All of baseball is waiting for Bryce Harper to make a decision. Along with Manny Machado, the 26-year-old outfielder represents the most significant chip still to fall in the free-agent market, setting the price for every other outfielder and perhaps a new bar for all free agent contracts.
Writers and fans have spent endless hours and written endless blog posts speculating about where Harper will land—Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington have emerged as the frontrunners—while extolling the potential impact he can bring to a team.
And Harper deserves many of these accolades: Fangraphs projects him to be worth 4.9 fWar next season in a more conservative Steamer projection, and his young age means he may still have room to improve or replicate his 2015 MVP season, during which he posted 9.3 fWAR and hit .330 with 42 homers.
But for a moment, assume that Harper just signs with Washington, as rumors have indicated here and there. Whether it sounds good or not, whether he’ll actually be a net positive or not, whether he can actually deliver an NLDS victory or not — assume he ends up back at Nationals Park for a deal worth no less than $300 million for ten years, as Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post said this fall.
Making this assumption, re-signing Harper entirely changes Washington’s future outlook for in terms of their financial position and their depth chart at almost every position.
Financially, added on to the significant chunk of money the Nationals have dedicated to their starting pitchers (who, as Grant Brisbee noted, will likely not be playing for the Nats by the time their deferred money bottoms out), the future arbitration money that Trea Turner and Juan Soto will likely command, and the salaries of everyone else on a future roster, it puts the Nationals in a precarious position with MLB’s luxury tax.
Last year, the threshold for the “competitive balance tax” sat at $197 million. While it’ll move up to $210 million by 2021, a Bryce Harper contract would push the Nationals near it, if not past it. (The tax becomes increasingly stark on overages as teams spend more money for more consecutive years, and the Nats already have $140 million on the books for the 2020 season.)
If Mike Rizzo and co. care about exceeding the tax line, which he said was a primary motive for selling off Matt Adams and Daniel Murphy last August (though they still didn’t get below the threshold for 2018), then it very well might tie his hands for any future large-name contracts. An extension for Anthony Rendon would seem highly unlikely, and it could even stop the team from retaining Trea Turner—who becomes a free agent in 2022—if Harper’s $30+ million is on the payroll.
Moreover, it means the team won’t be able to make another splash such as Corbin or Harper for a long time — the free agents of tomorrow will likely eschew Washington, which may present a problem given the team’s aging pitching core and their lack of starting pitching talent in the pipeline beyond Mason Denaburg and, potentially, Wil Crowe or Seth Romero.
Alternatively, Mark and Ted Lerner could tell Mike Rizzo to spend as much as he wants, ignoring the luxury tax and attempting to bring a World Series parade to Washington, making much of the above a moot point – but financial recklessness from a team that has lost multiple managers due to below-market salaries at least feels unlikely.
Even if the Nationals choose to spend wildly after acquiring Harper and go all-out for a World Series trophy, the outfielder’s long-term return would create something of a logjam in the 2019 season and beyond.
In the short term—as in until 2021—Harper would give the Nats four starting-quality outfielders. It seems unlikely that Dave Martinez would ever bench Harper at a $30+ million salary; likewise, it seems hard to believe that Juan Soto will ever ride the bench again. That leaves Victor Robles, Michael A. Taylor and Adam Eaton all vying for the third spot.
The Nats could give Robles another year in Syracuse, but he may have been ready for the majors at the end of 2017, and it would only push back the problem: Eaton remains under contract until 2021.
In the event that the team traded Robles, he could serve as the centerpiece of a deal that brought back a new first baseman or a fourth ace-quality starting pitcher—Cleveland’s Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer come to mind—but dealing Robles would mean parting with a speedy player projected to emulate Andrew McCutchen in his prime.
Eaton presents perhaps a tougher case for a trade: unlike the 2016 trade that brought him to Washington, he seems less likely—due to his age, the number of years left on his contract and his injury history—to bring back three projected “blue chip prospects” as he did in Reynaldo Lopez, Dane Dunning, and Lucas Giolito, much less a top-tier starter to push the Nats over the brink. (It’s also possible some GM, just like Mike Rizzo did, feels like they need Eaton.)
In many ways, it makes sense: Eaton, at the time, seemed like the type of player who could push the Nationals over the brink. What team looking to reach a World Series would part with an established starter that could help the Nationals reach a World Series?
If the Nationals were willing to part with Eaton, who was worth 5.8 fWAR just three seasons ago for a mid-tier starter or a pair of relievers, then it would make their decision easier — but selling on Eaton after all the team committed to him seems hard to do, though it remains possible.
If Davey Martinez chose to platoon Eaton and Robles, the team could wait for Ryan Zimmerman’s contract to expire to move Harper to first base — but sentimental factors arguing to re-sign Zimmerman and the illogical nature of sitting Robles might prevent such a move.
Harper may or may not make the Nationals better in the long-run — it depends on how the team re-adapts to him, if the speedy contact hitting that may take his place will fully replace his power and his spectacle, if the starting pitching core holds up.
No matter what, the Lerners and Mike Rizzo have a near-impossible decision to make regarding if they should aggressively pursue Harper, one that scouting and analytics can’t quite predict because of the chain reaction it will almost assuredly set off.