So, it’s that time again to rekindle those Bryce Harper rumors.
With the Yankees scheduled to face the Nationals in a two-game interleague series this Tuesday and Wednesday in D.C., the conversation at the ballpark will surely revolve around Harper and his future landing spot as a marquee, standout, superstar free agent.
But has the speculation lost its luster? Are the Yankees still in a favorable position to sign Harper to some record-shattering deal this winter?
A lot has changed since the Yankees last shared a field with Harper.
A whole lot.
Although the timeline only goes back three years, the configuration of the Yankees’ roster was drastically different when the Harper rumors first surfaced. In 2015, when the two teams played a home-and-home series, New York was heavily relying on veterans to produce. There were unfriendly contracts, injuries, and a lack of youth. In Washington, the future seemed much brighter. At just 22-years-old, Harper was in the midst of a MVP campaign. With his flair and verve, Harper and the Nationals were primed to contend for division titles, whereas the Yankees were stuck between needs and wants — competing and rebuilding.
Fast forward to 2017. Actually, let’s briefly rewind to July 2016. At the summer trade deadline, the Yankees went against the grain and conducted a fire sale of their valued players with expiring contracts. To some teams, this move was considered to be a rebuild. But to the Yankees, it turned out to be a reconstruction — a revitalization. In moving those veterans, opportunity arrived for youngsters in New York’s farm system, and in 2017 (yes, we made it back), rookies thrived and a championship caliber club hatched.
This week, Nationals fans will see Aaron Judge for the first time. He’s the Yankees’ star right fielder. He won the American League Rookie of the Year award last season. And as a 26-year-old sophomore major leaguer, Judge will be the face of the franchise for years to come. Right field also happens to be Harper’s primary position. Of course it was easy for fans and analysts to envision Harper as a Yankee when a 38-year-old Carlos Beltran was occupying the area a few years ago.
Things have changed. A new crop of players has arrived.
And that’s not all.
To enhance the roster even further, the Yankees made a blockbuster trade for Giancarlo Stanton during the winter. He’s a primary right fielder, too. Between him and Judge, one often plays the field and one serves as the designated hitter. In essence, the Yankees didn’t want to wait for 2019. They didn’t want to wait for a spending spree with Harper as a headliner. Having the 2017 National League MVP in Stanton is just as good as having the 2015 MVP in Harper.
And based on projections, the Yankees likely saved some money in the process. Yes, Stanton’s contract is massive — go ahead and call it colossal — but with the Miami Marlins eating $30 million of the total $295 million on the contract, perhaps this move was the right solution for the Yankees.
Consider this: Experts in the industry once believed that Harper was bound to receive a contract with a salary north of $350 million. If that money is allocated over a 10-year span, Harper is making $35 million annually. Now, based on how frugal teams were during this past offseason’s free agency period, it’s hard to envision someone like Harper obtaining such a contract. Could the soon-to-be 26-year-old end up making $26 to $30 million per season over the next decade? Sure. But would that option be cheaper than Stanton? Not quite. Over the next nine seasons (assuming Stanton doesn’t opt out after 2020), the Yankees will be paying their behemoth slugger less than $25 million per year. That’s millions in savings.
The Yankees are concerned about every penny right now, as one of their main goals is to get under the $197-million luxury tax threshold in time for the 2019 season. Once that goal is achieved, the Yankees will be suited to spend loads of money on top-dollar players.
But wouldn’t it make more sense for the club to add a frontline starter? Names like Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, Cole Hamels, and Charlie Morton will be available. The reason the Houston Astros are still favorites over the Yankees in the American League is because of their phenomenal starting pitching. Regardless of how much power is present in the Yankees’ lineup — and look, there’s plenty of it — pitching makes the difference on the playoff stage. The Yankees learned that hard lesson last year.
The Stanton trade was a reminder that the Yankees shouldn’t be ruled out on anything. So with that in mind, it’s not crazy to believe the club is still interested in Harper and his swing that’s tailor-made for Yankee Stadium. He wears No. 34 because the two digits add up to No. 7 — Mickey Mantle’s number.
But the Yankees have changed their identity and way of business. What was enticing three years ago may not be enticing anymore. The only guarantee is that this upcoming winter will live up to its billing, regardless of where Harper lands.