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Bryce Harper to the Dodgers? Looking at the chances Harper ends up in Los Angeles

Bryce Harper to the Dodgers? Looking at the chances Harper ends up in Los Angeles

Winter has been coming for quite a while for the Washington Nationals. Specifically, Winter 2018. And much like last season of HBO’s beloved Game of Thrones, winter has finally arrived.

Bryce Harper has potentially played his final game in a Nationals uniform, and all fans can do over the course of the next few months is play the waiting game. Instead of sitting around twiddling our thumbs, however, we’re going to take a look at some of the major players who will be active in Harper’s free agency this winter.

We’ll do our best to gauge how genuine each team’s interest in the superstar is (spoiler alert: they are all very interested) and try to guess how good their chances are of landing him. 

Bovada updated their odds on Harper’s ultimate landing spot after the regular season ended, and they’ve got the Nationals as the fifth-most likely team for him to (re)join. Number one on that list was the Chicago Cubs.

Number two? The Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Narrative

Some fans were surprised to see the Cubs top Bovada’s odds, and I expect even more will think the Dodgers at number two is curious. We don’t have years of subtle hints, personal connections, and conspiracy theories to link Harper with Los Angeles, like we did with Chicago. Still, there are a few dots here worth connecting. 

The most obvious (or, at least, the most recent) came this past August. After the Non-Waiver Trade Deadline in July, Major League Baseball teams have the month of August to trade players who pass through waivers. These are referred to as revocable waivers, because even if a player is claimed, the team that owns his rights is allowed to pull him back. 

When a player is claimed in August, the claiming team has 48 hours to try to strike a deal with the original team. It’s essentially a formality for every player to be placed on waivers in August, knowing teams can revoke them at any point. Still, fans online were all over Twitter when it was reported that the mystery team to have placed a claim on Bryce Harper was none other than the Los Angeles Dodgers.

No deal ended up being reached between the Dodgers and the Nats, and it’s entirely possible the Dodgers only made the claim to keep Harper from going to another National League contender. Still, it’s hard to view the near-move as anything other than a sign of interest from the team with the deepest pockets in baseball.

That last line is important, as it plays into the narrative for Harper-to-LA as well. The Dodgers are the Yankees of the West Coast (and, in reality, probably have more money to spend than the Evil Empire). Ever since an ownership group including Magic Johnson acquired the Dodgers in 2012 for a staggering $2.15 billion, the Dodgers have flexed their financial might over the rest of the baseball world. 

Let’s also not forget one of Harper’s biggest “flaws,” his rooting interests in Duke, the Cowboys, and yes, the Los Angeles Lakers. Playing in L.A. for a team owned by the greatest player in Lakers history has to appeal to him on some level, even if it won’t end up being the most important factor.

There are plenty of connections to make with Harper and the Nationals, Cubs, and Yankees, but more often than not, free agents tend to follow the money. If the Dodgers are inclined to pay whatever it costs to sign Harper, then it’s hard to imagine another team topping them. That’s narrative enough for them to be considered strongly in the mix.

The Roster

Of course, there’s still the question of if the Dodgers actually would be inclined to pay whatever it costs. Just because a franchise can afford to sign someone doesn’t always mean it makes the most sense, from either a financial standpoint or roster construction.

The Dodgers, as mentioned earlier, have more money than God. According to Spotrac, their Opening Day payrolls in the last few seasons are outrageous.

2018 - $199.5 million (3rd in baseball)
2017 - $259.1 million (1st)
2016 - $268.7 million (1st)
2015 - $301.7 million (1st)
2014 - $246.3 million (1st)
2013 - $239.8 million (1st)

Those numbers are just plain silly. In 2015, the Dodgers spent more than twice as much on payroll than all but five teams. Outside of a flukey “low” spending season this past year, they haven’t just lead the league for five straight seasons, but have run away with it year in and year out. Spending more than $300 million in a season is wild.

So, obviously, the Dodgers can throw money at any problem (or player). They’re probably itching to get back on top of the heap after not even cracking $200 million in 2018. But does it make sense from a team-building perspective?

None of the team’s pending free agents on Spotrac are outfielders, so there’s no obvious hole to fill. One of the strengths of the Dodgers is their positional versatility, which adds to their depth but makes it harder to evaluate their offseason outlook. Cody Bellinger started 50 games in the outfield in 2018, and appeared in 81, but while his versatility is a nice bonus, he’s ultimately an athletic first baseman, and he certainly wouldn’t get in the way of Harper playing for that reason.

That said, if the Dodgers retain Brian Dozier at second, then Max Muncy would need to play first, which pushes Bellinger to the outfield. Plus, Chris Taylor can play second, shortstop, third, and the outfield.  You can see where the headache comes in.

