I want to start by saying I wish that it was this easy. I wish that the argument over whether your favorite team should sign a player was a simple question of whether or not that player would bring value to your team. I wish that it was reasonable for every fan of every single Major League Baseball franchise to expect that their favorite team do the most it possibly can to win as many games as possible. I wish things like winning, and pride, and shame mattered to baseball owners. If it did, a lot of the more than 120 remaining free agents still available would have jobs as pitchers and catchers begin reporting to camp.
But I know it doesn’t. I know that the mission of all 30 major league organizations is to get younger and cheaper, every single year. Things like World Series rings, playoff appearances, or even legitimate reasons to ask fans to show up to the ballpark are all taking a backseat to simply being the team who spends the lowest amount of dollars per win. And you can’t be that team if you spend money on free agents; likely not the lower-tier ones, more probably not the middle-tier ones, and almost certainly not the top-end ones. It’s not that they’re too expensive — they just carry too much risk of one day looking like a bad investment. And there is nothing more embarrassing to a front office than the notion of overpaying a player who you could get by without.
That’s how we got here, really. It’s not so much the lack of shame on the part of owners, but the fear of it — as long as you do what everyone else is doing, you won’t attract any attention. If you never spend any money, no one can ever chide you for spending it incorrectly. If you do not try, you cannot fail.
The Cincinnati Reds have tried. It’s a sad variety of trying — a kind of trying that comes at the end of a long period of not trying, not unlike a man who voluntarily wets the bed for four years before one day deciding to stand up and meander over to the toilet. But it is trying, nevertheless, and they have been praised for it. They’ve remade their starting rotation, brought in a starting outfielder, and signed a left-handed reliever to plug a potential hole in their bullpen. They have tired of losing, and have taken steps to stop it. God bless them.
But while the Reds might have made more win-now moves this winter than nearly any other team in baseball, it still doesn’t feel quite right to say they are truly going for it. They’ve addressed several weaknesses up and down their big league roster, yes, but there is still that list of free agents up there. Those are players who do not cost prospects, like the other moves Cincinnati has made over the past few months. They only cost money, money the organization stated it was willing to spend this offseason, but to this point has not.
Now, there are a few upper-level free agents I can understand the Reds not wanting to invest a large sum of cash in. Not a fan of Manny Machado? I mean, he’s probably going to be really good for a long time, but you can never be too sure about how long a player’s defensive abilities will hold up, and Machado gets a lot of his value from his defense.
Not into the bidding war for Dallas Keuchel? Well, you can never be too certain about your rotation, and Keuchel is obviously the best starter available. But sure, pitching injuries are unpredictable, and it’s not unwise to be wary of that.
Not into Kimbrel for the same reasons as Keuchel, coupled with the fact that he’s a reliever, which are even more unstable than starters? Kimbrel’s been one of baseball’s best pitchers for the better part of a decade, but fine. Expensive relievers on the wrong side of 30 are scary. I get it.
There’s one free agent I’m unable to forgive a lack of interest for, though. He’s someone who fits in near seamlessly with the organization, whose skillset bears a strong resemblance to the existing franchise player, and who would completely alter the course of the franchise over the next decade.
Bryce Harper wants a long contract that makes him the highest-paid player in baseball history. The Reds should offer that to him.
Now, I should admit that I am not privy to the contract negotiations that Harper’s camp has dealt with in the past few months. I do not know the specific dollars being offered to him, nor do I know who has offered those dollars in the first place. For all I know, Cincinnati’s front office might have called Harper the second free agency started, and he could have bellowed for five minutes about how much he hates chili, hung up, and that was that.
But let’s assume that isn’t what happened. Let’s assume that, in the fourth month of the offseason, if the Reds had made a serious play for Harper, it would have been reported somewhere. Let’s also assume that the reports of teams like the San Francisco Giants talking about a short-term deal with him are a sign that no team has offered Harper the right combination of years and dollars that would give him the security and the record-breaking contract he is interested in.
So, here it is: The Reds should offer Bryce Harper a 10-year contract worth $350 million. Judging from the quiet market surrounding him, that offer seems like it would move the Reds to the top of the list of best offers he’s received, and would make them a serious contender for his services. That doesn’t mean Cincinnati would automatically land him, nor am I saying that needs to be the endgame. All I am asking for is a serious play to be drawn up.
Now, there are many excuses for why the Reds will not do this, all of which are mostly to completely bogus. But before we get to that, it’s helpful to remind everyone who Bryce Harper is.
Harper is just 26 years old, and will play the entirety of the 2019 regular season at that age. He is an MVP winner, a six-time All-Star, and has accumulated 27.4 bWAR in his career. There are 40 retired MLB players who have reached that total before their age-26 season; 29 of those are in the Hall of Fame, and three others are Shoeless Joe Jackson, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds. Harper was the No. 1 overall pick at just 17 years old, debuted in the majors at 19, and has somehow managed to live up to nearly every outlandish expectation laid in front of him. He is the face of baseball, arguably the sport’s most famous active player, and as exciting to watch as anyone in the game.
