Nationals' $350M All-in Bryce Harper Reunion Would Steal Dodgers' NL Throne

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 3, 2019

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper stands on the on deck circle during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018, in Washington. The Nationals won 4-3 in 10 innings. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

It was only last month that the highest-ranking member of the Washington Nationals seemed to close the door on a reunion with superstar free agent Bryce Harper.

"I really don't expect him to come back at this point," principal owner Mark Lerner said Dec. 7 on 106.7 the Fan, per MLB.com's Jamal Collier. "I think they've decided to move on."

Not so fast, perhaps.

According to ESPN's Jeff Passan, Harper has met "multiple times" with Nationals representatives throughout the winter. Per Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post, Harper and agent Scott Boras even met with Ted Lerner, Mark's father, three days before Christmas.

There's little indication that the Nationals—who drafted Harper No. 1 overall in 2010 and watched him blossom into an All-Star and MVP between 2012 and 2018—have any actual momentum toward a contract. Whatever they propose would almost certainly have to be better than the 10-year, $300 million offer they made the 26-year-old in September. Knowing that, they may only be talking with him as part of an effort to drive up his price for the competition.

Yet, maybe it's telling that it's hard to tell exactly where said competition is supposed to be.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

The Chicago Cubs have long been considered an ideal spot for Harper, but they don't seem to be in any rush to add another megadeal to their bloated payroll. The Los Angeles Dodgers may be in the same boat, as Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported they want to remain under the luxury tax. 

The New York Yankees, meanwhile, have played the "too many outfielders" card. Passan reported that the Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies are willing to offer Harper 10 years, but Bruce Levine of 670 The Score challenged that this is true of the White Sox. And according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, however, Harper doesn't particularly like Philadelphia.

It sure seems like there isn't a clear favorite to lure the 2015 National League MVP away from Washington, which may explain why the Nationals are keeping in touch: They smell an opportunity.

It's to the Nationals' credit that they haven't been sitting on their hands as the Harper saga plays out. They made a huge addition to their starting rotation when they inked ace left-hander Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract. Anibal Sanchez was a smaller yet hardly insignificant upgrade.

Meanwhile on the offensive side of things, the Nats erased a huge question mark at catcher by bringing in 2018 All-Star Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. Throw in Matt Adams as a platoon partner for Ryan Zimmerman at first base, and you get a darn good response to a disappointing 82-win campaign in 2018.

The only downside is that the Nationals have inflated their payroll in the process. Roster Resource projects their 2019 expenses at $191.7 million, and at $193.8 million for luxury tax purposes. The latter puts them $12.2 million below the $206 million threshold for 2019.

Barring a whole bunch of salary dumps, there's no way the Nationals can re-sign Bryce Harper and stay under that threshold. The deal he rejected in September would have counted $30 million per year against the tax. Realistically, it'll likely take something closer to a $350 million total guarantee with a $35 million average annual value to actually get him to sign on the ol' dotted line.

However, the luxury tax isn't necessarily the deal-breaker that it's made out to be.

As long as the Nationals don't exceed the threshold by more than $40 million, they'd only be signing up for financial penalties if they brought Harper back. At worst, they'd be looking at a $12 million-to-$15 million tax in 2019, after which they could soften future blows by parting ways with Zimmerman, Adam Eaton and Howie Kendrick.

That cost shouldn't be too great, provided the potential reward for signing Harper is far greater. And in this case, the potential reward is nothing less than National League superiority.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Though much is left to be done in the National League East, FanGraphs' early projections favor the Nationals to win the division. It's not much of a leap to suggest that re-signing Harper would make them the runaway favorite.

Though there's no denying the risk in giving him as much as $350 million, Harper is at least a good player and at best a superlative player. He peaked when he led Major League Baseball in on-base percentage (.460), slugging percentage (.649) and wins above replacement (10.0, per Baseball Reference) in 2015. He's had his struggles otherwise, but he's always maintained an above-average bat:

Alongside Eaton, Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto and Trea Turner, Harper would be yet another dynamic offensive force in Washington's lineup. As a bonus, 21-year-old phenom Victor Robles would be freed up to get his feet wet as a platoon partner with Harper, Soto and Eaton.

Outside of Washington, the biggest blow would be dealt to the Phillies. If the Nationals deny them Harper, they would have to sign Manny Machado to acquire the impact bat they desperately need. To that end, there'd be no guarantee of them outbidding the Yankees.

The blow dealt to the Dodgers wouldn't be much smaller. Since the Dodgers don't have a place for Machado, the Nationals would have robbed them of the best possible player they can add this winter. Moreover, the Nats would have also leapfrogged the Dodgers in FanGraphs' projections for 2019.

That would be as true in reality as on paper. The Nationals bringing Harper back would be the proverbial icing on the cake for an offseason that's already impressive. Outside of signing Joe Kelly, the Dodgers have done nothing to upgrade a squad that won only 92 regular-season games in 2018.

Ultimately, the question before the Nationals is whether they should go the extra mile for an unexpected reunion with Harper. Considering the circumstances, they absolutely should.

        

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.

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