Bryce Harper, welcome to Los Angeles? The free-agent superstar wasn’t part of Friday afternoon’s seven-player deal between the Reds and Dodgers, but he’s the one potentially most impacted by it. The move—which saw the Dodgers send Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood and Kyle Farmer to Cincinnati for Homer Bailey and a pair of prospects—essentially functions as a hard reset for Los Angeles’ payroll and outfield, two things that needed to be cleared in order to make Harper a reality.
Well, in truth, it’s one thing that required some rejiggering and another that could’ve been ignored, given the Dodgers’ financial state. By trading away Puig and Kemp, Los Angeles removed two players from its perpetually overstuffed outfield; with the trade done, that group is now Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor, top prospect Alex Verdugo, and Andrew Toles, plus utility infielder Kiké Hernandez and nominal first baseman Cody Bellinger. That’s still a lot of names, but Pederson and Taylor are the only regulars, and both are platoon bats anyway. The rest slot in as needed as part of the ultra-flexible versatility that manager Dave Roberts treasures above all else.
A potential addition of Harper would have been complicated by the presence of Puig in rightfield in particular, as well as the need to find at-bats for Kemp. With both gone, that obstacle is removed: Harper would immediately become the full-time option in right while the other two spots rotate between whoever the Dodgers want to use there. (It also relieves the potential pressure of both Puig and Kemp griping about playing time; the former reportedly was unhappy with being benched against lefthanded pitchers last season, the latter becomes an everyday player after being a platoon bat against lefties who was pulled in the late innings for defense.)
That’s a logjam that had to be cleared. All these salaries moving, though, suggest the Dodgers needed financial relief too. Getting and staying under the luxury tax seemed to be Goal No. 1 for Los Angeles last winter, aided in part by, ironically enough, a salary dump involving Kemp in which the contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir were all flushed. Thanks to that move and a few others, the Dodgers went from paying $36 million in penalties for exceeding the tax after the 2017 season to being almost $3 million under the threshold in ’18. As they sliced and diced payroll last season, dropping some $60 million in salary, the understood reason for all that cutting was to be in a better position this winter to add a Harper or Manny Machado mega-contract.
At least, that’s the bill of goods we were sold. In fact, per an early November report in the Los Angeles Times, the Dodgers were telling investors that they hoped to stay under the tax limit—or, as it should be known at this point, the salary cap—for the next four years. Team projections showed Los Angeles spending just $185 million in salary in 2019, a full $15 million under the tax threshold, although one team official told the Times’ Bill Shaikin that such numbers were merely a “forecast,” and that he would be “shocked” if payroll didn’t break the $200 million mark.
Adding Harper would almost certainly take the Dodgers past that line, even with Friday’s alteration of the books. With the trade, Los Angeles will save roughly $17.5 million in luxury tax purposes: Kemp, Puig and Wood (roughly $42 million total) against Bailey ($28 million in salary next year including a 2020 buyout but only counting $17.5 million against the tax, which is based on average annual contract value) and $7 million in cash to Cincinnati. But with arbitration raises still pending and other expenses coming, the Dodgers are looking at spending $180 million or so in payroll next season. There’s little to no chance Harper takes a deal with an AAV under $20 million; more likely is something in the $30–35 million range. If the Dodgers want him, they’ll have to break their self-imposed budget.
Then again, the idea of a team run by billionaires and worth billions counting pennies as if they were funded by bake sales is already silly enough. Logistically, a trade like this probably had to happen to make Harper work, so as not to throw him into a seven-player outfield mess—not to mention that, with both eyeing free agency next winter, Kemp and Puig would want as many at-bats as possible to showcase themselves to would-be suitors. But financially, this kind of creative accounting shouldn’t be necessary. You’re the richest team in baseball; just go out and spend, and suck up the (not even particularly harsh) punishment when it comes.
But with the bottom line ruling everything now, there’s a chance that the Harper dream doesn’t even come to fruition. Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan and the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal have already floated scenarios where, instead of getting Harper, the Dodgers opt for the more cost-conscious alternative of signing A.J. Pollock or trading for Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto (using in part the prospects acquired from Cincinnati, including shortstop Jeter Downs—which would mean Derek Jeter acquiring a kid who was named after him) or Indians ace Corey Kluber. That’s all well and fine, but this trade makes the most sense as a precursor to Harper. That’s not to suggest that getting Realmuto or Kluber would be a mistake; only that dollars shouldn’t get in the way of the most obvious and best solution. (And adding either shouldn’t preclude getting Harper anyway, given that neither will break the bank payroll-wise.)
The result of this trade is the much-desired financial flexibility, but it shouldn’t be the goal. Shedding all those contracts can’t simply be about the money. It has to be about using that newfound flexibility to add the best talent, even if it’s not the most cost-effective; otherwise, you’re simply paying less to be slightly worse. Harper makes the Dodgers better in the short-term and going forward, and with two outfielders gone, there’s no roster excuse for Los Angeles not getting him. Whether or not we get a press conference at Dodger Stadium with Harper holding up a home white jersey and smiling will tell us all we need to know about what matters more: the games, or the payroll.