(This is the second in a series of profiles we’re going to do about potential targets for the Braves this offseason. I previously profiled Patrick Corbin.)
Overview: The last time the Atlanta Braves signed one of the most coveted free agents on the market, Bryce Harper was close to his second birthday. I’m sorry, I misread. I meant he was close to his second month on Earth celebration. That free agent, by the way, was Greg Maddux, who was signed in early December of 1992 by the then-high spending Braves. Could Atlanta finally go for it again? Could they ink one of the top free agents in a tremendous class? I have no clue – I’m just a blogger. But I can say it’s possible.
And for you geography buffs out there that love symmetry, both Maddux and Harper went to high school in Las Vegas. Feel free to make your gambling metaphors.
As if you needed a refresher, Harper was thought of as a once-in-a-generation prospect when the Nationals selected him with the first pick of the 2010 draft. He might not reach that absurd level of expectations, but don’t let that take away from the fact that Harper is one of the better players in baseball. He belted 34 homers this year, the second time in his career he’s reached the 30-HR mark. That’s despite tremendous struggles, especially in the first half, that nerfed his overall numbers. Nerfed is a popular term from Fortnite. Try to keep up.
In a way, Bryce Harper epitomized the entire Nationals roster in 2018. They weren’t terrible in retrospect. They finished two games above .500 and in second place. But they certainly weren’t as good as many people predicted. Harper, especially, was counted on for a monster season heading into free agency. What went wrong?
His agent, Scott Boras, blames the extreme amount of shifts. It’s a simple answer to a problem, though Harper did pull the ball about 10% above his career norms when he hit it on the ground. That played into the shift, obviously. But, more simply, Harper was hurt by bad luck more so than anything. He had a .289 batting average on balls in play, about 30 points below average. Less bad luck on balls in play and Harper has a more typical Harper year. Statcast even gives him an expected wOBA of .386 – almost on par with what his 2017 numbers look like when he finished the season with a 1.008 OPS.
Despite all of the lower-than-expected numbers, Bryce Harper still posted a very productive season in 2018. He doesn’t turn 26 until tomorrow, by the way. Hell of a time to hit free agency, right? Let’s look at, from a Braves perspective, the case for signing Harper and the case against. At the end, I’ll give you my impressions and I encourage you to do the same in the comment section below or via twitter. But first, let’s try to figure out what a contract might look like.
Predicting a Contract: Let’s get one thing straight. While the Braves or another team is going to give Bryce Harper eight-to-ten years, there’s about a 97.5% chance that the deal will include an opt-out clause after three or four years. Opt-outs have gained a great deal of popularity among the stars of baseball over the last few years and more times than not, they lead to a player choosing to give up a significant amount of money that is guaranteed as the player seeks to maximize career earnings.
Finding a comparable contract for Harper isn’t easy, but two quickly stand out. One is Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million contract over 13 years, which established a new record for total value and remains the only deal to pass the $300 million threshold in overall money. The other deal is Zack Greinke’s $206.5 million contract over over six years. That established a record average annual salary of about $34.4 million. Just short of that is the average salaries of the final two years of Mike Trout’s contract, which calls for the best player in baseball to earn $33.25 million.
Harper is expected to fly past both the overall value and the average annual value totals I just mentioned. While you can certainly arrange money however you want to either frontload or backload the contract to some degree, I’m going to stick to overall totals. Let’s start with $37.5 million as the average annual value. If Harper “committed” to nine years, that would give him an overall value of $337.5 million.
As for the opt-out, let’s put it after 2022 – or Year 4 of any potential contract. There’s one more thing to keep in mind – deals of this magnitude almost always include some form of no-trade protection, whether it is limited in Greinke’s case or full for Stanton. Certainly, as we have seen already with Stanton, a no-trade clause can be navigated to allow for a trade. However, the Braves have long held a tradition of not giving players no-trade clauses. That could be an issue in signing Harper.
The Case For Signing Bryce Harper: It’s rare to see a superstar hit the free agent market whose best days might be ahead. That is the case with Harper, who won’t turn 30 until after the 2022 season. And before anyone tells you he is overrated, since arriving in the majors during the 2012 season, Harper ranks ninth in wOBA and tenth in wRC+. He ranks slightly ahead of Freddie Freeman in both categories and slightly behind Giancarlo Stanton. The number of position players to reach the 30 fWAR threshold in baseball over the last seven seasons includes just 15 players. Harper is part of the club.
And again, he just completed his Age-25 season. Many power hitters reach their prime in their late 20’s.
Now, for some, they would argue that you can’t say Harper is truly one of the game’s best hitters. They’ll look at his .249 batting average this year and .243 batting average in 2016. They’ll say his career batting average is .279. And if you specify that a hitter must retain a great batting average to be considered a great hitter, it will be hard to look at Harper as a great hitter.
I don’t agree with that criteria. I bring in power and walks when I talk about a great hitter and in those regards, Harper is one of the top performers in baseball. The ninth-best wOBA since 2012? That’s good enough for me to refer to him as one of the best hitters in baseball.
Signing Harper can also be seen, to other perspective free agents, as Atlanta truly “going all-in” Free agents that are looking to not just get paid, but be part of a winning situation might be willing to take a bit less to join a potential dynasty in the making.
Adding Harper to a lineup that already includes Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr. – along with projected improvements from Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson – could give the Braves one of the most dynamic offenses in baseball. The Braves lacked that kind of depth in 2018. When Freeman, Markakis, and Albies slowed in the second half, there was only Acuña Jr. and Johan Camargo to keep things moving forward. Having another player capable of taking the team on his back when others fade would be huge for the offense.
