I’ve actually been sitting on the idea for this article since the St. Louis Cardinals acquired elite first baseman Paul Goldschmidt just before the Winter Meetings.
My point was a pretty simple one: despite the addition of Goldschmidt, the Cardinals should still aggressively pursue Bryce Harper in free agency. He would perfectly fill an area of need, he would give the Cardinals the superstar player they’ve lacked since Albert Pujols left, and he would instantly make the team a World Series contender.
I ended up abandoning the idea, figuring that by the time I finished writing, Harper would’ve signed somewhere, and it likely wouldn’t be in St. Louis.
That was nearly two months ago. It’s February now, and teams are preparing to report to Spring Training, but both Harper and Manny Machado are still free agents. Things have been so quiet on the Harper front that seemingly the only public comments we hear about him come from teams saying that they’re not interested in him.
The 2019 free agent class was once billed as a potentially historic group, of which Harper and Machado would be the crown jewels. Two superstar players destined for Cooperstown both becoming free agents in their mid-20s, both set to cash in on $300 million or potentially even $400 million contracts. Fresh off the heels of a 2018 offseason that never really got going, the possibility of teams adding one or both of these players was sure to spice things up a bit.
And yet, the market for Bryce Harper has turned out to be so frigid that’s it’s harder to find teams who are interested in him than teams who aren’t. The New York Yankees, long speculated to be Harper’s eventual landing spot, don’t appear to have much room or interest in bringing him on board. The Chicago Cubs vehemently shot down the idea of signing Harper, and the Los Angeles Dodgers seem content to shuffle their outfield with the likes of AJ Pollock instead. None of this even considers the fact that close to two-thirds of all MLB teams are in full tank mode right now.
Which is why it lines up perfectly for a team like the St. Louis Cardinals to swoop in and pounce. So why haven’t they?
For the past three seasons, the Cardinals have been projected to finish with a win total in the mid-to-high 80s, and that’s exactly where they’ve finished each time, with no postseason appearances in that span. Fans are tired of finishing second, and the front office has often talked about “winning now” in the one-year window of 2019. Thus far, their actions have backed that up.
Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna are both entering contract years. Andrew Miller was signed to a two-year deal with the hopes of immediately boosting the bullpen. Adam Wainwright is returning to the team hoping for one more postseason run. Yadier Molina is playing out the final years of what will likely be his last contract, and he’s doing so at a high level.
Given all of this, it becomes even more important that the Cardinals maximize their current window, and signing Harper would do that while also giving the team a building block for the future, once the current core leaves (or if they’re unable to resign Goldschmidt).
The Cardinals have made obvious improvements, but they’ll still face a tough challenge in the meat grinder that is the NL Central. As of now, Fangraphs has St. Louis projected to finish one game behind the Cubs in the division, and just five games ahead of the improved Reds. Although the Cubs could be seen as more vulnerable than they’ve been in recent years, it’s still not a surprise that they’re considered division favorites, and the defending champion Milwaukee Brewers still possess a potent offense, even if some regression is expected.
Given all of this, and estimating that Bryce Harper would likely add at least three wins to your 2019 total, wouldn’t it make sense to sign him and separate yourselves from the pack?
Any team would benefit to signing Bryce Harper, but for the Cardinals, Harper would also be the perfect answer to all of the questions they currently face in the outfield. Dexter Fowler is coming off his worst season in five years, and while the front office appears to have full confidence that he’ll bounce back in 2019, questions remain about his continued viability as an everyday starter. Meanwhile, the team has said that they’re “anxious” about Marcell Ozuna’s recovery from an injured shoulder, prompting John Mozeliak to personally fly down to the Dominican Republic to check on Ozuna’s progress.
Beyond that, the Cardinals’ outfield options include Harrison Bader, who showed incredible promise in 2018 but will be entering just his second full Major League season, and Jose Martinez, whose defensive struggles have been well-documented in spite of his hitting abilities.
All of these players have talent, but they all come with their own potential for disaster. Bryce Harper would add an insurance policy to the outfield, and it’s not every year that you can add an insurance policy with a higher career wRC+ through his age 25 season than Barry Bonds.
The main thing that the Cardinals (and other teams) seem to have reservations about with Harper is the length of the contract he desires, which is believed to be a 10-year deal. We all know that the Cardinals like to hand out 5-year contracts because they’re “safe,” and because they protect the team from the risks of longer deals. It makes sense, but when a player like Harper is out there, it usually pays off to hand out a longer deal, as the Cardinals did with another Scott Boras client when they signed Matt Holliday.
If Harper were to sign a 10-year deal, it would take him through age 36. Giancarlo Stanton’s contract, which the Cardinals were willing to take on in full last offseason, will take him through age 38. If the Cardinals thought Stanton would be a smart investment in right field, there’s no reason they shouldn’t view Harper in the same way.
For as frustrating as the last few season have been for Cardinals fans, the front office does deserve some credit for at least keeping the team a playoff contender. But as we’ve seen with recent World Series champions like the Red Sox and Cubs, winning a title in this era requires a true superstar, something the Cardinals haven’t had in a long time. Paul Goldschmidt could conceivably become that star, but he would have to sign an extension for that to happen. With Harper, the Cardinals would have a superstar on their team for years to come.
It’s not every year that a generational talent like Bryce Harper becomes a free agent, and it’s even more rare that the planets align perfectly for the St. Louis Cardinals to make a run at him because larger market teams seemingly aren’t involved. Making no attempt at all to sign him would be a grave mistake.