Dodgers’ Paradoxical Preference for Bryce Harper Could Mirror What Cubs Are Thinking

It’s been so long since we ran a Bryce Harper feature that his visage no longer graces the front page of the site. And since we’re contractually obligated to allot shelf space to the iconic free agent — we’re not, but I’m thinking we missed the boat by failing to work something out with Scott Boras there — the latest from Ken Rosenthal (subscription) about the “allure of the 2019-20 free-agent class” provided an excuse to adjust our merchandising.

The thrust of Rosenthal’s column is that several teams, specifically the Yankees and Dodgers, could view next year’s top free agents as more desirable than Harper and Manny Machado. Which is a way of saying that those players should come cheaper, though it’s presented more as them being less volatile or something like that. Sounds kind of like a leverage tactic, but it’s something Cubs Insider has been told the Cubs are considering as well.

Nolan Arenado has been mentioned as a potential Cubs target, but he’s going to have more than a few suitors. Same goes for Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rendon, though even the youngest among that group (Arenado enters his age-29 season in 2020) will be more than two years older when he hits free agency than either Harper or Machado are now. Rendon is another year older, Goldschmidt two. So, again, cheaper for a shorter period of time.

And that’s where we loop back to another interesting tidbit from Rosenthal, which also dovetails with something we’ve heard. It’s counterintuitive, both in terms of teams’ inexplicable fear of luxury tax penalties and what Boras is thought to be seeking for his top client in a new deal, but that’s exactly why it also makes a bastardized sort of sense.

The Dodgers are widely rumored to be in on Harper, but the reality, according to major-league sources, is that they do not want him on a long-term, record-setting contract. A short-term deal with a high average salary and opt-outs might hold more appeal, but such an agreement likely would create luxury-tax issues for the Dodgers in 2019, and the team already has too many outfielders.

White Sox fans killed me for even suggesting that the same thing was a possibility for the Cubs, but it could very well be the case. And not because Dan Plesac thinks that’s how a deal for Harper gets done on the North Side. I had theorized in the piece that Boras might not actually be targeting both record average annual and total value, but that the former could take precedence. A source with knowledge of the situation subsequently confirmed that was indeed the case (subject to change, of course).

As many have pointed out, it would behoove Harper to negotiate a longer deal with plenty of opt-outs in order to take advantage of excellent performance, especially with a new CBA that should be more player-friendly. He’d also be ensuring his financial future in the event that he doesn’t perform well enough to opt out, a la Jason Heyward (who the Cubs might want/need to part with if they’re serious about Harper). But we also have to consider that teams may not be too keen on that latter possibility, particularly when Harper figures to earn roughly 50 percent more annually than Heyward’s $23 million.

I had laid out the idea of a four-year deal for $160 million ($40M AAV), which seems ludicrous given the amount of guaranteed money Harper would be leaving on the table. But what if that goes to $190 million over five years ($38M); or $222 million over six ($37M); or $252 over seven years ($36M). All would represent record-setting AAV (Zack Greinke, $34.4M), just for fewer than the 10 years purportedly being targeted.

The thing that’s hard for people to wrap their heads around — and why the Sox fans got upset, in case you were interested — is that taking such a tack flies directly in the face of the respect teams seem to be showing for the tax. So yes, paying Harper more in average salary would result in an additional tax burden (as much as $20 million for the Cubs), but the mitigation of the long-term risk of that investment going belly-up might be worth it. Would you rather pay an extra few million in taxes now or pay an aging slugger $35 million in eight years when he’s posting a .760 OPS and 2.1 WAR?

I don’t mean that as a slight of Harper or as a prediction that such a fate will befall him, but a shorter deal means it doesn’t really matter. As for the competitive balance tax, well, let’s see if we can’t whack that shabbily-made piñata a few times here.

Only two teams, the Red Sox and Nationals, were over the $197 million threshold in 2018. The Nats didn’t exceed by much and owed a pittance: $2.4 million or so. The Sawx, on the other hand, blew past the threshold by more than $40 million and will owe nearly $12 million in penalties and surtaxes. What’s more, they will have their top pick in next year’s draft dropped by 10 spots.

That last part seems really steep given the way we have been led to value draft picks, but let’s think about that. If we were talking about a team that finished near the bottom of the league and had a top-10 pick, losing 10 spots would be a big deal. Such a penalty would result in an drop of roughly 50 percent in projected WAR value for that pick (numbers from 2000-10, so grain of salt). But the Red Sox aren’t selecting at the top of the draft.

The average career WAR for players taken with the bottom five picks in the first round is only 4.5, compared to 12.8 for the top five picks. Projected to have the 33rd pick prior to the penalty, the Sox aren’t really giving much up. And I’m going to go way the hell out on a limb here by saying winning another World Series more than compensated for the penalties, monetary and otherwise.

That’s the barometer you must use if you’re a team looking to sign Harper. He doesn’t guarantee you a World Series by any stretch, but you don’t sign him unless that is your end goal. And unless he’s inking a one-year deal, your goal is actually to go deep into the playoffs multiple times and hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy more than once. With that expectation, tax penalties be damned.

Which is why it does make sense for the Dodgers or Cubs to see if Harper and Boras are amenable to a shorter deal for more annual money. Leverage the ever-loving heck out of his prime and then shovel big piles of World Series money into the luxury tax incinerator when the bean counters finish their work at the end of each season.

Maybe the Cubs truly believe they’ve got the makings of another title on the roster already. Kris Bryant is busting his backside to be better than ever and he’s projected to have the NL’s highest WAR in 2019. Yu Darvish has to be better than last year, Kyle Schwarber should improve, the list goes on.

But if the Cubs — or any team, for that matter — believe Harper increases their odds of winning a title, using the luxury tax as an excuse not to sign him is disingenuous at best. Easy for me to say because it’s not my money. More than than the tax penalties, it’s being locked in to a ton of money for a guy who’s aged out of his prime that may be scaring teams. So a shorter deal for more AAV could really make sense.

Now I suppose it’s just a matter of how many cents Harper can make. Speaking of, the piñata only had pennies and Smarties in it, so I’m really disappointed.

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