What Should the Nationals do Regarding Bryce Harper?

by: Matthew de Marte – November 7th, 2018

The Washington Nationals enter the off-season with potentially more question marks than any other organization. That is not because they have to decide whether they are going to compete in 2019, or rebuild. This team is ready to compete again in 2019. The question they face, however, is how are they going to allocate their resources? Specifically, do they bring back Bryce Harper? On one hand, Bryce Harper is one of the game’s most marketable figures, the face of the franchise, a generational talent, and the rare star hitting the open market at the age of 25. On the other, he has battled injuries, there are questions about his defense, and doubts regarding whether he will ever recapture his 2015 form again. The Nationals have a difficult decision to make regarding this predicament. Baseball is not like basketball where a few good players can carry a team, every year the importance of organizational depth shows more and more, and the Nationals may have some financial restrictions and bigger needs entering the 2019 season. In this piece, I will analyze what I think the Nationals should do regarding Bryce Harper, and suggest a strategy for them, while also briefly analyzing his market at the end.

Entering 2019, the Nationals have more holes to fill than right field, that is if you would even consider that a hole. 21-year-old Victor Robles performed well in a brief September stint in 2018, and projects to be a valid replacement. We will go into this more later. For now, let’s look at where the Nationals ranked by position according to Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement in 2018:

C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF SP RP
0.5 (24) 2.5 (11) 0.7 (23) 6.1 (6) 4.8 (7) 2.8 (16) 4.7 (9) 5.4 (7) 14.3 (T-10) .4 (T-26)

The Nationals clearly possess some superstar talent. Positions highlighted in green mean the Nationals ranked in the top ten in the league in WAR in 2018. Left field is highlighted green because Juan Soto occupies that position and although Nationals production there in 2018 was average as a whole, Soto certainly is far from that and no upgrade is needed. At a glance, the Nationals desperately need upgrades in the bullpen, behind the plate and at second. This fails to mention the Nationals lack of starting pitcher depth as well. The Nationals currently have Joe Ross and Erick Fedde (5.29 FIP in 65.2 career IP) slated as their back of the rotation on their depth chart. The construct of the starting pitcher may be crumbling, but you still need pitchers who can throw 5+ innings, especially with a bullpen as weak as the Nationals. The Nationals’ farm system, is alright, but besides Robles and Carter Kieboom the system lacks significant impact talent, especially when looking for arms ready to come up and contribute. Now let’s take a look at the financials.

Using Cots baseball contracts from Baseball Prospectus the Nationals have a projected payroll of ~ $168 million. The Nationals spent ~ $181 million in 2018, the 5th highest total in baseball. It is rumored that the Nationals internally are keen on having their payroll under the competitive tax balance threshold according to the Washington Posts Chelsea Janes. The competitive tax threshold is $206 million in 2019. This leaves the Nationals less than $40 million in payroll flexibility.

Let Bryce Walk

So how would the Nationals be able to spend there resources if they let Bryce Harper leave? First, Victor Robles would likely slide into CF, pushing Adam Eaton to right and giving the Nationals an outfield that gets paid $9.5 million that should be one of baseball’s best. The Nationals would need to acquire a catcher, second basemen, at least one “starting” pitcher, and as many relievers as possible. For the sake of this analysis, we will rule out any trades being made, because that could make things very complicated. The following tables shows potential free agents the Nationals could look to add via free agency. The contract projections were computed by SOTG’s analytics team of myself, Matt Carlin, and Jeff Adams, using past free agent data from 2014-2018 to predict 2019 free agent contracts using R. Note, there are no opt-out clauses, incentives, options, or front/back loaded contracts in our projections. They are strictly in the form of years and AAV (Average Annual Value). This helps keep the data clean, and make our jobs a little easier. Let’s take a look at some potential free agent targets for the Nationals:

Catchers:

Player (2019 Age) 2018 fWAR PA or IP Years AAV
Yasmani Grandal (30) 3.6 518 5 $15,300,000
Wilson Ramos (31) 2.4 416 4 $11,600,000
Kurt Suzuki (35) 2.0 388 2 $5,200,000
Martin Maldonado (32) 0.9 404 2 $3,000,000

Second Basemen:

Player (2019 Age) 2018 fWAR PA or IP Years AAV
Jed Lowrie (35) 4.9 680 3 $12,500,000
Asdrubal Cabrera (33) 2.7 592 2 $6,000,000
D.J. LeMahieu (30) 2 581 3 $9,500,000
Daniel Descalso (32) 1.6 423 3 $6,800,000

Relief Pitchers:

Player (2019 Age) 2018 fWAR PA or IP Years AAV
David Robertson (34) 1.5 62.1 4 $12,300,000
Jesse Chavez (35) 1.2 95.1 2 $5,400,000
Tony Sipp (35) 0.9 38.2 1 $2,500,000
Joe Kelly (31) 0.7 65.2 3 $7,000,000
Kelvin Herrera (29) 0.4 44.1 2 $7,200,000

Starting Pitchers:

