With at least seventeen months to go before what will likely be the biggest free agent signing in professional sports history, there are already reports of just how much money Bryce Harper will command.
The prevailing thought for some time has been that Harper will be the first $400 million major league baseball playe. However, recently one insider has deemed that figure “light”. Some reports have suggested a mammoth, almost unthinkable, $600 million deal.
The impressive numbers being thrown around in the media are ridiculous to even think about, the more pressing issue is who is going to sign Bryce? Baseball is as healthy as it has ever been financially, and more clubs are capable of handling nine figure deals, but this will be different.
Very few clubs can afford to sign Harper and still manage to build a team around him as well. Giving one player $35 or $40 million means your payroll has to bottom out around $150 million. At least.
The Cubs just won the World Series with the top-paid player occupying fourteen percent of their payroll—but arguably their most important players combined to earn less than half what it could take to sign Harper. They are lucky that many of their players—including MVP Kris Bryant—are in pre-arbitration process.
Imagine if they had to pay Bryant and the others market-rate or “fair” contracts”? Their payroll would skyrocket, and even the might Cubs would have difficulty meeting it.
Before even getting into the nitty-gritty, two-thirds of MLB clubs can be scratched off the list of possibilities. The Rays would love Harper in their lineup, but Tampa Bay is never going to be able to sign him. Neither are several over lower-revenue clubs.
In reality less than a dozen can even bid. And that number shrinks further when looking at each club—the finances, construction of the team, and needs—individually.
For instance, could the Yankees afford Harper? Absolutely. Many have assumed all along that Harper ends up in pinstripes one day, but does it make sense for them? They already got burned on Alex Rodriguez’s deal (and Jason Giambi to a lesser extent), and they don’t need Harper.
He won’t help sell tickets, and with the talent they have—and have coming—Harper doesn’t make them substantially better. He would be a luxury for the Yankees, and with the Boss gone, such luxuries aren’t the Yankees way anymore. They don’t even other team’s shiny new toys the way they used to.
The Dodgers aren’t exactly a lightweight, but they operate more efficiently now than they did when Guggenheim first took over. They can and will flex their financial might at times, but would rather build internally to keep costs down. That doesn’t jive with signing the largest free-agent contract ever.
Harper could up in LA—it’s easier to envision than New York—but the odds aren’t looking good.
So Who is Left to Sign Harper?
For one reason or another several other big-market clubs—the Cubs, Angels, Mets, Nationals, Tigers—can be eliminated from consideration.
That leaves Harper with a smaller than expected market of about four clubs—the Red Sox, Phillies, Giants, and potentially Texas Rangers.
Boston loves sticking it to the Yankees, but they have a ton of young talent, and aren’t always willing to play at the top of the market. They did sign David Price for $200M+, but also once balked at paying Rodriguez, who was arguably a better player at a more demanding position than Harper is.
The Rangers could swoop in and surprise everyone. They’ve made big splashes before, have a lucrative TV contract, a new stadium coming, and a fan base that’s been to the brink. But can they afford this one?
Keeping Yu Darvish will be expensive, and whatever they have left over should be spent filling in the rotation around him.
That leaves the Giants and Phillies as the main bidders for Harper’s services.
The Giants haven’t a true impact bat in their lineup since Barry Bonds retired, and they are not afraid to spend big. However, they’ve also won three World Championships in the post-Bonds era, and have shown a knack for developing championship quality players seemingly out of thin air.
And the Giants aren’t in desperate need of a superstar to bring fans back.
The Phillies are.
After back-to-back World Series appearances they looked like a team on the precipice of a dynasty, only to crash and burn shortly thereafter. They haven’t sniffed a winning season in years, and are desperate for a rejuvenation.
With some of baseball’s highest revenues expect the Phillies to make a major bid for Harper, eventually landing the superstar for what will be the largest professional sports contract ever signed…
$475M/12 years is my guess.