Does he have shortcomings? Of course he does. Most of those shortcomings are in the field, where he just turned in one of the very worst defensive seasons in all of baseball in 2018. He hasn’t been a great defender since his rookie season, but he also never looked like a serious liability on defense until just this past year. And as Ben Lindbergh helpfully detailed over at The Ringer back in November, while the defensive metrics are reason for some concern, the most likely reason for Harper’s dip in production might simply be that he made a concerted effort to ease off the gas when it comes to chasing down fly balls in an effort to minimize his injury risk during a contract year.
As a hitter, though, there is little competition for Harper among the very best offensive players in baseball. Over the past four seasons, his 149 wRC+ ranked second among National League hitters, behind only Joey Votto. That includes a “down” year for Harper in 2018, during which he hit .249/.393/.496, an impressive slash line when considering that his BABIP of .289 was nearly 20 points below his career average of .318, despite his hard hit percentage reaching a career high. According to Statcast metrics, his 2018 batted ball profile ranked him in the 96th percentile of xwOBA, 90th percentile of xSLG, and 82nd percentile of exit velocity, in addition to him grading out as an above-average runner. No matter how you look at it, Harper is one of baseball’s elite hitters, and he has been for most of his career.
Alright, we’ve answered the question of “Is Bryce Harper good?” But that’s not the biggest question here. The biggest question, arguably, is can the Reds afford to pay him the contract he wants? The answer to that question is the same as the first one.
Ten years and $350 million seems like a lot of money. It is! It is quite literally more money than anyone has ever paid a baseball player on one contract. But when broken into year-by-year figures and contextualized, it is way less scary than it appears.
Let’s say Cincinnati pays out that contract in equal installments of $35 million. According to Spotrac, the Reds’ payroll currently sits at about $112 million. That’s the 19th-highest payroll in baseball, just below the middle of the pack, and doesn’t account for the $9 million likely owed to Alex Wood, or the $2 million owed to Zach Duke. Those two, along with Harper’s $35 million, would rocket that payroll up to $158 million. That’s a considerable bump! But it’s not an impossible jump for the team to deal with. Last year, the front office stated that a record payroll for the organization was something that was being discussed for 2019. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s John Fay mentioned that the payroll goal may be to get to around $130 million. That’s places them about $28 million short of where they’d be with Harper’s megadeal in the fold, but that chunk of cash certainly would not bankrupt ownership, and it would still be tens of millions of dollars under the luxury tax threshold.
Swallowing that kind of payroll jump in 2019 might be painful for the front office, but here’s the thing: It gets much, much easier from there. After the 2019 season, the Reds will see the contracts of Matt Kemp, Scooter Gennett, Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig, Tanner Roark, David Hernandez and Zach Duke all fall off the books. That amounts to a whopping $64.73 million freed up in payroll in just one season. If Cincinnati signed Harper right now, then used internal options to replace the exiting free agents (Taylor Trammell, Jose Siri, Nick Senzel, Jonathan India, Tyler Mahle and Tony Santillan are just a few options), they could enter the 2020 season with a payroll $29 million lower than it is right now, when Bryce Harper’s contract isn’t even there.
The other prevailing thought when it comes to a team like the Reds signing free agents of Harper’s stature is that small market teams just don’t make deals like that. But in Cincinnati’s case, that isn’t at all true. In just the past eight years, the Reds have signed not one, but two nine-figure contracts — one of which just so happened to break a baseball record. That was the extension agreed to with Votto in April 2012, which totaled 12 years and $251.5 million, making it the longest guaranteed contract in major league history, and paying Votto the third-most money of any contract ever.
To pay out that kind of money, the Reds had to see something in Votto they liked, right? Sure. Votto, like Harper, already had an MVP in his past. But more importantly, the skills that made him most valuable were skills that age better than most others — skills such as strike zone judgement, bat control and power. He wasn’t a pitcher whose arm could break down at any time (more on that later), and he wasn’t a position player who derived his value from his speed and defense.
Votto was the kind of player whose production could be trusted to hold up over the long haul, and seven years later, the contract has proven to be a success. As noted above, since signing that extension in 2012, Votto has led all National League hitters with a 157 wRC+. He’s also third among NL position players with 34.4 fWAR in that same time period. According to a dollars-per-WAR study by Fangraphs in 2017, it was estimated that one WAR was worth about $6.9 million to a team signing a contract in 2012. By that estimation, Votto has been worth about $237 million to the Reds since signing his contract, while earning just short of $120 million, with five years remaining on the guaranteed portion of the contract.
We’ve established, then, that the Reds are comfortable paying significant money to a player with a specific skillset, and that that skillset can lead to surplus value over the course of a contract. So how well does Harper’s skillset match up with Votto’s? Well, through his age-25 season — his third in the big leagues — Votto owned a career .310/.388/.536 line, a .924 OPS, an 11 percent walk rate, an 18.2 percent strikeout rate, a .226 isolated power figure, and a 139 OPS+.
