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.
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.
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.
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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