With the Philadelphia Phillies rolling into town for a weekend series tonight, one name draws as much attention as ever: Bryce Harper. The name that loomed over Dodger fans and pundits this past offseason is finally back at Dodger Stadium, now clad in Philly red pinstripes.
When Harper inked his record 13-year contract with the Phightin’ Phils in February, it felt to many like the certification of a failed offseason. Especially with fan favorite Yasiel Puig traded, followed by the unpopular A.J. Pollock signing, Los Angeles looked like a team that had squandered every opportunity to upgrade.
As Harper takes to the outfield tonight, though, the tables have very much turned since then. The only headlines he’s made thus far in 2019 are about his disappointing performance. To be fair, he may heating up just in time. Even then, he is nowhere near the best left-handed right fielder in the league. That distinction belongs to Cody Bellinger, who has early designs on the 14th NL MVP award in Dodgers franchise history.
Offensively, there couldn’t be a bigger chasm between Bellinger and Harper right now. Bryce is batting .243, albeit with a strong 10 HR and 40 RBI. Belli, meanwhile, is positively raking at .378 and twice as many homers, and 12 more RBI. Also, Harper only makes for 0.8 WAR, while Bellinger accounts for 5.3. The gap is even bigger defensively. It’s hard to believe Harper could make a throw quite like this one:
Cody Bellinger with an insane throw to gun down Carlos Gomez. At some point, you just gotta tip your cap.
— SNY (@SNYtv) May 28, 2019
Thus, it’s time to admit it
I was wrong in clamoring for the Dodgers to damn the torpedoes and sign Bryce Harper at any cost.
Now I’m not going to be too self-flagellating here. I was far from the only person who believed Harper was a must-have to turn a runner-up into a championship team. The 2018 Dodgers’ historically un-clutch offense made the case for another top bat all the more warranted. The free agent market was quickly limited all the more by the flurry of extensions that followed Mike Trout’s in Anaheim, thus making it look all the more like Los Angeles had missed out on a rare generational talent.
Nonetheless, I’d be foolish to downplay how vociferously I demanded the Dodgers go all-in if necessary. In our Harper roundtable back in December, I eagerly said I’d be happy to give him whatever he wants, even when it was believed he was seeking as much as half a billion dollars. I tweeted in favor of getting him relentlessly as the sluggish offseason dragged ever onward. I stood ready to write my celebration piece here, “Welcome to Harperwood,” in the event the Dodgers won the sweepstakes.
However, I did change my tune when it was announced his contract with the Phillies was for 13 years with no opt-outs. Personally, I wouldn’t have gone past 10 years. And the Dodgers didn’t lack for trying, meeting with Harper and offering four years at $45 million a year. Even then, especially with Trout extended soon thereafter, I felt Harper was a missed opportunity (albeit one they had to miss). I truly believed the team was growing willfully stagnant. They were, as Jim Bowden derided them in January, a “team going backwards”:
— MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (@MLBNetworkRadio) January 13, 2019
If anything, the source of derision isn’t the Dodgers for not meeting his contract demands, but perhaps Harper himself for passing up on their offer. It was clear to all he wanted to don the blue, and to play close to his hometown friends and family in Las Vegas. Just as much, he didn’t want to go to Philly, and he wasn’t alone. Multiple sources claimed that his wife talked him out of signing with Philly not once, but twice. While it was only for a few years, the Dodgers’ offer included a record-setting AAV, ensuring he’d be paid to some historic degree like he and Scott Boras desired.
By not matching or exceeding Philadelphia’s 13-year, $330 million offer, Los Angeles ensured they’ll remain financially sound for the near future. I’ve stated many times I don’t care about the luxury tax, and I stand by that. All the same, winning on a budget is the ideal scenario. If they can win the World Series this year under the luxury tax threshold, especially given the salaries slated to come off the books soon, they’ll be in perfect position to lock up young stars like Bellinger and Seager.
Another bonus of not signing Harper is that it allowed the current outfield as it is to come to fruition. First, it required them to keep Joc Pederson, who has continued the leadoff hitting prowess he displayed last year. And not only is Bellinger the everyday player he’s meant to be, but rookie Alex Verdugo has attained the distinction too. Having Bellinger exceed Harper for far less of the cost is satisfying enough, but knowing they have another discount superstar in the making with Verdugo doubly vindicates the ownership and FO’s restraint this past offseason.
There is a chance that some or all of the points made here could become irrelevant. Maybe Bellinger suddenly goes cold and regresses, perhaps just as Harper heats up and plays to his potential. Perhaps he’s good to the last year of his career like Jim Thome or Craig Biggio, thus justifying the contract length. In a final twist of agony, we could wake up to the sight of Harper tormenting us in October like the Stairs and Victorinos of old. Baseball rarely moves in a linear trajectory. It’s fickle, weird, and volatile over the course of 162 games. Even more so as the years go by.
In that unpredictable grind of the season, though, all you can do is live for the moment. In this moment, the Dodgers are off to a historically great start, powered by an MVP candidate that doesn’t break the bank. All while his counterpart in Philly underperforms, threatening to turn his contract into the biggest albatross in the history of professional sports. And even if he lives up to his potential for a good portion of that contract, it may still end up being just that anyway.
They couldn’t be better, while I couldn’t have been more wrong. And for that, I couldn’t be happier.