Harper’s career numbers through his age-25 season? A .279/.388/.512 line, .900 OPS, 14.8 percent walk rate, 21.1 percent strikeout rate, .233 isolated power, and 139 OPS+. That’s an identical on-base percentage, identical league-adjusted OPS, and even better walk and power numbers than the ones posted by the Reds’ franchise cornerstone.
Great, so we’ve established that Harper has virtually the same batting profile Votto has, making him an excellent candidate to provide the surplus value Votto has, which every team chases. But what if something catastrophic happens? Baseball, of course, is unpredictable, and on that above list of retired players whose early careers are similar to Harper’s, there are a couple of players who just fell off a cliff around the time they reached 30 years old. If a team like the Reds offers a contract like this to someone and it doesn’t pay off, that completely cripples them as a franchise, right?
Well, Cincinnati has seen that side of things too. In February 2014, the Reds signed Homer Bailey to a six-year, $105 million contract. Almost immediately, it deteriorated into being one of the worst contracts in baseball history. Bailey was essentially league-average in his first season under the new deal before getting hurt, and after that, he was never productive again. He pitched just 231.2 innings between 2015 and 2018, and was below replacement level in each of those years. During that time, he cost the Reds $68 million. The team also happened to slide into one of its worst stretches of losing in the history of the franchise during that same period of time. Naturally, the sentiment has been that Bailey’s contract is one of the things that set the organization back the farthest.
It’s a popular belief, but it really doesn’t make any sense. Again, Bailey only pitched 230-some innings over the last four years. He did some losing for the team, and the idea behind the organization signing him to such a lucrative extension despite the fact that he’d barely been above league average for just two seasons before was always sort of confusing. But he didn’t stop the organization’s once-promising track record of winning in the early 2010s. Colossal whiffs on first round picks between 2011 and 2014 did that. Organizational ineptitude when it comes to developing pitching talent did that. The fact that the Reds have not scouted, signed, and developed an international free agent position player who has been worth anything to the major league club since Davey freaking Concepcion did that.
No, the only thing an expensive bad contract stops you from doing is signing other, potentially better contracts. That’s a serious concern on its surface. Wanting financial flexibility is good, but it’s absolutely worthless until you do anything with it. It only means something if you keep all that money aside so that you can eventually give it to the kind of player who’s worth it.
Is Bryce Harper worth it? I think so. Think for a moment about the way the Reds are built for the future. Votto is locked in for at least five more years. Eugenio Suarez’s team-friendly contract has him locked up for at least six. Looking elsewhere at the Reds’ roster, it’s unlikely that any expensive arbitration deals pop up, unless Luis Castillo and/or Jesse Winker become All-Stars in the next two seasons — which, I feel like I should remind you, would be very good for the Reds!
The other potential cornerstones of the franchise — guys like Senzel, Trammell, Greene, India, Stephenson, and maybe even Siri — won’t be commanding serious money until Votto’s contract is over. And whenever Votto retires, Harper can move to first base, and the Reds can use the $25 million per season they were paying their future Hall of Famer to lock up whoever the next franchise player is.
Think about watching Bryce Harper, the Cincinnati Red. Imagine an easier team to market in 2019 than one that includes Harper, Puig and Votto. Imagine watching those three hit, back-to-back-to-back, unless you break them up with Suarez or Gennett or Senzel. Think about the Reds going from five years in the bottom of the NL Central to arguably division favorites in one offseason, all because they spent money 29 other teams wanted to pocket for no good reason other than because they sold their fans on the preposterous belief that it was the smart thing to do.
It won’t happen. I know it won’t, and the fact that the Reds probably haven’t even tried sucks. They’d love for you to believe that Harper was simply out of their price range, and that they thought they could spend the money better and more efficiently somewhere else. But that is never the goal — not for the Reds, and at this stage in baseball history, not for anyone else. Cincinnati isn’t saving this money for Gerrit Cole, or Chris Sale, or Mookie Betts, or Mike Trout, and it isn’t saving the money to reinvest in the team later, as they said they would years ago.
Because it’s just not smart baseball, you see. Spending on large contracts just never works out. Remember the financial headaches caused by Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera’s contracts, but forget the fact that they were six years older than Harper when they signed. Remember how badly the Homer Bailey contract backfired, but forget the fact that no one outside the organization thought it was a good idea in the first place. Remember Chris Davis, and Josh Hamilton, and Jason Heyward, and all the players who have failed to live up to their massive deals but forget about Joey Votto, and Giancarlo Stanton, and Max Scherzer, and all the players who have more than returned the value invested in them.
The goal is not to spend money the right way. The goal is to not spend it at all. Harper will never fit into that plan, so baseball has proceeded without him, and so many of his peers. It’s perfectly fine proceeding without fans like you and me, too. And if we stop accepting the lie that it’s somehow wise decision-making to leave piles of wins on the table going into every season, then one day, it might have to.