WASHINGTON - Bryce Harper made it clear upon his arrival for spring training this year that he would not engage in any speculation about his upcoming free agency from that minute forward. The Nationals’ rightfielder threatened to bolt the news conference if a reporter even raised the topic.
“If you guys do ask anything,” Harper said that day, “I’ll be walking right out the door.”
No one did.
But we don’t need Harper to lift his self-imposed gag order when it comes to the 2019 Yankees. He probably can forget about the Bronx. The closest Harper is likely to get to playing for the Yankees is standing next to them during their two-game visit to D.C. this week.
We’ll never say never, because stuff happens. And no one can predict with 100-percent accuracy how the Yankees will emerge from this season in terms of injuries or other life-altering events that can drastically change rosters.
From the Yankees’ perspective, however, there no longer is any point to spending $300 million for Harper, or whatever the next guesstimate is of his 2019 value. Not after Brian Cashman brilliantly orchestrated the Giancarlo Stanton trade in December and agreed to take on a second 50-homer corner outfielder at a cost of roughly $250 million.
The financial gymnastics required to get Stanton’s bloated contract on board and still stay under the $197-million luxury tax threshold for 2018 won’t be an issue next year. With the Yankees expected to remain below that ceiling and earn the critical tax reset that Hal Steinbrenner has coveted for years, they will have the flexibility to spend big again.
But it’s also a matter of priorities. Stanton can opt out after the 2020 season, at age 31, so he’s locked down for a few key seasons, at least. Aaron Judge, who is on track to being the Yankees’ rightfielder for life, won’t reach free agency until 2023. The questions creep up when it comes to current fixtures Brett Gardner and Aaron Hicks, as well as the futures of Clint Frazier, Jacoby Ellsbury and even top outfield prospect Estevan Florial.
Gardner, who has perked up after a sluggish start, has a $12.5-million team option for next season ($2-million buyout) that should be a no-brainer to pick up. When Gardner is at his best in the leadoff spot, the Yankees become even more of a grinding lineup, and he does bring important veteran intangibles to the clubhouse.
As for Hicks, the Yankees have him under control through the 2019 season as a centerfield option, but we have to imagine Ellsbury — owed about $68 million through 2020 — eventually will be shipped somewhere, somehow. That leaves Frazier, the prize from the Andrew Miller deal, to be used as a trade chip for a starting pitcher at some point this season and multi-tool prospect Florial, 20, to be groomed to take over in center, perhaps in another two years.
It’s not that the Yankees wouldn’t love to add another perennial MVP candidate in Harper to create MLB’s first true super-team in the spirit of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. That’s tempting, even if Hal isn’t quite the same Boss as his dad. The issue is how the Yankees want to allocate their riches, and the real focus — now and into the immediate future — should involve upgrading their starting rotation.
Cashman will be looking into that sooner rather than later. But with that luxury-tax threshold looming, the bigger-money additions, trade or otherwise, would have to come during the offseason, unless Cashman can shed more salary in a swap.
As far as the offseason goes, the top starter available also happens to be one of the planet’s best, Clayton Kershaw, who is almost certain to opt out from his current deal if he’s healthy.
Drew Pomeranz also is on the list, along with Gio Gonzalez, and the Yankees could always make a push for Craig Kimbrel as well if they want to restock the bullpen.
Steinbrenner maintains that he shouldn’t need a $200-million payroll to win a championship, and if this group wins the title, he’ll look smart for saying so. He also has stressed the marketing appeal of homegrown Yankees. That also is becoming a reality, as YES has boasted a huge upswing in TV ratings this season and the team has experienced a spike in ticket sales.
As always, winning is the key to all this, and the Yankees’ 28-12 start is the primary factor here. They couldn’t win any more with Harper.
As for his marquee value, much was made of Harper’s 449-foot homer and the 115-mph exit velo it registered on Statcast on Sunday in Phoenix. Very impressive. But the Yankees already have three of those Statcast-busting sluggers and soon will get a fourth when Greg Bird returns from the DL.
Harper to New York? Only if the Nationals make it to the World Series this October. Beyond that, there’s no need in the Bronx.