- The Giants are the latest team to joint the Bryce Harper sweepstakes. Is it a legitimate destination for the star outfielder?
The offseason pursuit of Bryce Harper has been more of a brisk jog than a high-speed car chase, but last week, a new entrant joined the race: the Giants. Last Wednesday, reports emerged that San Francisco joined the hunt for Harper, with team owner Larry Baer, new general manager Farhan Zaidi, and grizzled skipper Bruce Bochy all meeting with the free-agent star in Las Vegas. Zaidi told reporters on Friday that there was “mutual interest” between Harper and the Giants, and the sitdown itself reportedly went twice as long as planned, with Zaidi also chatting with Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, on a private jet afterward.
“Bryce Harper is an amazing player,” Baer told fans and reporters at the Giants’ FanFest in San Francisco on Saturday. “I can’t handicap it, I don’t know where we are, but we’re giving it a shot. That’s all we can do, I think.”
It’s more than most teams have attempted, and it may not be a long shot, either. As NBC Sports’ Alex Pavlovic noted, “There has been an increased sense among some in the clubhouse that Harper prefers the Giants.” It can’t hurt that face of the franchise Buster Posey is out there publicly lobbying for Harper, too, telling reporters last Friday, “Sign him up.” (Harper, meanwhile, has some fuzzy feelings of his own for the Giants’ longtime catcher: Pavlovic reports, “One of the things Harper talked about with the Giants’ contingent … was how much he likes Posey.” Get a room already, you two.)
While Harper and Posey make eyes across a crowded room, the big question is whether the Giants have the resources to land the 26-year-old outfielder. Financially, it seems, San Francisco isn’t willing to shell out the big money: Per USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, the team has “no desire to provide a long-term contract approaching the 10-year, $300 million contract Harper rejected from the Nationals in September.” Instead, Nightengale writes, the Giants “plan to offer Harper a lucrative short-term deal.” What that would be is unknown, but it could be something like a five-year contract worth $150–180 million or so, or perhaps something with opt-outs so Harper can maximize his earnings.
In an ordinary world, that likely wouldn’t be enough to secure Harper’s services. But in this frozen wasteland of an offseason, where the great majority of the teams in baseball are unwilling to spend on generational talent, the Giants aren’t facing much competition. The Phillies, the prohibitive favorite to land Harper, have spent the winter beefing up the roster that would be around him, but there’s been no word of any offer from their camp. Ditto the White Sox and Padres, the two surprise entrants into the sweepstakes, as well as Harper’s old team, the Nationals, whose $300 million offer back before the offseason started remains his highest bid. There’s room for the Giants to slide in and take advantage of a depressed market without offering a deal that breaks the bank.
That gets truer the closer we get to spring training, as players around the league have already begun to report to camps in Arizona and Florida. The Giants, as well as everyone else vying for Harper, are likely hoping that the calendar can squeeze him into accepting a below-market offer. Helping their hopes is the fact that we haven’t heard a peep from the league’s super-rich squads, with the Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers (among others) all absent and unlikely to join the fray at this point after spending the offseason griping about the luxury tax and payroll constraints.
You would’ve expected to find the Giants in that camp as well. San Francisco entered the winter with a payroll as bloated as the runtime of The Tree of Life, already on the hook for roughly $165 million in guaranteed contracts in 2019. That includes $22 million for Posey, who had the worst season of his career last year before undergoing hip surgery in August; $21.8 million for Johnny Cueto, currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery; $19.8 million for Jeff Samardzija, who managed just 44 2/3 innings and a 6.25 ERA in 2018 at age 33; and $14.7 million for Evan Longoria, who hit a dismal .244/.281/.413 with 16 homers in his first year in the Bay Area. All of those players are under contract through at least 2020, with Longoria the biggest long-term commitment, as he’s signed through ‘22.
That money didn’t even buy the Giants much of anything last season, as they finished 73–89 and ranked at or near the bottom of the league in every offensive category. Worse, the core of the team is all on the wrong side of 30, and San Francisco’s best player, ace lefty Madison Bumgarner, is seemingly declining and set to be a free agent next winter. On top of all of that, the Giants’ farm system, while slowly improving, remains one of the weakest in baseball, offering little to no immediate or impact help going forward. With all that in mind, it’s easy to understand why Zaidi, in his first year on the job, has barely invested in the roster. His winter to date, beyond a slew of minor-league deals, consists of one-year pacts for lefties Drew Pomeranz and Derek Holland, the latter a re-signing, at a grand total of $8 million.
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The Giants have a roster neither bad enough to blow up (with pieces that wouldn’t land them much in trades anyway) nor good enough to justify a massive winter spending spree. As such, Zaidi’s offseason feels like a biding of time: Collect some cheap and perhaps interesting pieces while trying to run it back with a group of players who aren’t that far removed from being productive. It’s not a crazy idea, either. Last year’s Giants stayed competitive late into last season, sitting at 50–48 at the All-Star break and 68–68 at the end of August before a brutal 5–21 month of September. With better health, there’s a chance San Francisco is closer to that first-half squad than the one that died in September.
If that’s the case, Harper would likely be a true difference maker. I ran down why the Giants (along with every other team) should sign Harper back in early November. Suffice to say that a team where [checks notes] [rubs eyes] [checks notes again] Gorkys Hernandez was second on the team in homers last season could use a power bat like Harper’s. The outfield could use him, too. As it stands, San Francisco’s starting trio there—Chris Shaw in left, Steven Duggar in center, and Mac Williamson in right—has combined for 553 career major league plate appearances. All have promise but are short on experience and established production.
Even if Harper can’t get the Giants over the hump in 2019, he’s young enough that he can be the leader of the next great San Francisco team, whenever it arrives. He’s the perfect bridge from the Posey and Bumgarner era to whatever comes next. With Harper in the fold, there’s no need to rebuild; you simply build around him.
Is that a tricky task to accomplish? Sure. Nor is Harper a perfect fit. San Francisco’s newly rechristened Oracle Park is devastating for on lefthanded power hitters, and his poor defense is an open (and confusing) question in that stadium’s endless expanses. But even despite that, I like the odds of the Giants competing in 2019 and beyond with Harper on board than I do with the team trying to piece together a winner some other way. In many ways, he’s the ideal solution for this particular roster at this particular time, and even though he’ll cost hundreds of millions of dollars, what better way are the Giants going to use that money?
The Giants weren’t going to get substantially better by tearing the roster down, and the likelihood of the current team delivering one last hurrah was low. By adding Harper, San Francisco gets better today and tomorrow, avoiding both the thorny dilemma of whether or not to rebuild and the tough question of how exactly to construct a winner. The solution, it seems, is one the Giants are already pursuing: Add Harper, and go from there.