A Conversation About Signing Bryce Harper

Hi Moshe,

Our last debate was so good I thought we should have another one. The Bryce Harper derby is entering the homestretch and there are still a few Cubs links to him. Many around baseball are predicting the ex-Nat could make over $350 million on his new contract.

I’ll make two caveats: First, I definitely think teams can afford to pay that and free agents should get all they can. Second, I’m setting aside any budget concerns that may or may not be on Theo Epstein for the purposes of this conversation. My question is whether the Cubs should give Harper, or any player for that matter, that kind of deal.

I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, but as of right now I would say no. While there are some good long-term deals, Jon Lester for one, most seem to go south. You are often paying someone past their prime years, thus getting a repeat of that Lester deal seems unlikely. Another problem is what happens if a player on a Harper-esque contract gets injured. It would be much harder to add someone to replicate their production with so much tied up in one player.

Finally, it’s very difficult for an organization to move on from a big contract, especially if there is a full or partial no-trade clause that requires a player’s consent to waive. What say you, Moshe?

Hi Sean,

Let me start my answer by divorcing this question from the Cubs briefly. Can a $350 million player be beneficial to a team? I would definitely say yes. Mike Trout comes to mind. So does Miguel Cabrera’s first contract with Detroit, which was the foundation for a huge run of success for the Tigers (extending an aging Cabrera was a blatant mistake from the get-go).

Even players who do not live up to huge contracts do not always instantly cripple their teams. The Cubs signed Jason Heyward to a massive deal in 2016, got virtually no production from him, and still easily won the World Series. Bad deals only become a hindrance when the amount of underperforming free agent money starts preventing a team from making necessary moves. That amount is different for every team. The Cubs, thanks to their market and revenue, have a much higher threshold than most teams, but still have limits.

So the real question is twofold: Would an underperforming Harper deal push the Cubs past their financial tipping point and is Harper worth that risk? The answer to the first question is beyond our current knowledge. Despite our blog name, we are not privy to Cubs financials, particularly as they are in the midst of creating a new TV network that will define their financial health for decades to come. But I suspect Harper failing to live up to his contract, in combination with Heyward and Tyler Chatwood, would hamstring the Cubs for a few years.

But all that assumes Harper underperforms. If he lives up to his contract, the Cubs become a far better team. They might even be able afford to let one of their other young stars walk in free agency in 2022, effectively swapping out Harper for Anthony Rizzo or Kris Bryant down the road. A Harper-led Cubs team can probably compete successfully for a decade, just as a Bryant-led team could.

So let’s concentrate on the final question: Is Harper worth the risk? I say yes, for three reasons:

  1. The Cubs offense needs a jolt, and Harper is one of only two free agents that would represent a significant upgrade for the Cubs.
  2. Heyward notwithstanding, position players under 27 rarely significantly underperform their contracts.
  3. 26-year-old MVP-caliber players almost never hit the market.

Hi Moshe,

What you said about a failed Harper contract crippling the Cubs financially is part of what scares me about the deal. The failure of Heyward to be a significant impact piece has already possibly caused some restriction of the budget. If Harper has similar unimpressive performance with his deal, it might really hamper the team.

Now, no offense to Heyward, but Harper clearly has a much higher floor as a player. So the odds of his deal not working out are lower. The problem is his deal will also be significantly bigger than J-Hey’s was, so the damage would be even worse if it doesn’t work out.

I agree the Cubs need a jolt of some kind to get the offense in gear. Last year’s performance wasn’t acceptable, especially down the stretch in September. That might also have been a function of Bryant’s injury and inconsistent seasons from Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras.

I think there is at least a decent chance for bounceback seasons from those players and also growth from Ian Happ. Our colleague Brendan Miller has written about how Happ and Schwarber’s underlying stats indicate they may have a big season in 2019. I refuse to believe that Contreras won’t also have a better year than he did in 2018.

With that in mind, it might be a wiser decision to stand pat and wait for the expiration of Ben Zobrist and Jon Lester’s contracts, which will clear a lot off the books. You might get better odds on a bet that one of the Cubs’ current assets will become a superstar than gambling on a single person.

Hi Sean,

I can understand the sentiment that the Cubs should not overreact to losing the division by crippling the budget for the next 10 years. After all, the team still won 95 games without Bryant for large chunks. But frankly, the second half was kinda scary. The Cubs’ offense sputtered badly after the All-Star break, finishing second in MLB with games of one or fewer runs scored and home run power was down significantly.

More problematic, the development of every young Cub not named Ednel Javier Báez stalled (particularly in the second half). Brendan’s analysis of Schwarber and Happ does not fully reassure me. I am still a huge Schwarber fan, but he has to be viewed as a platoon bat for the immediate future. Only one of his 28 home runs was off a lefty, and teams know they can shut him down with a pitching change.

Happ did radically improve his pitch recognition and swung at fewer pitches out of the zone in 2018, but he just could not square up the pitches in the zone that followed. I saw him swing and miss more strikes than any other two Cubs last year. Given his limited resume, it would be a giant gamble to assume that problem will just go away.

The Cubs will also likely be dropping Addison Russell for 30 days’ severance the moment an arbitration panel officially awards him his contract. With no guarantee that Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. can return to first-half form, a big bat is called for.

Yet none of the “cheaper” free agents available this offseason would be a significant upgrade for the Cubs. As I explained back in October, the Cubs basically have 2.5+ WAR caliber players (or platoons) at every position. Even Heyward is still a league-average player. If they want to improve significantly, they need an All-Star caliber player; Harper and Machado are the extent of the options this offseason. Given that the outfield is weaker than the infield, Harper seems the logical choice.

Also, the risk may be lower than you think. The Athletic had a nice piece (subscription) on the production of $200+ million contracts. Among the eight position players who have received one, half provided positive value on their contracts. Not coincidentally, all four signed deals when under 30 years old. Only the older signees failed. Basically, really good young players tend to stay good until their bodies break down. Given all that, I would rather sign Harper at 26 that re-sign Bryant at 29, particularly because there’d be three years of both in there.

Finally, and perhaps most critically, MVP-caliber 26-year-olds just don’t hit the free agent market that often. Alex Rodriguez is the only other example I can think of. There will not be another opportunity like this for years to come, so you strike when opportunity presents, even if it stretches your budget and comfort.

If the Cubs sign Harper and he flops, they will have to rebuild come 2022. But in fairness, unless some homegrown pitching starts showing up in the next two years that will probably happen anyway. But if Harper the MVP starts showing up year after year…wow.

Hi Moshe,

Well, my waffling continues. Your arguments on this issue are pretty sound. The window is open now and it may be worth it to take that shot on Harper. I still retain my fears if things go sideways with the deal, but the fact that he is only 26 and could be a MVP-level impact player if it does work out is very tempting. As of now, I’m tentatively on your side of the debate. Although I reserve the right to amend or expand my statement at a later date.

Thanks for the conversation, I look forward to our next one.

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