$400M Be Damned, Bryce Harper Signing Would Transform Mets Culture

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterNovember 27, 2018

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 30:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals runs out a fourth inning double against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on September 30, 2018 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The day the New York Mets introduced Brodie Van Wagenen as their general manager, Van Wagenen spoke at length about developing a "culture of positivity" in an organization in which that has been sorely lacking. He spoke about being "fearless and relentless in the pursuit of greatness." He said the Mets would be in on every free agent.

He didn't come right out and say he was going to try to sign Bryce Harper. But why wouldn't he try to do exactly that?

What would be more positive, for a team whose fanbase has been conditioned to believe ownership doesn't have the stomach (or bankroll) to compete for the best players in the game? What would be more fearless than jumping into the middle of a market sure to be populated by big spenders, with an agent (Scott Boras) who criticized Van Wagenen's job switch and has made bashing the Mets' spending habits an annual game?

And what would better serve Van Wagenen's other promise, the one about winning now and in the future? Who better than Harper, who will play all next season at age 26 (same as Michael Conforto) and has the kind of bat that can change the Mets lineup and the kind of personality that can help change their culture?

Take Harper away from the Washington Nationals, the team that finished ahead of the Mets six times in seven years with Harper on the roster. Keep him away from the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, the other two teams that finished ahead of the Mets in 2018. Bring him to New York, where he can compete for back pages with the New York Yankees team that was once considered a sure bet to sign him as a free agent.

The Braves, who won the National League East, struck Monday with free-agent deals for catcher Brian McCann and third baseman Josh Donaldson. If he's anywhere near his best, Donaldson is a big bat to add to an already impressive lineup.

If Harper is anywhere near his best, he's even bigger.

How would Harper look in Mets orange? No need to guess, because he wore it on workout day before the 2013 All-Star Game at Citi Field.
How would Harper look in Mets orange? No need to guess, because he wore it on workout day before the 2013 All-Star Game at Citi Field.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

Signing Harper would give the Mets the major upgrade they need in the lineup, without the need to sacrifice one of the starting pitchers who give them the best chance to compete. Perhaps the Mets could do something similar by trading for Paul Goldschmidt, but who in their weakened farm system is attractive enough to get the Arizona Diamondbacks to bite on that kind of deal?

Besides, Van Wagenen will need to make other moves. He'll need to find a catcher. Preferably, he'll also find a way to improve the defense.

Signing Harper wouldn't do that, if you believe the defensive metrics that say he slipped badly in 2018. Publicly available defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable, but Mike Petriello of MLB.com explained last week how Harper had fallen and what chance he has of improving in the future.

It's reasonable to believe Harper's defense could rebound in 2019, and even that the Mets could use him some in center field if needed (he started there 59 times in 2018).

But the Mets wouldn't be signing Harper to improve their defense. They would be counting on him to be the difference-maker they need in the middle of the lineup, something he wasn't in the first half of last season but was for much of his Nationals career.

How badly do they need someone like that?

The Mets have played one World Series in the last 18 years. They've made it to the postseason just twice since they began assembling a starting rotation that is championship-worthy. The World Series appearance came in 2015, and the other playoff appearance came the following year, and one thing those two Mets teams had in common was Yoenis Cespedes, who completely changed their offensive look.

Cespedes was so good in just two months of the 2015 season that he lifted a team that was just three games over .500 the day he arrived. Cespedes played 132 games in 2016 and was good enough to find his way onto a few Most Valuable Player ballots. The 2016 Mets were 18 games over .500 in games he started, and six games under .500 when he didn't.

Cespedes has been mostly hurt since then, playing just 119 games in two seasons combined. The Mets have been mostly bad, with two straight fourth-place finishes.

Cespedes is still hurt. He has had surgery on both heels. It's not clear when he'll be able to play, but it definitely won't be in the early part of the 2019 season.

New Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen has quite a task in building a team that can contend in 2019.
New Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen has quite a task in building a team that can contend in 2019.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Finding a way to replace what he brings is one of the biggest keys to building a Mets team that can win, right up there with keeping starters Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz healthy.

The Mets could chase Manny Machado rather than Harper, or they could chase both with the idea of trying to sign one. But at his best, Harper brings an enthusiasm that better suits Van Wagenen's "culture of positivity" mandate.

Remember, while Harper was often booed in visiting parks—including Citi Field—he remained hugely popular with his home fans in Washington. Van Wagenen never represented Harper in his career as an agent, but he represented several other prominent Nationals and is well aware of what Harper can do for a team.

Harper could be just as popular in Queens, if he brought the Mets anything close to the level of regular-season success the Nationals had with him in the lineup (four division titles and three second-place finishes).

He's positive. He's fearless. He's relentless. He's everything Van Wagenen wants the Mets to be.

The Mets aren't saying anything about Harper yet, and maybe ownership won't spend the kind of money a Harper pursuit would require. Jon Heyman of Fancred wrote last week that Harper was "shooting for well beyond $350 million."

It could take as much as $400 million.

Heyman also wrote "there are hints [the Mets] haven't totally ruled ... out" trying to sign Harper.

There are hints. There have been hints, right from some of the first words the new general manager spoke when he took the job late last month.

And if the Mets can get it done, those words Van Wagenen spoke will ring truer than ever.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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