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Just for fun: Bryce Harper to the Astros?

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The odds are against it. But could the Astros realistically land Bryce Harper without crippling the budget?

MLB: Washington Nationals at Colorado Rockies Russell Lansford-USA TODAY Sports

As a rule, I’m against high-dollar long-term free agent contracts, because they almost always (read: pretty much always) turn into bad-value dead weight on the books at the back end. Albert Pujols. Chris Davis. Vernon Wells. Carlos Lee.

I feel a little better about it if the free agent is a 26 year old superstar. Unless it’s Jason Heyward. That hasn’t worked out too well.

But this article is about positivity. Cheefulness. Glass half full.

So can the Astros sign Bryce Harper? What would it mean for the future?

Bryce Harper is a baseball player

For reference—in case you are one of those non-baseball fans that just happened to navigate your way to an Astros-specific fan blog, clicked the headline in an effort to learn more about what makes the average baseball fan tick, and then read this far because my flowery prose drew you in—Bryce Harper is good at baseball.

Last season he hit 34 home runs. That’s a lot. He stole 13 bases. That’s decent. Overall, he hit .249/.393/.496, and provided offensive value that was 35% greater than an average Major League batter.

And now he’s a free agent, unfettered from the restrictions of his last contract, able to roam the great plains of MLB board rooms with his agent in order to make an absolute crapload of money.

I won’t dwell on his qualifications. Suffice to say Harper is one of the best free agents to hit the market since Manny Machado did after the 2018 season. He’s also one of the youngest, which matters a lot if a club is planning to invest cash for ten to fifteen years or whatever.

He plays terrible defense, but who really cares about that, right? He won an MVP award once.

Moolah

Reportedly, Harper shot down a $300,000,000 effort by the Washington Nationals to keep him around for another decade. Based on that, and for the sake of not complicating things, let’s assume that Harper most assuredly will sign for more than $300M over ten years [a feat that this author doubts, just for the record]. Right now, the Philadelphia Phillies are the odds-on favorite to win the Harper sweepstakes.

So can the Astros sign him? And what if they did? What then?

After years of being bounced from the playoffs or hamstrung by an iffy pitching staff from reaching the bracket at all, we can assume that Harper wants to play for a club that has a good chance at reaching the playoffs for the majority or all of his contract duration. The Astros check that box.

His suitors need to have an obvious need in the outfield, as it is doubtful that he’d be looking for a Designated Hitter role for the next many years, or even a full-time shift to first base. The Astros check that box. Left Field, First Base, and DH are the Astros’ weakest lineup spots.

So baseball-wise, it’s a good fit.

Money-wise, it’s not so clear. The Phillies, Yankees, Cardinals, and Dodgers seem to be more likely landing spots, but that doesn’t mean the Astros are a bad bet either. And frankly, there are a handful of other teams that would be lifted into regular playoff contention by addition of Harper. Colorado, perhaps, or the Brewers. The Cubs are totally priced out of the sweepstakes, with $167 million on the books even before arbitration raises.

On the Astros

As I’ve stated elsewhere, the Astros project to have a payroll around $135 million after arbitration raises this year. The penalties for exceeding the luxury tax threshold have gotten a lot stiffer over the last season-ish, and so it is reasonable to assume that the Astros will not want their payroll to exceed the $206 million figure that sets the bar for that. Leaving them between $70 to $80 million to play with this season.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the Dodgers, most of Harper’s other landing spots have payroll flexibility also.

So given that Houston isn’t flashy LA or hipster NY, for the Astros to realistically win the Harper silent auction, they’re going to need to shell out. For the sake of this argument, let’s call it $350 million over ten years. [again, this author thinks that the market for free agents has tightened up, and this is perhaps a little high. But then, you never know what could happen in a bidding war.]

So congrats, the Astros have just signed Bryce Harper to a ten-year contract worth $35 million annually. Woohoo!

The new lineup (go ahead and drool):

CF: George Springer
2B: Jose Altuve
3B: Alex Bregman
LF: Bryce Harper
SS: Carlos Correa
DH: Tyler White
1B: Yuli Gurriel
RF: Josh Reddick
C: Your Mom (you know, or whoever)

Now, the Astros’ payroll sits at around $170 million after adding Harper, and they still have open questions in the rotation, at Catcher, and potential upgrades at 1B or DH.

