Before I say anything else, I just want to clarify that I do not think Harper is a bad baseball player. I think he is a very, very good baseball player, even an elite baseball player.
My claim is that he is a bad fit for the Dodgers as they are currently constructed and that they would be better served finding more supplementary pieces or a different star rather than signing the biggest fish on the market today.
For the money it would take to get Harper, the Dodgers could do so much more. His gigantic price tag could put the Dodgers in a hole for years to come, and this mega-salary would just be too risky for the benefits it could provide.
Inflated Cost for his Performance
The first and, in my opinion, the most compelling reason not to sign Harper is that his name is worth more than his performance. Harper was one of the most hyped prospects in the history of the game, and after a historic 2015, in which he smacked 42 home runs with a 19% walk rate and 20% strikeout rate, he has been a 3 or 4 WAR player for the subsequent three seasons.
Obviously, Harper still holds the potential for more 2015-type seasons, as he’s just 26. But it feels like the market is willing to pay for that potential to the tune of a 10+ year and $350+ million contract this winter without accounting for the risk. And to me, the risk is that his defense continues to decline and his batting average never rebounds back near .300 and that he has been oft-injured during a time in his career where injuries are generally rare.
Harper is very talented, one of the best hitters in the game both in the power and walk departments. Last season, Harper was in the top 1% of the league in terms of walk rate at 18.7% according to Baseball Savant. He also put up a 34 home run season, just the second 30+ homer season of his career. This is mostly due to his injury history though, as he has only had four seasons with 500+ ABs.
The more I looked into the data, I started to see that a full season of Bryce Harper at the plate is obviously valuable. Last season, he put up a top-10 OPS (.889) despite early season struggles. In the first half last season, Harper had an abysmal .214 batting average in 94 games and had extra-base hits in 8.9% of his plate appearances.
In the second half, Harper began to put up 2015-like numbers, with an 11.03% extra-base hit rate and .300 batting average with 7 steals on 8 attempts. If Harper can throw up year-end stat lines more in line with his second half last season, he could approach $400 million value.
But the odds are that he is not likely to do this. Harper has shown that he can play through injuries at an All-Star adjacent level, though he still has made the NL squad four straight years, but the fact that Harper is going to cost so much despite the risk and lack of consistent MVP-caliber performance turns me away from him.
Even if the fans, the baseball industry, and more importantly the Dodgers front office feels that Harper is worth hundreds of millions, the team may have more pressing contract issues to consider before locking away a decade of Harper.
First on that list of must-extends for the Dodgers is, of course, Corey Seager. Seager is fan-favorite and when healthy, a middle of the order bat who plays plus defense.
Though he missed much of last season after undergoing both Tommy John and hip surgery, Seager is poised to return to Los Angeles fresh and ready for action.
In 2017, just his second full season, Seager hit .295/.375/.479 with 22 home runs. Seager is still a little inexperienced, as though 2019 will be his fifth major league season, he has only played in more than 30 games in two of them. With this in mind, it makes sense that Seager should only get better, plus he plays a premium position as a plus defensive shortstop.
Seager should be the Dodgers’ main focus as far as long-term contracts go. The 6’4 former Rookie of the Year has three seasons of arbitration left before becoming a free agent after the 2021 season.
While these contracts may seem far off, if the Dodgers want a realistic shot at holding onto these stars they will have to buy out a year or two of arbitration so that they can be extended long-term. An extension for Seager would most likely add three years to his current team-friendly deal, which would mean he would reach free agency at age thirty in 2024.
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Besides Seager, Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler will need extensions within the next decade as well. In the even more pressing future, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Alex Wood, and Yasiel Puig are all in the last years of the current contracts with the Dodgers, as are veterans Matt Kemp and Rich Hill. After 2020, Justin Turner, Pedro Baez, and Joc Pederson all will be free agents.
The Dodgers probably won’t want to or be able to keep all of these players anyways regardless of whether or not they sign Harper. But they definitely need to maintain some of this depth, and signing Harper locks them into signing less of these players in the future, regardless of how they develop.
He Fits Better Elsewhere
Now for the kicker: Harper may get a higher salary and more years elsewhere, mostly because he is a better fit elsewhere. There are playoff teams and hopeful playoff teams that have a hole in right field that the Dodgers just do not have right now.
If the team deals Puig and Verdugo, which seems like a realistic possibility, then maybe a Harper deal would begin to make more sense, but for now, Harper would make more sense going to the Chicago White Sox, a young team looking to add a powerful bat and a superstar personality for their new mega TV contract.
Beyond the South Side dark horse AL Wildcard candidate, the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals have been reported to have varying degrees of interest in Harper according to MLBTR. With these three reasons in mind, I feel the Dodgers would be making a potentially catastrophic mistake if they signed Harper, even if he continues to perform like a top-10 hitter in baseball for the next few seasons.