St. Louis Cardinals fandom was on fire this weekend over social media chatter that claims St. Louis is a “preferred destination” of free agent superstar Bryce Harper.
Frankly, there is nothing behind this to make me believe it is anything more than rumor. And, if there is any truth to the sentiment, it seems that it’s old news, not a recent development that has agent Scott Boras is actively trying to hammer out a deal with the Redbirds. Still, with the Los Angeles Dodgers signing A.J. Pollock and Harper’s refusal to accept the Nationals offer, there has to be some move that could be made to call Harper’s bluff without getting St. Louis President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak to his “puke point.”
What if the Cardinals offered Harper $40 million a year for his choice of one, two or three seasons?
Harper wants to be the highest-paid player in baseball, allegedly. That annual salary would shatter the current record of $35,571,429 set by Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw. Yet it would be a tremendous bargain for St. Louis because everyone who has even a casual interest in Major League Baseball seemed to think Harper was going to get that salary for 10 seasons, not one, two or three.
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If the Cardinals picked up the left-handed slugger, they’d be favorites to win the NL Central for sure, on the short list of teams with a real shot at the World Series and their disgruntled fan base would turn into a ravenous pack of ticket, jersey and beer purchasers. I can’t remember a time since the mid 1990s when people were still peeved about the labor strife in the major leagues when I have seen St. Louisans so disinterested in buying Redbirds tickets as they are now.
Imagine a lineup with Matt Carpenter batting first, then some combination of Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, Harper, Paul DeJong and Yadier Molina. It would be a modern day Murderers Row. But off the field it would be beneficial, too. The Birds are in a jam with Ozuna and Goldschmidt set to be free agents at the end of the year. If they inked Harper to a three-year deal, they’d have some roster certainty in the middle. Then they could let Ozuna walk and focus on trying to keep Goldschmidt next to him in the middle of the order.
It would be the deepest St. Louis batting order since Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds kept opposing pitchers awake the night before facing them.
Would such a bid work? It would definitely be catching lightning in a bottle. Other teams would have every chance to step up and try to beat the deal. But, if Harper truly wants to play in St. Louis, there is enough there to make it possible. He could pocket $120 million and return to free agency at 29 years old. Why would he want to wait until then? Well, by then, the new collective bargaining arrangement will be in place and it would allow teams to bid on him with more market certainty. It’s also a good deal for Harper because if he stashes away $40 million a year now, it could shield him from a protracted labor dispute followed by a new financial system that limits contracts whether through a salary cap or other methods. In short, he’d already have his big payday.
Typically, the MLB Players Association frowns upon the idea of its top free agents taking less than they could have gotten elsewhere because it dumps cold water on the market for the players beneath them. But Harper and Boras could argue that this WAS the best deal because it had the highest annual value and put him in position for another big bite at the free agency apple in his 20s. It wouldn’t be dissimilar to the contracts Lebron James signed when he went back to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a high annual salary, but with the ability to choose where he plays from year to year.
Would it be better for lesser free agents to see Harper accept a seven-year deal for $30 million a year? I mean, that’s MORE money. But he’s locked in at a lesser rate for a long period of time. If he signed that deal with the San Diego Padres, for example, and then they decided that they couldn’t afford to put a decent supporting cast around him and Eric Hosmer, that sounds like seven years of finishing in fourth place to LA, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies.
What do the Cardinals, who have a ton of open payroll space in 2020 and 2021, have to lose by making a short term, high annual value pass at Harper? Isn’t this what they always claim they are going to do, consider anything that makes sense to the team without tying its hands past a player’s prime? Or are they just going to load the ship with dry powder until it capsizes?