse to take swings at anyone and are booed by their own fans constantly.
How many Tigers outfielders do you know beyond Nick Castellanos? I’d be a little concerned if you could name more than one. But a trio of Castellanos, top prospect Daz Cameron (at some point in 2019) and Harper is a nice step toward contending once again in the Motor City.
Kansas City Royals
Unless you really believe in Bubba Starling, the Prospect That Was Promised, the Royals’ outfield of the future is a barren wasteland. Harper could be the center of rebuilding efforts and wouldn’t block anyone.
Spiritually, this is Harper’s home: We deserve Miami Bryce, who would definitely play either in a pastel blazer or shirtless. He’d also be a needed sign of life on the low-cost substitute for a roster that is Derek Jeter’s Baseball-Related Entertainment Team.
As the least terrible team in this group, Harper would turn the Rangers into almost kind of a contender—albeit one that has to win every single game 13–11.
Tier 6: No Room At The Inn
Not everyone can actually fit Harper onto a roster, or at least not without some creative juggling. These two teams, while contenders, will almost certainly sit this dance out.
Boston Red Sox
It would be an incredible flex for Dave Dombrowski to add Harper to a championship lineup. One problem: There’s literally nowhere to put him. Between Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi, the defending World Series champions are loaded in the outfield. Nor can you stick Harper at designated hitter, unless you plan on ditching J.D. Martinez. The only way he works in Boston is if he’s willing to learn to play first base, and even if he is, the Red Sox’ financial situation—the team has the biggest payroll in baseball, and it isn’t shrinking any time soon—takes them out of the running.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals don’t boast Boston’s super-outfield, but between Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, Jose Martinez, Dexter Fowler and Tyler O’Neill, they have outfielders coming out of their ears. You’d have to set Fowler aside somehow, or ship Martinez to an AL team that can put him at DH where he belongs. Leave aside that Harper is better than everyone listed above; the machinations are too complex.
Tier 5: Money’s Too Tight For Steak
Nearly half the league resides here, where payroll will be either too restricted or bloated to be able to accommodate Harper’s next contract. (Remember that this is by choice: Every team has a budget, but every team is also owned by people who are stupidly wealthy. They could easily afford Harper or any other player at a fair market rate; they choose not to because these teams are businesses, and building the best team isn’t always good for the bottom line.)
Harper would make a perfect replacement for Nick Markakis, a beautiful bookend with young superstar Ronald Acuña Jr., and a superb accompaniment to Freddie Freeman in the middle of the order. Atlanta’s time is both now and going forward; Liberty Media, which pinches pennies hard enough to leave indentations, needs to stop fixating on the bottom line and add a once-in-a-generation talent.
A rebuild may be in the offing as the Diamondbacks look to cut payroll. But close as they are to contention, they’d be better off shooting the moon and signing Harper to replace Steven Souza in rightfield and, eventually, Paul Goldschmidt as the face of the franchise; the latter is a free agent after 2019.
Los Angeles Angels
Mike Trout plus Bryce Harper; what other argument do I need to make? Oh, that’s right: Mike Trout plus Bryce Harper plus Shohei Ohtani. Honestly though, I want this to happen just to see how the Angels turn a team with those three into one that finishes third in the AL West. It’d be like reverse alchemy!
New York Mets
Beyond what Harper does for this moribund lineup—a lot—signing him would lend Brodie Van Wagenen’s new regime much-needed legitimacy after years of Ponzi scheme-style management. The Mets would win the back pages and the fans forever and immediately jump back into NL East contention with Harper on board. Just keep him away from the team doctors.
The Twins’ starting centerfielder in September was Jake Cave, because planting a literal white flag out there would’ve been too blatant. This team needs outfield help, as it's clear the current core probably isn’t enough to make Minnesota contenders again.
What better way to prove that it’s a new day in Oakland, and that the 97-win 2018 team is a stepping stone to the future instead of a random blip, then by signing a marquee free agent for the first time in forever? Harper would transform the narrative around this franchise and could push the A’s past the Astros in the division, allowing them to avoid the dreaded wild-card game.
There’s no better way to apologize to the fans you spit on by trading away Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen then by signing Harper. The Pirates shouldn’t be content to tread water as a .500 team with a tiny payroll. The long-suffering fans in the Steel City deserve better than that.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants willingly played Gorkys Hernandez regularly last year and will enter 2019 with relatively untested options in every outfield spot; they should be calling Scott Boras on the hour every hour. If new team president Farhan Zaidi doesn’t like the sound of blowing this roster up, then go for it one more time with this core and Harper at the center.