So owner Jim Crane is asked: Given that a $20 million Justin Verlander is coming off the books next year, and a (likely) $15 million Gerrit Cole, plus some other guys whose values add up to like $10 million....for just this one year, can we please go up and tickle the luxury tax threshold?

Jim says yes, because what the hell.

So the Astros have something like $35 million left to play with. They spend $12M of it on Yasmani Grandal or Wilson Ramos. Catcher solved. They spend another $12M on a decent starting pitcher, let’s call him Marlie Chorton.

But there’s something else too. The Astros outfield is totally locked up. That turns Top 10 MLB prospect Kyle Tucker into a Top 10 valuable trading commodity. And then there’s Derek Fisher (also blocked) and Tony Kemp (not exactly blocked, but probably more valuable to other clubs than he would be for the Astros in this situation).

The Astros say “hmmm” and they trade Tucker and some other close-to-majors minor leaguers and land an impact starting pitcher. Just for grins, let’s say Noah Syndergaard, who is reportedly [but not plausibly] being dangled by the Mets. Or Corey Kluber of the Indians. Robbie Ray of the Diamondbacks. Take your pick. If Tucker is available, the Astros will have clubs chasing THEM to acquire their starting pitchers.

The Astros round things out by signing another pitcher for depth in the rotation, somebody like Lance Lynn, which allows them some injury insurance and lets them decide they can keep Collin McHugh in the bullpen, where he was elite, or perhaps Lynn himself in the pen. Options abound!

So if you’ve been keeping track at home:

CF: George Springer
2B: Jose Altuve
3B: Alex Bregman
LF: Bryce Harper
SS: Carlos Correa
C: Grandal/Ramos
DH: Tyler White
1B: Yuli Gurriel
RF: Josh Reddick

SP: Verlander
SP: Cole
SP: Syndergaard (or other traded ace)
SP: Morton
SP: Lynn/McHugh

Folks, now that would be the best roster in baseball, hands-down.

Down the road

Starting in 2020, the Astros will have some stuff to sort out. They’ve spent their best trade chip in Tucker to acquire Syndergaard (or whoever), who will be a free agent after 2020 (or 2021, depending). They’ve been drafting towards the back end of the draft for several years, and so don’t have any Top 10 type prospects to deal.

Now their baseline payroll is creeping up there, with Altuve now making $26 million a year. Alex Bregman has reached arbitration. Carlos Correa is making noises about a long term contract. So is Lance McCullers. The Astros after-arbitration payroll is somewhere around $160 million (after losing Verlander and his ilk to Free Agency), and the luxury tax number has only jumped $2 million to $208 million.

This is where the impact of a Harper signing could be felt. The Astros certainly can extend Correa to a contract somewhere between the values of Altuve’s and Harpers. But that hamstrings their ability to extend Alex Bregman. If they play out Correa’s arbitration years and let him walk, then they need to pay out the nose (or trade for) a replacement shortstop that won’t represent too enormous of an offensive backslide. They’ll have to replace Verlander and Cole and Morton (again).

And that’s the rub.

How do the Astros feel about their ability to develop starting pitchers? Are Forrest Whitley, Rogelio Armenteros, and Bryan Abreu MLB top- or middle-of-rotation candidates, realistically?

How do the Astros feel about playing 27 year old JD Davis or 28 year old Tyler White at first base?

Have any gems developed from the Astros back-of-round draft picks or international signings that can contribute at a better than ML-average right now, or perhaps be trade pieces to acquire replacements for some of the dearly departed?

Conclusion

The question isn’t, “Can the Astros afford Bryce Harper?”...they can. And he would make the lineup immensely better immediately and in the long run.

Rather the question is, “Once the payroll is 60% dominated by three or four players, can the Astros fill out a competitive and deep roster that will keep it in contention as Harper, Altuve, and Bregman/Correa age into their 30’s?”

Granted, that’s five or six years down the road, but you and I will still be Astros fans five or six years down the road. A club that finishes .500 or just above because of lack of depth, but contains three superstars isn’t that fun to watch. Just ask Angels’ fans how great it has been watching Mike Trout flounder [fish joke] for years on a bad club. Recall what it was like to have Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, and a great-hitting version of Carlos Lee on a roster that couldn’t reach the playoffs.

I don’t have the answer.

The one hopeful shining light in that scenario is how successful GM Jeff Luhnow and his employees have been at finding and improving talent through smart signings, player development, and savvy trades. From that standpoint, I say go for it.

Harper for Houston, in 2019!