Get In Where You Fit In: Breaking Down Bryce Harper's Free Agency Finalists

The nearly three-year saga revolving around the dance of Bryce Harper with free agency appears to be reaching a tipping point soon. With the superstar slugger setting dates and spending quality time with a handful of suitors, it appears that his decision on where Harper will be suiting up for the foreseeable future is imminent.

Regardless of where he lands, two things are guaranteed: a) a team will be getting perennial All-Star who is still shy of reaching his prime, despite already having an MVP on his mantle, and b) he will receive a boatload of cash to do so. Now if that figure resets the compensation record books in baseball (or professional sports) history is yet to be seen, but the reality of at least a $300+ million pact seems to be guaranteed. It is not even a guarantee that it will be the most money awarded in one form or another of the offseason, as the sweepstakes around Manny Machado continues to roar on as well. But regardless of it all, a new high water mark has been set for a spectacle around the decision of a single player.

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

But where do we stand now? There is no shortage of suitors that are taking a unique angle towards wooing Bryce to their ranks. The group has slimmed down of late, with popular early names such as the Yankees, Cardinals, White Sox and Giants taking a backseat to a more defined finalist group. The Phillies, Dodgers and Cubs are heading up the pack of new destinations, with his only employer-to-date in the Nationals re-entering the fray as well.

The question of what location makes the most sense for Harper seems to be a lesser one; anyone willing to call on the amount of Brinks trucks required to secure his services makes sense for him to finish with. Instead, which of the final suitors could Harper stand to make the biggest impact with is a much more enticing question.

And that is the one we will take on here: what roster could Harper’s presence make the biggest difference in, both in 2019 and beyond? Here’s a look at the before and after of the possible outcomes of the great Harper sweepstakes of 2019.

(Note: Projections are via Baseball-Reference, where average production and WAR figures are sourced.)

Inside the player:

2018: .249/.393/.496/.889, 34 home runs, 103 runs scored, 130/169 walks vs. strikeouts, 273 total bases, 133 OPS+

3-year averages: .267/.391/.505/.897; 29 HR, 94 runs scored, 102/133 walks vs strikeouts, 133 OPS+

2019 Prediction: .265/.385/.491/.875, 27 home runs, 90 runs scored, 96/130 walks-to-strikeouts, 241 total bases over 597 plate appearances.

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers have ended the last two years atop the National League, but as bridesmaids in the World Series. With the resources at hand in L.A. and the already in place commitments across the board, it makes sense that they would put themselves in position to pursue one of the top free agents on the board.

Having already attempted the Manny Machado experience –and come up short— a pivot towards Harper makes sense. On one hand the move that sent both Matt Kemp and Yaisel Puig to the Cincinnati Reds last month could be viewed to unclog a crowded outfield scene, it also created an undeniably well-timed opening in right field that could accommodate a Harper pursuit.

Current Projected 2019 Dodgers Lineup

  1. Joc Pederson, LF
  2. Corey Seager, SS
  3. Justin Turner, 3B
  4. Cody Bellinger, CF
  5. Max Muncy, 1B
  6. Chris Taylor, 2B
  7. Alex Verdugo, RF – .329/.391/.472, 10 HR, 19 doubles in 2018* (Triple-A stats)
  8. Austin Barnes, C
  9. Pitcher

The organization’s top prospect Verdugo is currently tabbed for the role, and he has earned a shot at sticking with the big club. However, that could come via a competition with Pederson in left field instead, as the addition of Harper would make this the most potent left-handed hitting lineup in the game.

Potential Lineup w/ Harper

  1. Pederson, LF
  2. Seager, SS
  3. Turner, 3B
  4. Harper, RF
  5. Bellinger, CF
  6. Taylor, 2B
  7. Muncy, 1B
  8. Barnes, C
  9. Pitcher

Verdict: Harper is the quintessential big name acquisition that fits in with the Dodgers style. But he also goes contrary to everythign they have done underneath president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman’s reign with the team regarding external money allocated. But after reaching the final line twice and coming up empty, maybe it is the right time to go against standard operating procedure.

Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Chicago Cubs

Although they have been uncharacteristically inactive this winter, the Cubs have stayed on the peripheral of the Harper situation. Reports place them as requesting a final shot at terms with him following whatever his favored deal is. It is a bit complicated to see to what extent they can go to with their existing financial commitments, as well as ones upon the horizon with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez. All the same, never rule out Theo Epstein and company when it comes to making a big splash when they deem it necessary.

Current projected 2019 Cubs roster:

  1. Ben Zobrist, 2B
  2. Kris Bryant, 3B
  3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
  4. Javier Baez, SS
  5. Kyle Schwarber, LF
  6. Willson Contreras, C
  7. Pitcher
  8. Jason Heyward, RF
  9. Ian Happ, CF * .233/.353/.408, 15 homers, 90 hits, 8 stolen bases in 462 plate appearances in 2018.

Even if it is a long shot to actually happen, the thought of inserting Harper into this lineup is tantalizing. It would come at the easy expense of Happ, who despite being a gifted athlete with his best days easily ahead of him, could immediately be moved into a utility role or leveraged for a trade. Heyward can still move over to centerfield on a regular basis to accommodate Harper’s presence in right.

Here is a look at what the post-Harper Cubs lineup would appear as:

  1. Zobrist, 2B
  2. Rizzo, 1B
  3. Bryant, 3B
  4. Harper, RF
  5. Baez, SS
  6. Schwarber, LF
  7. Contreras, C
  8. Pitcher
  9. Heyward, CF

The immediate impact of such a move would catapult the Cubs back up towards unquestionably being the best everyday team in the National League, and on par with the heavier hitting lineups of the American League as well.

