Winter has finally arrived for the Washington Nationals. 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 was the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Number three? The Philadelphia Phillies.
Nationals fans aren't going to want to hear this, but the Phillies are absolutely legitimate contenders for Bryce Harper this offseason. I know, it's a scary proposition.
The team's owner, John Middleton, has been itching to spend on a winning ballclub. He's got hundreds of millions of dollars burning a hole in his pocket (must be nice) and wants to invest in getting the Phillies back on top of the baseball world. This upcoming free agency represents the perfect time to jump back in the water, as two young megastars are on the market in Manny Machado and Harper. And, what do you know, the team's two worst positions last year were shortstop and right field!
There has been rampant speculation that Middleton would like to go after both Machado and Harper, which is an even more terrifying proposition for the Nats. It's unlikely to expect Philly to land the two biggest fishes in recent memory, but you can bet your bottom (300 million) dollar(s) that they'll be in play for at least one of the two studs.
Harper has played well at Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Phillies, in his career. His 14 home runs there are the most he's hit in any ballpark outside of D.C., though his tOPS+ in Philadelphia is just 104 (essentially, he's hit about 4% better at Citizens Bank Park than his usual splits everywhere else).
Harper doesn't have the same personal connections to the city of Philadelphia or the Phillies organization as he does with the Cubs and Dodgers (and obviously the Nationals). In this case, the narrative surrounding this signing would be more about the Phillies announcing themselves to the baseball world as "back."
Given their youth, early success last season, talented farm system, and obvious willingness to spend big, it's an easy narrative to sell to Harper. Plus, the Phillies wear pinstripes, and we know how important that was to a young Bryce.
In reality, if Harper signs with the Phillies, the narrative for the baseball world would focus on the team's ability to compete immediately, and the narrative for Nats fans would be Harper not just leaving D.C. as he's entering his prime, but leaving to join their most bitter division rival. It's safe to say if this ends up happening, there won't be any Bryce Harper statues in D.C. any time soon.
Of all the teams expected to make a run at Bryce Harper, this one makes the most sense from a roster perspective. There are two sides to that coin: the finances, and the players already on the team.
From a financial standpoint, Scott Lauber did a nice job breaking down how much the Phillies will actually be able to spend this winter. According to his math, the Phillies have about $69 million committed to six players next season, plus around $38 million set to go to players who are arbitration-eligible.
By all accounts, the organization wants to spend big again now that their rebuild is wrapping up, which means their payrolls in the early part of the decade are probably more informative than recent years.
When competitive, the Phillies were regularly spending $160-170 million, and that was good enough for top five in all of baseball. The average top five salaries in recent years have gone up even from that, meaning we can probably expect them to spend in the $180-200 million range. They may not jump up all the way back to that mark in one year alone, but it's fair to assume they have more than enough money to commit to Harper both in the short and long term without hamstringing themselves from making other improvements to the roster.
In other words, yes, they can afford to give Harper a record-breaking deal.
From a players standpoint, it makes even more sense. According to Baseball Reference, the Phillies outfield as a unit had a combined WAR of negative-6.7 in 2018, which unsurprisingly was dead last in baseball. Even just looking at right field specifically, Philadelphia was at negative-2.9, half a run worse than any other team.
For the sake of thoroughness, let's take a look at who will be around in the outfield over the next few years.
Odubel Herrera is the only player signed to a long term contract, as he's set to be there through at least 2021. Aaron Altherr, Nick Williams, and Rhys Hoskins are all under team control for the next three seasons as well, thanks to limited service time, though Hoskins is the only one of those who looks like a true star. Their current outfield is very reasonably priced, but questions remain as to whether or not it will actually end up any good. Plus, Hoskins' future may ultimately end up being at first base. I'll also mention Scott Kingery, who is signed for several seasons at a reasonable deal, but who will play the vast majority of his games in the infield. His versatility is worth pointing out, however.
At the end of the day, the Phillies enter the 2018 offseason with maybe the worst outfield in baseball, and their only potentially great outfielder is likely to move to the infield.
What I'm saying is they have a giant, gaping, Bryce Harper-sized hole in their outfield.
— OddsShark (@OddsShark) October 4, 2018
When people ask me where Harper is going, I'm always sure to mention the Cubs as a possibility, in addition to the chance he stays in Washington. The third team I find myself going back to everytime is the Phillies.
It's just so obvious of a fit from a personnel standpoint, they're in the right stage of their rebuild (i.e. at the very end) and are just now entering their contention window, and they have a boatload of money to spend.
There probably isn't another team in baseball with the same combination of roster need, contention readiness, and financial might, so the only thing keeping the Phillies from being favorites is the perceived comfort and familiarity Harper has elsewhere.
Really, though, how often do free agents trying to set the record for biggest contract in MLB history find themselves picking a team based on the friends they already have there? The betting favorite should be whoever is willing to give Harper the biggest offer possible, and no one else has the financial flexibility and motivation that the Phillies do.
If anything, Philadelphia's odds coming in at +550 are too low, and if I was someone who wanted to place some hard-earned cash on Harper's final destination, it'd be mighty difficult to look elsewhere.
I know, I know, Harper going to the Phillies would be the ultimate dagger for Nats fans. Please don't shoot the messenger.
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