Whoever signs Bryce Harper will hope for a huge return on an investment that will be plenty huge in its own right: at least $350 million and perhaps as much as $400 million.
But as we've previously discussed, there's no small amount of risk in spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a player whose downside looms as large as his upside. That makes it hard not to wonder what else his suitors might do with so much money.
Mind you, the question isn't what else can be bought for $400 million on this offseason's free-agent and/or trade markets.
In sum, four five-year, $100 million contracts would be worth the same as, say, a 10-year, $400 million contract for Harper. But on average, those would add an average of $80 million to a team's yearly payroll as opposed to "only" $40 million.
The question is thus how Harper's top suitors—a scan of his dedicated MLB.com page reveals them to be the Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals and New York Yankees, though there's one dark horse that bears mentioning—might use a $40 million budget (give or take) to create a superteam sans the market's biggest superstar.
2019 Luxury Tax Payroll: $133.0 million
Following a big first step out of their rebuild in 2018, the Phillies aren't making any secret of their plan this offseason.
"We're going into this expecting to spend money," owner John Middleton told Bob Nightengale of USA Today. "And maybe even be a little bit stupid about it."
Per Roster Resource's projection for their 2019 luxury tax payroll—which is based on average annual values—the Phillies can add $70 million in AAV and still be short of the $206 million threshold for next season. That's more than enough for a couple of bats plus a starter and reliever.
They could begin with Manny Machado and A.J. Pollock. They're the two best position players on the open market after Harper, and it was projected they will earn $30 million and $15 million per year, respectively.
After that, there would still be plenty of room for Craig Kimbrel. He's the best relief pitcher on the open market, and he's due a reasonable $17.5 million per year.
Rather than go cheap for a starter on the free-agent market, the Phillies could then make good on their interest in Robbie Ray, per Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia, with a trade for the Arizona Diamondbacks left-hander. He's projected to make $6.1 million in arbitration in 2019.
The Haul: Machado, Pollock, Kimbrel and Ray for $68.6 million in AAV
New York Yankees
2019 Luxury Tax Payroll (Estimate): $182.0 million
The Yankees will have additional payroll space once they offload Sonny Gray and his $9.1 million projected salary. But until they do, there's more money on their 2019 books than people may realize.
Still, the Yankees are fresh off avoiding the luxury tax threshold for the first time. That's license to add roughly $40 million in AAV and stay under $226 million, which is where the penalties kick up a notch.
The Yankees have already secured two starting pitchers: CC Sabathia, who re-signed for $8 million, and James Paxton, who came aboard Monday in a blockbuster trade with the Seattle Mariners.
They can pick one more from their top targets, per Jon Heyman of Fancred:
Patrick Corbin is the best starter on the market and projected to earn a reasonable $21.5 million per year. Signing him would be a fine way to complete their rotation.
Otherwise, all the Yankees need is a reliever to fill the shoes of Zach Britton and David Robertson and a utility man to help them withstand Didi Gregorius' absence. To those ends, they couldn't go wrong with Adam Ottavino at $10 million per and Marwin Gonzalez at $9 million per.
The Haul: Corbin, Ottavino and Gonzalez for $40.5 million in AAV
Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals
Dodgers' 2019 Luxury Tax Payroll: $196.3 million
Nationals' 2019 Luxury Tax Payroll: $169.1 million
For both of these Harper suitors, even a $40 million budget may be a reach.
Sure, the Dodgers have gone as high as $271.6 million with their Opening Day payroll before. But according to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, their preference may be to stay under the luxury tax "for at least the next four years."
Barring a series of corresponding salary dumps, the Dodgers can't add $40 million in AAV and do that. If they were to do it anyway, their only consolation would be that they'd still be short of the $246 million threshold for really harsh penalties: a 42.5 percent tax and the team's highest pick in the 2019 draft being moved down 10 spots.
The Nationals, meanwhile, were one of two teams that went over the tax in 2018. They're in for harsher penalties if they do so again, so their maximum budget is probably more like $35 million than $40 million.
In any event, it's more like the Dodgers to spread their investments around. They could look to fill their needs at catcher, second base and in the bullpen for less than $40 million in AAV.
Per Peter Gammons of MLB Network, the Dodgers quite like Miami Marlins backstop J.T. Realmuto, who's due to earn $6.1 million in 2019. According to Jon Morosi of MLB Network, they also like DJ LeMahieu, who might be signed for $9 million per year.
For their bullpen, the Dodgers would have enough left over for both a top lefty and top righty to help Kenley Jansen. Britton and Robertson for $11 million per year each would do the trick.
The Nationals could look to fill Harper's shoes with a similar slugging outfielder. Or they could trust top prospect Victor Robles and fill bigger needs in their rotation and at catcher (even after their two-year deal with Kurt Suzuki) and second base.
The Nats "think highly" of Dallas Keuchel, according to Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post, and they could get him at $20.5 million per year.
Yasmani Grandal would be ideal for a timeshare with Suzuki, but only if his price tag drops below the projected $16 million per year. That's possible following his dreadful postseason. To wit, Heyman went as low as $10 million per, while one expert only went as high as $13 million. The latter is a fair compromise.
That would leave precious little room for a second baseman. But rather than forgo an upgrade entirely, the Nats could seek a trade for a pre-arbitration-eligible star. There is no better option than Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield.
Dodgers' Haul: Realmuto, LeMahieu, Britton and Robertson for $37.1 million in AAV
Nationals' Haul: Keuchel, Grandal and Merrifield for $34.1 million in AAV
Honorable Mention: St. Louis Cardinals
2019 Luxury Tax Payroll: $146.5 million
Some may be wondering, What about the Chicago Cubs?
Frankly, it's a long shot they'll spend big bucks. Their 2019 luxury tax payroll is already projected at $233.1 million, which would put them in the second tier of penalties. At least until they cut their payroll way down, asking for another $40 million on top of that is simply too much.
Elsewhere in the National League Central, however, are the St. Louis Cardinals. They have much more payroll flexibility. And according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Harper is on their radar.
Alternatively, the Cardinals could go with Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader and some combination of Dexter Fowler, Tyler O'Neill and Jose Martinez in their outfield and seek to fill their needs for relievers and a middle-of-the-order slugger.
According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, a blockbuster trade for Paul Goldschmidt (whose 2019 club option pays him $14.5 million) interests the Cardinals. They're also keeping an eye on Andrew Miller, per Morosi, who should pull in $9 million per year. That would leave plenty for Jeurys Familia, who's projected to earn $11 million per year.
The Haul: Goldschmidt, Miller and Familia for $34.5 million in AAV