The possibility that Bryce Harper becomes a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers took a step closer to reality Friday.
The big story for the time being is what the Dodgers subtracted in a blockbuster trade with the Cincinnati Reds. Going out are outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, left-hander Alex Wood and infielder Kyle Farmer, plus a bundle of cash. Coming in are a washed-up starting pitcher and a couple of prospects:
The Reds are taking on money and sending out their No. 7 (Jeter Downs) and No. 20 (Josiah Gray) prospects, according to MLB.com. But in Puig, they're getting a star-caliber right fielder. Kemp is a viable platoon option against left-handed pitching. Wood was an All-Star in 2017, and he only regressed as far as a 3.68 ERA over 151.2 innings in 2018.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, aren't gaining anything at the major league level. Homer Bailey was the only major leaguer coming back, and he's already been released.
On the bright side, the Dodgers cleared up an outfield logjam and gained a significant degree of financial flexibility. These things are conducive to a subsequent splash.
Such as, of course, signing Harper to a free-agent megadeal.
According to ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez, Harper "badly wants to be a Dodger." It's harder to gauge how badly the Dodgers want the 26-year-old superstar, but enough rumors and speculation link them to see smoke that could become fire.
Trouble is, the Dodgers aren't alone in the sweepstakes for Harper's services. And while Friday's trade is certainly significant, it doesn't erase the alleged barriers standing between the two-time defending National League champs and the 2015 NL MVP.
As Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported in November, the Dodgers may be planning on staying under the luxury-tax threshold every year through 2022. That would mean finishing 2019 with a payroll under $206 million.
It's unclear where the Dodgers stand now in relation to next year's luxury-tax threshold, but they're definitely under it. Roster Resource projects their 2019 luxury-tax payroll (which is based on average annual value) at $197.5 million. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports put it much lower at $184.4 million.
Either way, however, the Dodgers can't sign Harper to a contract of $30 million-plus per year and still avoid the luxury tax. If they really want him, they'll either have to further trim down their payroll or disregard their best-laid plans for avoiding the luxury tax.
It's possible the Dodgers will go through Door No. 1, but not likely. If so, they might fill their newfound wiggle room with less expensive stars. Here's Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic with a few possibilities:
On the other hand, going through Door No. 2 and into luxury-tax territory wouldn't be that revolutionary.
As we covered more extensively earlier this week, the Dodgers don't have any excuses to play it cheap this winter. The franchise is valued at $3 billion by Forbes, and it took in over $500 million in revenue last season. Luxury tax or no luxury tax, money ought to be no object.
The Dodgers are in a position to downplay the luxury tax anyway. Though they paid out nearly $150 million in penalties from 2013 to 2017, according to the Associated Press, they're fresh off getting under the threshold and resetting their baseline tax rate on overages.
The Dodgers will be subject to a surtax if they exceed the threshold by more than $20 million, as well as more taxes and a draft penalty—their top pick in the following year's draft would be moved down 10 spots—if they go more than $40 million over. If they consider the latter to be the ultimate red line, well, that's fair.
As of now, however, that $246 million red line isn't even in play.
The Dodgers could sign Harper for $40 million per year and still be under it. They'd only have to cut a check for breaking luxury-tax barriers in 2019. And with roughly $40 million due off their books after 2019 (per MLB.com's Mark Feinsand), they could go right back under in 2020.
If the question is why the Dodgers shouldn't go all-in on Harper following Friday's salary dump, the only reasonable answer is that it would best for them not to risk a long-term albatross. He's young enough to demand at least a 10-year contract. According to Rosenthal, the Dodgers prefer a "short-term deal with a high average salary and opt-outs."
Considering what they stand to gain, both sides may be amenable to a compromise.
Beyond some kind of record-setting deal, Harper is surely looking to join a team with which he can achieve the postseason success that eluded him in his seven years with the Washington Nationals. The Dodgers, of course, have won six straight NL West titles and two straight pennants. Even without Harper, they're equipped to be the team to beat in the NL once again in 2019.
For their part, the Dodgers are questing to win their first World Series championship since Kirk Gibson and company turned the improbable into the impossible in 1988. Harper could help. It's fair to say he's had a frustrating career, yet he's a six-time All-Star with 184 career home runs and a .900 OPS. At his peak, he was the best player in Major League Baseball in 2015.
In short, the fit between Harper and the Dodgers is all sorts of right. And after what happened Friday, there's no reason the money shouldn't be good enough.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.