The case against: There are two main issues for Braves fans when it comes to signing Harper. I do want to bring up other potential reasons to be a bit concerned about Harper before I approach the mega issues. First, Harper does show some platoon differences with a lifetime 115 wRC+ against left-hand pitching versus a 151 wRC+ against right-handers. Of course, a 115 wRC+ still means that you produce against southpaws at a 15% better rate than the MLB average. One other concern is Harper’s defense. He’s coming off a season where he posted the worst defensive metrics of his career. That might be just a one-season anomaly in defensive metrics – which can happen. He’s still probably a bit below average, though he might be asked to play left field with Acuña Jr. moving to right, which could be a better fit.
Some may also be reluctant to part with a first round draft choice, which almost surely would happen after the Nationals extend a qualifying offer to Harper. While this is, simply, “the price of doing business” according to the MLB collective bargaining agreement, some might argue that keeping those draft choices is important – especially with so little talent coming out of the international market due to sanctions.
But the real issues here are a bit more nuanced. Is Bryce Harper worth the money and even if he is, should the Braves invest into someone who could be a clubhouse cancer?
To the first question, there’s no universally “right” answer. One argument is that Bryce Harper is worth what the market says he’s worth. The other might argue that Harper isn’t better than Mike Trout so why should he be paid better than Trout? Still another camp would argue that no player is worth the kind of salaries they receive. We laugh at the last camp.
The most compelling argument, however, is that Harper’s salary will make it more difficult to (1) deal with any potential injury he may suffer and (2) build a deep team around him. The Atlanta Braves have carried around a $130 million payroll cap over the last few years. That cap could increase over the next few years as the Braves’ revenues increase with better attendance, but let’s just assume that the $130 million cap is a reasonable projection. Adding a $37.5 million a year contract to that takes up close to 30% of the payroll with one player. Add in Freddie Freeman’s $21 million and you are essentially paying 45% of your payroll to two players. How can you build around that?
The other side would argue that having so many young players allows you to do just that. So few players are guaranteed contracts for 2019 and beyond and most won’t even be arbitration-eligible for a couple of seasons. Adding Harper is a bit more workable considering that. However, it will certainly be a significant portion of payroll.
To go a bit more into that point, not only would it cost a lot, but rarely do these super long-term deals work out for the team. Certainly, it’s not often that the player is so young when they hit free agency, but has the $240 million Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano received – both tied for the fifth largest contracts ever – really paid off? Did Prince Fielder’s $214 million? Joe Mauer or Jason Heyward’s $184 million? Those five players represent contracts that are currently in the top 15 contracts ever dished out. That’s not including Matt Kemp, Chris Davis, Troy Tulowitzki, Adian Gonzalez, and Jacoby Ellsbury. They all receives at least $150 million. Suffice it to say, none of these contracts would have been signed had the team known then what we know now.
Finally, there is one other impact on the team. If Harper went down with an injury, would his salary limit the Braves’ ability to replace him? An injury is certainly possible – he’s played 140+ games or more in a season four times in the last seven years. This is commonly referred to as “too many eggs in one basket” by fans. Too much money given to one player means depth could be compromised and the ability to replace said player in case of injury becomes even more difficult because not only are you trying to replace production, you don’t have many financial resources to do so because you’ve invested so many into the player that is now hurt.
The financial side of it is worrisome no matter how sure you can be that you want Harper. But for a lot of fans that do not want Harper, the bigger worry is his personality. From dust-ups with his own teammates to going ballistic on umpires, Harper’s reputation isn’t always positive. Many refer to him as a clubhouse cancer. Many think he’s partly – or significantly – to blame for the Nationals’ yearly failure to move past the NLDS. These are criticisms that are quite subjective.
My Two Cents: As a fan, I get it. I do, however, have a very comparable situation from my fandom in another sport that might help here. On September 24, 2000, Terrell Owens – then a member of the 49ers – celebrated a touchdown by standing over the famous Dallas star against the Cowboys. He had to run 50 yards to do it and it naturally angered the Cowboys. Emmitt Smith mocked the celebration after he scored his next touchdown. So, Owens tried to do it again after scoring a second touchdown. Cowboys safety – and hero – George Teague pushed Owens in order to stop him. Six years later, Owens was himself a Cowboy.
Harper is known in Atlanta, when he’s not admiring long homers or running into walls, for a similar incident. On August 10, 2014, Harper dragged his foot through the Braves logo behind home plate. He denied any sort of intent, but fans still don’t let him forget it.
But just like when Owens signed with the Cowboys, fans won’t care too much about Harper being a “jerk” if he’s a Brave. He’d be misunderstood or, at the very least, his critics are the problem because they hate players with a little personality. Not everyone can be mindless baseball killing machines like Mike Trout. So what if Harper pimps his homers. So what if he lets an ump hear it when he makes a bad call. It brings character to baseball and that’s a good thing.
And if Bryce Harper is good enough for Freddie Freeman, he’s good enough for me. According to The Athletic’s Dave O’Brien, Freeman has been trying to sell Harper on coming to Atlanta. If Harper truly was the clubhouse cancer many accuse him of being, do you think Freeman would want him? I don’t.
But…it comes down to the money as it always does.
Does signing Harper make sense for the Braves? It absolutely does. The Braves have a hole in the outfield and in the lineup. Harper helps to take care of both issues. But does it make sense for the Braves at an annual average value of $37.5? What if it’s $40 million? At what point have the Braves spent too much of their limited payroll for one player?
In the end, adding Harper would make the Braves a clear favorite to win the National League in 2019. But should the Braves go for it?