The 2018-19 free agent class will be one of the best in history. Teams around the league have been working to get under the luxury tax this season to put themselves in the best position to go after some elite players that will be on the market.
The headliner of that class is Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper. The 25-year-old, who was anointed the next big thing in baseball on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16, has indeed turned into one of the game's top players.
He's been streaky, following his career year in 2015 with a major regression in 2016, but he looked to have righted the ship last season before a knee injury that thankfully looked a lot uglier than it was cost him the last month of the season. He's also struggled in all but one of the postseason series he's played in and has never been beyond the NLDS despite playing on some stacked Nationals teams.
Regardless, his age and talent will see him paid an obscene amount of money next offseason. But just who will pay him that money just became a lot less clear.
The big deal
The big news of the weekend was the abrupt and rather surprising end to the Giancarlo Stanton trade saga. After lists were submitted and ultimatums levied and two trades vetoed, the reigning NL MVP was dealt to the New York Yankees for infielder Starlin Castro and a pair of low-level prospects. Whether this was Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter finally accepting that he had little leverage given Stanton's no-trade clause or, as some on social media have speculated, collusion with his former team, the deal is done, and it the ripple effects will last until next offseason.
Until this weekend, the Yankees were considered heavy favorites to secure Harper's services next year. Harper grew up a Yankee fan in his hometown of Las Vegas, and the Bronx Bombers are one of the few teams with the financial oomph that can put together the contract the Scott Boras client will command.
Now the situation has changed. Stanton's massive contract and his position in the corner outfield seem to make it highly unlikely that the Yankees will be in on Harper. With Aaron Judge in the other corner they really won't have a place to play him unless one of the three gets DH'd or Harper gets moved to center. But with Stanton's contract on the books, even getting themselves under the luxury tax this season would make it unlikely that the Yankees will want to spend that much money. They'll have other, more pressing needs—particularly third base—that they may want to address with whatever payroll flexibility they will have left next winter.
It's not impossible—Boras floated the idea of Harper, Stanton, and Judge playing together on Monday, comparing them to the Three Tenors. But realistically, the Yankees have to be considered long shots in the Harper race next winter.
So, with the Yankees potentially out of the running, who is in the running for Harper now that the trade is made?
The Nationals have to be in play now. Washington owner Ted Lerner has never been shy about handing out big contracts as we've seen with the likes of Max Scherzer and Jayson Werth in the past. Keeping Harper would be a powerful signal to their fans and guarantee their relevance for a long time yet.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are another obvious candidate. They have a logjam in the corner outfield spots, with Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson the current incumbents, but they would probably be willing to move one of them to accommodate Harper. They also have more money than God, so covering his contract will be fairly easy. However, they'll likely be too distracted if (when) Clayton Kershaw opts out of his contract.
The Chicago Cubs also come to mind. Unlike the Dodgers, they could probably do with an upgrade in the corner spots.
Kyle Schwarber can hit the ball 10 miles, but to call him a defensive liability is defamatory to most of the league's defensive liabilities. Jason Heyward is an excellent defender on the other end but has underwhelmed at the plate since signing as a free agent from the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs can afford him and they also have an X-factor in third baseman Kris Bryant, who grew up with Harper in Las Vegas. The allure of playing alongside one of his best friends on a team built to contend for years to come would be strong.
One contender that is less obvious but very viable is the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phils are reaching the point in their rebuild where their core is almost in place and they'll be ready to look outside the organization to improve the team.
Young corner outfielders like Aaron Altherr or Nick Williams (more likely the former) could be trade chips, most likely for a pitcher, to make room for him. General manager Matt Klentak has more than enough resources to put together a contract proposal. They play in a large market, and their lack of spending during the rebuild has obscured that they own one of the most lucrative cable deals in the game. They only have one pre-arbitration contract commitment for 2019—Odubel Herrera's salary of $5m. If they get involved, they have the flexibility to outbid anyone.
There are a lot of things that can happen between now and next winter, but one thing is certain: the Bryce Harper sweepstakes have probably gotten a lot more interesting.