Player (2019 Age) 2018 fWAR PA or IP Years AAV
Charlie Morton (35) 3.1 167 4 $16,300,000
Nathan Eovaldi (29) 2.2 111 4 $13,200,000
Hyun-Jin Ryu (32) 2.0 82.1 4 $12,900,000
Matt Harvey (30) 1.4 155 3 $9,800,000
Jeremy Hellickson (32) 1.2 91.1 1 $3,800,000

These are just some of the options the Nationals could look at in free agency. Listing every potential free agent option would be supernumerary, but these are some potential fits for the Nationals. Making savvy additions via trade could enable the Nationals to spend a little more aggressively in free agency. Personally, I think the Nationals will spend more on a starter and catcher, and be creative to fill their bullpen if they don’t resign Harper. Say the Nationals sign Nathan Eovaldi, Wilson Ramos, and Joe Kelly, that projects to $31.8 million in payroll increase without accounting for potential deferred payments or back-loaded contracts. This is just one potential way the Nationals could improve in key areas if they do not allocate massive resources for Harper. Howie Kendrick is an option at second as well, while Kieboom looms as a mid-season call up if the Nationals do not want to look externally for help at second. If the Nationals decide not to sign Bryce Harper, they should have the ability to be creative in filling their needs and possess the resources to do so.

Resign Bryce Harper 

So let’s say the Nationals do go out and sign Bryce Harper. Our projections say he is worth a 10 year contract worth ~$360 million (AAV of $36 million). The following density graphs show the distribution of 10,000 simulations of Harper’s projected years and AAV for his free agent contract: 

*A quick shout-out to my friend Sprencer Weisberg for the inspiration for this!*

If the Nationals decide to invest $36 million a year (or more!) to resign Harper, that leaves the Nationals only $2 million in financial flexibility if they truly want to avoid getting taxed. Resigning Harper could make Victor Robles expendable (See J.T. Realmuto), but it almost guarantees the Nationals will surpass the competitive balance tax. If the Nationals decide to do this, they should allocate resources accordingly and go all in on winning in 2019. The team would still need to fill the aforementioned holes, but it would mean they retain the face of their franchise and paying the tax shows everyone involved in the organization how committed the Nationals are to winning a World Series. 

My Suggestion for the Nationals

If I were the Nationals, considering the short and long term future of the franchise, it would probably be better to let Bryce Harper walk. Harper is a tremendous talent, and the face of the franchise, but the Nationals have four areas they need to improve, including a tremendous need for pitching depth. Victor Robles is waiting to fill in if needed, who has the potential due to his age and service time to become a more valuable asset than Harper moving forward, helps soften the blow to losing your best hitter.  While we have Bryce projected to score a $360 million contract over 10 years, projections are projections, it is possible someone will exceed both of those numbers to land Harper. It was already recently reported Bryce turned down a 10 year $300 million deal with the Nationals. Not to mention investing over $30 million a year in Harper means the Nationals would have $175 million or more invested in 3 players. Re-signing Harper, also almost certainly means the Nationals would have no chance to re-sign Anthony Rendon next year. Rendon has been the most valuable player in the National League the past two years (13.5 fWAR), and will not command the contract Harper will this year. The team has too many holes to fill, and not enough financial flexibility to hand anyone $30+ million a year if they intend on staying under the competitive balance tax. If Mike Rizzo and co. can shed salary via trade somehow and acquire cheap talent, the Nationals could be in a better position to pursue Bryce, but a lot of dominoes would have to fall for this to happen, in my opinion. So if the Washington Nationals should not make a move to re-sign Harper who should?

Bryce Harper’s Suitors

The Phillies, Cubs, Dodgers, Yankees, White Sox, Cardinals and Braves all appear to be in the mix for Harper. The Phillies have perhaps the most financial flexibility of any suitor (~$115 Million Estimated in Payroll Commitments for 2019), and the biggest need (91 2nd Half wRC+). The Dodgers already tried to acquire Harper once this year, and all signs point to them once again making a run at Harper. The Yankees have been waiting to invest heavily in their roster and are well positioned to make a big splash. The Cubs have long been linked to Harper, but it appears they may not be as involved in the Harper sweepstakes as expected. The White Sox and Braves stand as potential surprise suitors for Harper. The Cardinals have long desired to make a big move in free agency, and also appear to be a contender to sign Harper. One team who many members of the media are saying would be a great fit for Harper is the Giants. I did not list them intentionally. They would have little financial flexibility if they signed Harper, with an aging roster, not much help on the way from their farm system, and no core to build around. I do not think that move makes any sense for either party due to these obstacles. Whatever the case may-be, you should expect the Nationals to be priced out rather quickly looking to retain Harper’s services. Every off-season has its own story lines, and this off-season, there is no story more intriguing than where Bryce Harper will sign. Unless a mystery team appears, on-paper it looks like Bryce Harper will be finding a new home in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Atlanta or New York. May the best (richest) team win!

Data courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus

Cover Photo Credits: The Star

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