Roundtable: Will the Yankees Pursue Bryce Harper?
If the Mariners are afraid of being a good team that’s not good enough, they shouldn’t just give up and rebuild. Instead, sign Harper, who helps get them out of that limbo.
Tampa Bay Rays
If the Rays were able to assemble a 90-win team out of coupons and clearance rack items, imagine what they could do if they opened their wallet for once and brought in a superstar? Plus, Tampa has just $8.1 million on the books total for 2019, and that’s all going to Kevin Kiermaier. Harper is easily affordable here, even if ownership pretends otherwise.
Toronto Blue Jays
Pair Harper with the arrival of Vlad Guerrero Jr., the head of an impressive prospect class, and you’ll have folks in Canada partying like it’s 1993 all over again. This creaky and boring Jays team is in need of an established star like Harper to lead the coming youth movement.
Tier 4: Do It, You Rebuilding Cowards
The White Sox and Padres aren’t contenders. Far from it: The former lost 100 games last year, and the latter wasn’t far behind at 96. But while both teams are still amid painful rebuilds, Harper would make far too much sense for either.
Chicago White Sox
San Diego Padres
The White Sox are awful, but probably not for much longer. The future is very bright, featuring under-30 talent like Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, and Carlos Rodon. Coming in 2019 is Eloy Jimenez, one of MLB’s top five prospects. Even with the loss of Michael Kopech to Tommy John surgery and the fitful progress of top arms Lucas Giolito and Carson Fulmer, everything points toward happier days on the South Side.
The same is true of the Padres. Already in San Diego are developing youngsters Hunter Renfroe, Francisco Mejia, Manuel Margot, Franmil Reyes and Joey Lucchesi. They’ll be joined soon by top prospects Fernando Tatis Jr., Mackenzie Gore, Luis Urias, Cal Quantrill, and many more. Like the White Sox, 2019 will be rough for the Padres, but ’20 and beyond look very promising.
Prospect development isn’t linear, and both these teams have already seen their fair share of failures. But the forecast is good for each, and it would be that much better if those players—plus the top-six draft picks coming next summer—joined Harper, who is barely older than the great majority of them.
Each team also has oodles of payroll space to devote to Harper. Even with Eric Hosmer’s mega-deal on the books, San Diego has just $53 million committed in 2019. Chicago is even lighter, with only $15.3 million in guaranteed money next year. Harper’s next contract would be a drop in the bucket—especially thanks to all the artificially suppressed pre-arb production each team will be getting going forward.
This is the time for the White Sox and Padres to push the rebuild forward and close the gap on contention. A franchise player like Harper who’s not substantially older than the prospects he’d be playing alongside doesn’t come by often, and both teams should take advantage of it. What was the point of all those trades and losses otherwise?
Tier 3: Dark Horses
These are teams that, for one reason or another, may not be considered the favorites for Harper. But he’d be a perfect fit for each.
Content to aim for 90 wins on the cheap in an awful division, Cleveland won’t be a serious Harper suitor, even though few if any teams could use him more. Michael Brantley is likely a goner in free agency, leaving an outfield of Leonys Martin, Greg Allen and Tyler Naquin (and Bradley Zimmer, once he gets healthy). That’s unacceptable for a World Series contender. Harper would also deepen a top-heavy lineup, reliant as it is upon Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and the rapidly aging Edwin Encarnacion.
The Astros almost had Harper in their clutches back in July, only for Nationals ownership to back out of a proposed swap. They have all the reason in the world to make Harper in Houston a reality going forward, though. One of the few weaknesses in their lineup is rightfield, where veteran Josh Reddick muddled along to a 99 OPS+; turning 32 in February, there’s no real reason to expect him to improve in 2019. Houston could give his job to top prospect Kyle Tucker, but why settle for a 22-year-old rookie when Harper is right there?
Just picture the panic every pitcher will feel knowing that they have to survive a gauntlet of George Springer, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Harper, and Carlos Correa multiple times. That alone is reason enough to do this. Not to mention that the Astros have relatively few financial commitments going forward: They need to save room for extensions for Springer, Correa and Bregman, but Harper wouldn’t cripple their ability to do that. If the Astros want to snatch their crown back, here’s the loudest and best way to do it.
The Brewers are in the same boat as the Astros, with an already loaded lineup and a full outfield. But Ryan Braun is getting older and sliding closer to league average. Replacing him with Harper and transitioning Braun into a part-time role split between the outfield and first base would benefit everybody and help the Brewers keep pace with the Cubs.