Still, for the purposes of this exercise, we’ll assume Bellinger is off the table for outfield playing time, but bear in mind that Taylor could find his way out there on occasion.

Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Kiké Hernandez, and Matt Kemp are the remaining outfielders. Puig, Pederson and Hernandez are in their arbitration years, and almost certainly will be kept around at reasonable deals. It’s hard to evaluate the three of them relative to each other. Each hit 20-25 home runs, and each hit between .248 and .267. Pederson has struggled to live up to his immense talents, and the same could be said for Puig. Hernandez is yet another Dodger who plays all over the diamond.

Then you have Kemp, who would have been easy to rule out entering 2018 but then proceeded to have one of the best comeback seasons in baseball. He hit .290 and made his first All-Star game since 2012, and he’s owed a ton of money next season.

None of that includes Alex Verdugo, the Dodgers’ best prospect and one of the top 25 prospects in all of baseball. He probably already should have been an everyday Major League outfielder in 2018, and there’s no way Los Angeles can continue to keep him in the minors next year. He needs to play every day, and certainly will get that chance.

Ultimately, the Dodgers have a ton of bodies to play the outfield already. That said, Puig and Kemp will no longer be under contract after next season, and outside of Verdugo there are no clear-cut future standouts in the Dodgers outfield. The fit for Harper, position-wise, is fairly weak compared to the other contenders. 

At the end of the day, however, none of their current guys are necessarily better than Harper, and if the Dodgers are willing to deal with a crowded outfield for one season, things shore up nicely in 2020 and beyond. A future outfield with Verdugo and Harper would be pretty appealing to any team, especially considering how relatively cheap Verdugo will be until he hits free agency.

The Odds

Call it a gut feeling, but at the end of the day, I just don’t see Harper in Dodger blue. There are plenty of factors in which they are one of the top three choices for him, but they aren’t a clear leader in any. The Cubs have more personal connections, the Phillies are more of a positional fit, and the Nats are the “hometown” team. The one area in which they stand out, however, is possibly (probably) (okay almost definitely) the most important: money.

It will be telling to find out what their best offer ends up being, but for now, I think the +500 odds are actually pretty spot on. I’d take issue with the Cubs being so much further ahead of them as the betting favorites, but they should probably be ahead of the Dodgers at least. I just wouldn’t have them so far out ahead of the pack. 

The Dodgers have a lot going for them. Harper has always wanted to play in a big name city for a big name franchise, and he has always wanted to be the highest-paid player in the game. Plus, getting to play for Magic Johnson doesn’t hurt. The Dodgers can offer all those things. The only question remaining is if they want to?

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Dozier and Long a match made in launch angle heaven

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USA Today Sports

Dozier and Long a match made in launch angle heaven

Brian Dozier came to a realization following his rookie season in 2012. Why not hit the ball more often in the air and accentuate a strength? Instead of drilling to fix a weakness -- like opposite-field hitting or even ground ball rate -- choose to club away, in the air, to the pull side, as often as possible.

No en vogue terminology explained Dozier’s pursuit of six years ago. Omnipotent terms like “launch angle” remained shrouded and in development. Dozier didn’t need a phrase. He just needed to do what worked more often.

The idea took with career-altering results. Dozier hit 18 home runs, then 23, then 28, then 42. Pull-side fly balls turned him into an All-Star and commodity at second base. His new one-year deal with the Nationals brings him a hitting coach who is elated by the idea of hitting up and over.

Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long is the effervescent patriarch of launch angle. “We want to hit it over the shift,” Long will tell anyone willing to listen. Do damage, hit bombs, whatever slang term is preferred. Just hit the ball in the air. On the ground equals outs. In the air produces runs.

Melding a second baseman in search of a reboot after a down year with a hitting coach who is going to trumpet a cause the infielder already backed could be a powerful formula.

“When I changed my approach at the end of 2012 going into 2013, there was no launch angle, any of that stuff, but looking back at it now that’s kind of exactly what it was,” Dozier said Tuesday on a conference call. “We just didn’t have a name for it. “[It’s] recognizing your strength and doing everything you can to be really good at your strength rather than try to tweak weaknesses and stuff. And one of those strengths for me is hitting the ball in the air to left field, left-center field. Once I kind of got that part of it, I really enjoyed doing that. It’s going to be a fun year with a hitting coach that kind of sees the same thing, whether your strength is hitting the ball in the air or hitting the ball the other way, I believe in really honing into your strength and really running with that. Some guys’ strengths aren’t hitting the ball in the air, which is fine.”

