Until the next mystery team reveals itself, Bryce Harper is either returning the Nationals or choosing to play the next decade or so from among three of the four worst teams in baseball over the past six years. Combined winning seasons for the White Sox, Phillies and Padres in that time: zero.
At least eight teams have expressed interest in Harper, according to a source familiar with his free agency. But those teams among them who simply are doing due diligence or hoping to get Harper on a short-term deal—buying his prime years without the strings attached of paying a mid-30s Harper—are likely to remain on the periphery.
The Padres seemed to be a surprise suitor when team officials met with Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, Thursday in Las Vegas. But history—and Boras’ own trail of clues—tell us we shouldn’t be surprised that the bottom teams in baseball, not those at the top, are competing for a marquee player.
You can deconstruct Harper all you want by his WAR, the fashionable trend these days even in front offices these days. If you believe in WAR, Harper ranks 86th over the past three years, and you’d be better off with players such as Corey Dickerson and Cesar Hernandez.
But baseball is more than WAR. It is an entertainment business. It’s about selling tickets, attracting viewers and promoting a brand. Nothing sells better than winning, of course, but winning can be fickle when it comes to championships. Over the past six years the Yankees and Nationals combined to field 12 winning teams but won one postseason series.
The star player can enhance the brand with or without a championship. And Harper, 26, brings to free agency two key pieces of leverage we haven’t seen like this since Alex Rodriguez in 2000: youthfulness and star power. And that is how Boras has been selling Harper: a franchise-changing player.
“He will pay for himself, independent of a great performance,” Boras said back at the winter meetings, noting how the Nationals improved their attendance by 38% and tripled their television ratings in the seven years Harper played in Washington.
It’s too simple to ascribe all of that growth to Harper, but there is no doubt he was a big part of it. Harper is the most recognizable face in baseball.
Now consider what Harper might do for the Padres. Unless you’re a prospect junkie, it’s hard to find a less relevant franchise in baseball this side of the Marlins. Here is why the Padres need Harper. The Padres:
• Have not had a position player start the All-Star Game since the late Tony Gwynn in 1998.
• Have not had anybody hit 32 home runs since Adrian Gonzalez in 2009.
• Fell from ninth to 22nd in local TV ratings from 2015–18 while losing nearly half their viewership (from 44,000 households to 23,000).
• Have not fielded a winning team or had any of its players receive even a single MVP or Cy Young Award vote in the six full seasons under the ownership of Ron Fowler.
• Have lost 848,216 paid fans since Petco Park opened in 2004.
The Padres actually have stabilized their attendance in recent years after the novelty wore off Petco. But take a look at this: the worst winning percentages in baseball over the past six seasons—since Fowler bought the Padres—and the effect on attendance for those teams in that time:
Worst Winning Percentage in MLB, 2013–2018
1. White Sox
The Reds are so frightened about losing relevancy in Cincinnati that this winter they patched a 95-loss team with loads of veterans, many of them on one-year contracts. The Marlins are in Year 2 of a teardown. And the other three teams at the bottom of Major League Baseball are hoping Harper brings them relevancy. “I don’t think any player ever has had such close connection with franchise value, attendance and TV ratings,” Boras said at the winter meetings.
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When you pay more than $200 million for a free agent, you better be paying for more than WAR. That’s why teams near the bottom often have been most aggressive when luring the most expensive free agents:
Most Expensive Free Agents to Switch Teams
2015 Red Sox
Harper doesn’t immediately make the Padres a contender. But if you are to believe the hype about their prospects, they could be one soon. MLB.com last year rated San Diego as having the best farm system in baseball. The three previous teams identified as “farm system champions” all were in the playoffs either that year or the following year (Cubs in 2015, Dodgers in 2016, Braves in 2017).
Harper would get the Padres to contention more quickly, especially if they also were to sign Mike Moustakas (like Harper and Eric Hosmer, a Boras client) and trade from their outfield surplus. What Harper would do immediately for the Padres would be to make them relevant like they haven’t been in years. We’re starting to see why Harper is worth more to the bottom teams in baseball than those at the top.