There is plenty of versatility in such an offering, such as moving Harper anywhere between the second slot and cleanup, while positioning Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and Contreras around him on a night-by-night matchup basis. The Cubs have been at their best during the three-year window atop the NL Central when they have been able to regularly alternate left-handed and right-handed bats with power potential throughout the lineup. With Harper saddled between Bryant and Rizzo, it would give them a trio that has owned a combined .387 OBP since 2016. With Harper’s patience at the plate, he could even work best out of the second slot in the lineup, which would force pitchers to finally come to him with Bryant, Rizzo and Baez looming, something they have avoided doing more than any other hitter in baseball. Scary thought.

Verdict: For Harper, it gives him the chance to join a contender immediately and be a surrounded by peers that are on his level in the process. There is also the chance to play alongside his childhood teammate and good friend Bryant. While the association has been a bit overstated, it also cannot be ignored from an intangible standpoint. In an era of athletes who have been influenced by

the success of forming ‘super teams’, this could be the LeBron James comes to Miami to link up with Dwyane Wade for the baseball world.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies have lived in the spotlight of expectation this winter, as they have conspicuously gone on the record in stating their intent to swing for the fences regarding bringing a franchise player aboard. They are obviously very familiar with their old divisional foe in Harper, who carries a .930 career OPS at Citizens Bank Park, his highest of any ballpark he has played more than 40 games in.

Current Projected Phillies lineup for 2019:

  1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
  2. Jean Segura, SS
  3. Andrew McCutchen, RF
  4. Rhys Hoskins, 1B
  5. Nick Williams, LF .256/.324/.425/.749, 17 HR, 104 hits, 99 OPS+
  6. Maikel Franco, 3B
  7. Odubel Herrera, CF
  8. Jorge Alfaro, C
  9. Pitcher

Of all the options on the table, a move to Philadelphia is the one that requires the most betting on faith. The Phils are undoubtedly a club with a plenty of upside, something they showed throughout much of 2018 as their young core had a precocious coming of age season. While they should continue to grow into form over the next few years, it is far from a guarantee that they will overcome an Atlanta Braves organization with even more young talent, the spending power of the Nationals or the willingness to throw caution to the wind of the Mets under ambitious new GM Brodie VanWagenen.

But before looking too far into what could be ahead, lets look at how Harper could transform the Phillies anticipated lineup.

  1. Hernandez, 2B
  2. Segura, SS
  3. Harper, RF
  4. Hoskins, 1B
  5. McCutchen, LF
  6. Herrera, CF
  7. Franco, 3B
  8. Alfaro, C
  9. Pitcher

It’s no wonder why the Philadelphia brass is so willing to bust their checkbook as wide open as possible for Harper, as his presence pushes them towards realizing their upside immediately. Nick Williams is on pace towards developing into a fine player, but neither himself or Odubel Herrera is enough to block a push for Harper. Both could be leverage in the open market to add help elsewhere, with Williams being more likely due to the need that Herrera fills positionally in centerfield.

Although consistency has not always been his ally, Harper has been good for 7.5 wins since 2016, on the heels of his monster 10-win, MVP season of 2015. His upside suggests a steadier performance in the years ahead as he matures and could single-handedly account for half of the 10-game difference the Phillies finished behind in the NL East. Along with the other maturing members of their core and other outside acquisitions, it is easy to see how he could play a pivotal role in keeping the club in lock step atop the NL East over the next five-to-seven years, when he’ll just be reaching his early 30s.

Verdict: The price of transformational player can be tough to swallow, but of all the teams earnestly in on Harper, there is no locale who could benefit more from the risk/reward of a $300 million plus pact than the Phillies could with Harper. (Not to mention the direct hit advantage of adding the top player on a divisional opponent in the process.)

Photo by Pat Benic/UPI

Washington Nationals

Yet in the end, could the deliberation regarding Harper's relocation be much ado about nothing? Ultimately, Harper's foray away from the Nationals could ultimately be nothing more than a winter vacation.

After it appeared the door had completely closed on Harper returning to the Nationals, it was reported shortly after the holidays that Harper had a five-hour meeting with Nats owner Michael Lerner. Subsequently, the previous idea that the Nationals would not go beyond the 10-year, $300 million extension that was offered –and declined— earlier in the year, was reversed course upon. But more recent reports have not only indicated that the Nats are back in the picture, they may very well be the leaders in the pack.

If the Nats truly do go to bat to retain Harper (as they should), he would be returning at arguably the most promising time in franchise history. Despite a well-known track record of underwhelming in October, the future looks extraordinarily bright in D.C., especially following the precocious debut of Juan Soto. Harper could stand to spend the second-half of his tenure with Soto and yet another elite outfield prospect, Victor Robles, joining him in the outfield. That is a group that has the potential to be the best outfield trio in baseball within the next two-to-three years.

2019 Nationals lineup if Harper is retained:

  1. Trea Turner, SS
  2. Juan Soto, LF
  3. Bryce Harper, RF (Replacing Adam Eaton)
  4. Anthony Rendon, 3B
  5. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
  6. Howie Kendrick, 2B
  7. Yan Gomes, C
  8. Victor Robles, CF
  9. Pitcher

Verdict: The presence of Harper remains transformative for the upper potential of the Nationals, but plays an especially vital role for the Soto. Being able to slot Soto second at this juncture of his career, especially with the pitches he will see with Harper looming behind him, is vital.

While the financial weight of his return (along with the winter’s $140 million pact with Patrick Corbin) would likely assure that Rendon would be moving on following the season, this assures that the Nationals will have fortified their troops going ahead.

******

It is clear there are variety of locations where Harper’s presence could enhance, fortify or revolutionize the respective club’s competitive scenario. The question remains who will be willing to pay the kingly sum for his services –and the legacy that could accompany him.

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