The numbers coinciding with Dozier’s rise from eighth-round pick to among the league leaders in homers from 2014-2017 are stark. His fly ball rate increased year after year until peaking in 2016 at 47.7 percent, the same season he hit 42 home runs. His 120 OPS-plus in that span showed what kind of work he performed in Minnesota’s cool and spacious Target Field.

However, 2018 brought a significant recession when an April bone bruise in his left knee hindered him throughout the season. Tuesday, Dozier explained the importance of load bearing and stability from his front leg in order to execute his upward swing. Instead of landing on the front of his foot, the knee bruise pushed him back to his heel, opening his hips early. Grisly results followed: 21 homers, a .215 average, sub-.700 OPS.

Dozier said Tuesday his knee is healed. Finally receiving a break from baseball following the World Series allowed him to recover. That’s also when he had to decide his future. Dozier wasn’t sure how the market would react to his down season following years of being one of the heaviest second base bats in baseball. He said he received multiple offers -- some providing more years and money than the Nationals’ one-year, $9 million deal he settled on -- before selecting Washington. Conversations with his ex-Minnesota teammate Kurt Suzuki, in his second stint with the Nationals, and former Washington outfielder Josh Willingham, who played with Dozier in Minnesota, too, helped sway his decision.

“It just seemed like a really good fit,” Dozier said.

That is applicable to this coming partnership between Dozier and Long. In the air, often and to the pull side. It’s a subtle pairing that could help Dozier return to the 30-home run mark, and the Nationals to receive inexpensive bop from an infield spot.

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Twists and turns keep coming in Harper sweepstakes

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Twists and turns keep coming in Harper sweepstakes

No better soap opera has graced Major League Baseball than Bryce Harper’s journey into free agency. Each spring training opened with questions about what would happen down the line for Harper, who turned from teenager to drinking age to his mid-20s fielding the same queries about his pending freedom. Harper promptly smacked those questions away at the start of spring training in 2018. That was when he delivered a threat to walk out if asked what had become a standard question on the first day he spoke each spring in Florida.

A snow-filled January Sunday in the DMV delivered another twist -- sort of. Bob Nightengale of USA Today, who has been adamant throughout the offseason Harper would sign with the Philadelphia Phillies, reported the Phillies are now the “clear-cut favorite” to sign Harper following a five-hour meeting Saturday in Las Vegas, though no offer has been made.

Nightengale went on to say the Nationals are, in essence, receding into the background.

What we know is Harper’s market is small. We also knew that from the start. Philadelphia’s spending following the 2017 offseason suggested it was in a mood to distribute cash. It took on Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, the latter move shoving slugger Rhys Hoskins into the outfield, forcing an expensive square-peg, round-hole situation. But they chose to pay for it, hinting future expenditures were to come.

So, Philadelphia’s desire to chase Harper and/or Manny Machado this offseason makes baseline sense. A key to recall here is whether Harper would actually want to play for these teams who are pursuing him. That’s unclear and will remain so until he chooses one.

Strange in Sunday’s report is the suggestion Harper would have taken a discount to return to Washington.

“Nats officials privately say Harper no longer is in their plans, and unless Lerner changes his mind or Harper accepts a contract that pays him less than $25 million a year, they anticipate life without him.”

The team already offered an average annual value of $30 million over 10 years -- likely with a chunk of the money deferred. While that deal could have been rescinded, the logic of doing so then backtracking to $25 million doesn’t make sense. Why offer $30 million per, be declined, then come back with a push for $25 million?

These machinations were expected. No easy path toward a conclusion seemed imminent from the start, not with so much money on the line, so much grandeur at stake and such length of commitment necessary. Max Scherzer, having gone through this process following the 2014 season, had a prediction of what would come.

“Stay patient,” Scherzer told me of what he would advise Harper about the process. “There’s going to be, if I had to guess, there’s going to be a lot of -- lot of -- hoopla and negative press trying to tear you down. There will probably be a lot more teams saying, no, they don’t want to sign you than you ever could possibly believe.

“They will find every little thing to critique you over and you can’t let that affect you. You have to have a business mind. You have to stay patient. You have to know the value you create and basically stick to your guns. Just know it’s going to be a fight.”

Harper last played in Nationals Park 14 weeks ago. He closed the season Sept. 30 in Colorado. He’s since been prominent, an every-few-days presence in the news cycle, without uttering a word. He was perhaps most on display -- though not present -- when Scott Boras rambled through an hour-long visit with reporters in Las Vegas.

Pitchers, catchers, and all types are a month away from walking into spring training. That leaves a few more weeks for Harper maneuvering, and perhaps, finally, a decision. An easy path has not materialized. That’s the one thing in all of this known to be true.

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