With one LCS series in the books, we’re drawing ever closer to the advent of free agency, and the lengthy – but fun! – process of winnowing down suitors for various free agents. Right now, it’s reasonable to presume that every moderately spendy organization – including the Cubs – is going to have some level of interest in free agent slugger Bryce Harper. By the time, say, November is over and the Winter Meetings are around the corner, that list may be down to something more like three to five.
Will Harper’s long-time club be on that list?
Well, the Nationals certainly have signaled a public interest in retaining their 26-year-old homegrown superstar, and he said all the expected things about wanting to be in their plans. Jon Heyman reports today that the Nationals “plan to make a strong effort to try to keep” him. But that kinda sounds like the stuff you hear every year about a homegrown star on his way out of town. And with an outfield composition theoretically able to fill out without him (not that any team out there is not made better with Harper) and an ever-present desire to get back under and stay under the luxury tax cap, I’m not so sure it’s going to be plausible for them to retain him even if, in their perfect world, it would magically happen somehow.
First, let’s talk about the luxury tax element. The luxury tax level jumps quite a bit next year, from $197 million this year to $206 million next year. Harper made about $21.6 million this year, so, if the Nationals were right at that luxury tax level last year, boom, they can offer Harper $30 million average annual value (what is used to calculate payroll for luxury tax purposes) and they’re golden, right?
Of course you know that’s not quite right, because the roster will fluctuate in a number of ways for them heading into next year, from contracts off the books to arbitration raises to many necessary other additions.
Moreover, I’m not so sure luxury tax considerations are even going to be the primary issue when it comes to the persistently cost-conscious Nationals.
Chelsea Janes reports that not only do the Nationals not want to eclipse the luxury tax in 2019, they “do not want to come close.” In other words, whatever budget limit is going to be set for GM Mike Rizzo, is certainly isn’t going to permit $200+ million in luxury tax payroll for 2019, and based on Janes’ calculations, there is almost no way the Nationals could commit $30 million annually to Harper and still wisely fill out the rest of the needs on the roster.
My guess is that the purse is being tightened in Washington thanks not to any escalations in their payroll for luxury tax purposes in 2019, but instead because of the actual, real-world salary jumps for Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, each of whom – you may recall – signed long-term deals with tons of deferred money and wacky salary terms. How wacky? Each pitcher’s contract pays him $20 million MORE in 2019 than in 2018! That’s a $40 million jump in real-world payroll just for those two pitchers! Yowsa.
For now, although we can’t yet wholly rule out the Nationals as a plausible suitor for Harper – they are the only team he’s known, after all, and his agent, Scott Boras, has a history of figuring out creative ways to get the Nationals’ owners to commit – but it sure seems very unlikely that they’ll be seriously in this race when the Winter Meetings approach.