Is it too early to start talking about the idea of Bryce Harper on the open market, breaking free agency and getting enough money to build an underground lair? According to the Internet, it is not. Jeff Passan suggests the Yankees might have Harper in their long-term plans. Jonah Keri wrote back in December that the Dodgers might be thinking the same thing. Both scenarios make sense, what with both formerly free-spending teams having modest offseasons and minimal future commitments, and it's easy to imagine them brawling for Harper, Pacific Rim-style, demolishing everything in their path.
It's unlikely that the other 28 teams would just back off, though. The Nationals would like to remind you kindly that they still exist, and they're kind of attached to this Harper fellow. There's just about no way to lock him up now -- Scott Boras' entire career has led to this, and he's not going to let it go -- but there's still a chance that Harper would rather have $400 million and the status quo instead of $450 million and the burden of expectations with a new organization. The Nationals aren't dead yet.
In fact, let's see if there's anything to the Yankees and Dodgers being obvious co-suitors for Harper. We'll start with what we know, and then move on to the educated guesses.
What we know is that Bryce Harper will be a free agent in three years, after the 2018 season. Which is a long, long time away. Three years ago, the Astros were one of the worst non-expansion teams in baseball history, and the Reds had a young, dominant rotation. Three years is enough time for young players to emerge and veteran stars to disappear. There are kids still in the dorms right now who will be major league stars in three years. It's enough time for teams to be bought and sold, with new owners feeling they have something to prove.
In three years, the Tampa Bay Rays might have plans to move to a new stadium and a lineup filled with pre-arbitration stars.
Maybe a better way to illustrate the point is to list how much guaranteed payroll every team will have on the books from 2019 through 2021, with the numbers courtesy of Baseball-Reference.
There are a few things that jump out at you. First, perhaps, might be the realization that the Philadelphia Phillies do not have a single penny committed to anyone in the first season of Harper's future contract. There will be arbitration cases and free agents between now and then -- just like there will be with all 30 teams up there -- but when it comes to inescapable financial commitments, the Phillies have none. They could accumulate $100 million in payroll over the next three years, with Maikel Franco and Aaron Nola becoming young stars on new long-term deals, sign Harper for $50 million per year, and still have room to add more free agents. The Dodgers and Yankees are obvious fits for Harper, but look at the fresh financial soil that the Phillies have tilled.
And if you're thinking that the Tigers' payroll burden will affect how they approach their roster in three years, you're right. But let's say that Harper gets that $450 million contract over 10 years. It probably won't be for a flat $45 million per year, regardless of which team he signs with. There would be nothing preventing the Tigers from paying Harper $10 million in his first season, $15 million in his second, and taking him into the stratosphere in his third season, when their payroll isn't as cumbersome. That goes for the Cubs, Red Sox, and Giants, too.
The Astros, White Sox, and Mets will have their latent big-market powers and limited financial commitments. The Blue Jays don't have a lot of future burdens, and the Rockies might want to get Harper just to melt our brains.
Which is all to say, every team will want the 26-year-old All-Star on a Hall of Fame path. Every team will at least consider what it would take to get Harper, and several of them will have the means. And if you think there are mystery teams in every offseason, you can't imagine the mystery that's shrouded three years in the future. In 1990, you could have made a similar list for Barry Bonds and crossed the Giants off because they were never going to spend that kind of money. By the time Bonds reached free agency, the Giants had new owners who had saved the team from moving to Tampa, and they were looking to make a statement. Three years changed absolutely everything we knew about the franchise.
So for teams like the Dodgers and Yankees to make a purse-lipped, "I'm interested" face when thinking about Harper in three years? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. For either of them to plan around it, well, that would be a ludicrous strategy. There's so, so much that can happen between now and then, both with their own teams and with the baseball landscape in general.
Everyone's going to want Bryce Harper. As of right now, every team could still conceivably add $50 million in payroll to their 2019 roster, even if it will be easier for some teams than others. Don't worry about one or two rich teams setting themselves up for a furious Harper pursuit. They won't be alone.
Oh, man, they won't be alone.