Quietly one of the worst hitting teams in baseball (something we were all repeatedly exposed to during a stultifying NL wild-card game and an equally sleep-inducing Division Series against Milwaukee), the Rockies can only count on Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon in the lineup. They also desperately need a corner outfielder. But the real treat here would be watching Bryce Harper hit in Coors Field. Make me commissioner, and this happens in a heartbeat.
Tier 2: Your Guess Is As Good As Mine
New York Yankees
Plenty of digital ink has already been spilled at SI.com on whether the Yankees should be pursuing Harper and how he’d fit in a crowded outfield. Leave aside that the answers to those questions are 1) Yes and 2) Figure that out later; we can all agree that it’s baffling that the team synonymous with wild free-agent spending isn’t pursuing Harper like a greyhound chasing a rabbit, right?
Maybe this is all a front on the part of resident Jedi grand master Brian Cashman, trying to lull the rest of the league into a stupor while he secretly wines and dines Harper. It’s impossible to think that the Yankees—a team that could probably print its own currency if it wanted to—would let money stand between them and one of the best players in baseball.
I have no idea how this turns out. I do know that there’s room for Harper. Would you rather start 35-year-old Brett Gardner full-time and watch as he yet again wastes away in the second half? One of Harper or Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton—seriously, think about that trio in the same lineup—could handle left as a regular, and whatever the defensive downgrade from Gardner to any of them is more than made up by having Harper taking Gardner’s lineup spot.
Tier 1: The Favorites
And so we’ve reached the teams upon whom the gods smile. Their combination of roster, financial situation, location, and status makes them ideal fits for Harper. My bet is that, at the end of the winter, it will be one of these four holding a press conference with Harper putting on their jersey and smiling.
I can’t believe—no, I won’t believe—that the Cubs, who have perhaps the best young collection of talent this side of Houston, won’t spend to make that team better. It’s unconscionable; it’s crazy; it should be a felony. That’s especially the case with Harper available to plug gaps in the outfield. Put him in rightfield, move Jason Heyward to center and consign Albert Almora to reserve outfielder status, which is where he belongs anyway. This isn’t rocket science; it’s barely basic math.
We saw what happened when everything goes right for the Cubs in 2016; we’ve also seen what happens when you throw a wrench into the machine. Few if any teams can match Chicago’s ceiling, but even super-teams can stumble. Harper would help create distance from surging Milwaukee and give them another stud under-30 player to extend their window of title contention. It makes too much sense not to happen.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Los Angeles almost had Harper in August in a trade that would’ve sent him to Hollywood and Yasiel Puig to Washington. Now, though, the Dodgers can just play Harper and Puig together. How that works with the 49,265 other outfield pieces they have would be a bit of a puzzle for Andrew Friedman to work out. But it’s worth doing, especially for a core that’s come within inches of the mountaintop two years in a row but stumbled before getting to the summit each time.
Harper makes so much sense for the Phillies. He provides a steady middle of the order presence in an inconsistent lineup. He puts an end to the Rhys Hoskins Experiment in the outfield. He’s insurance against Odubel Herrera’s inconsistency and the growing pains of Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams. He’d help them contend now and later as the centerpiece of a young, bright roster.
The only reason the Phillies shouldn’t sign Harper is to get Manny Machado instead—and quite frankly, they can afford both. Even with Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana sucking down $45 million of payroll next year and in 2020, there’s little else on the books, and both of them are likely goners after that ’20 season (and Santana may even disappear before then). Hoskins and Aaron Nola won’t be getting expensive for a while; more than perhaps any other contender, Philadelphia can afford a gigantic contract.
The simple fact is that this Phillies team as currently constructed is not good or consistent enough to make the postseason. You saw evidence of that as they collapsed down the stretch last year. Harper would put them over the edge.
The Nationals may already be out of the running, having made a 10-year, $300 million offer to Harper that he and Boras summarily rejected. Whether or not he’s still open to returning to D.C. despite that being Washington’s first (and perhaps only) overture is unknown. But I have to imagine that the Nats want him back. He’s the face of the franchise, and it’s clear that the connection between player and city and fans is deep and vibrant.
The emergence of Juan Soto and a full season of Victor Robles may lessen the need to bring Harper back, but he’s good insurance for either faltering, as well as a bulwark against Adam Eaton—who’s missed giant chunks of the last two years—failing to stay healthy. Even if Soto and Robles end up becoming stalwarts in the outfield, Harper could eventually transition to first base to replace the aging Ryan Zimmerman.
There are plenty of reasons to keep Harper in the fold—if, that is, he and the Nats want it to happen.