Signing Harper Would be Irresponsible for Padres

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In what was the one of the most monumental moments in San Diego sports history, the Padres did the unthinkable by signing superstar third baseman Manny Machado to the largest free agent contract in the history of professional sports. Now, with free agent rumors continuing to swirl, the Padres are faced with another question, should they break the bank again to sign Bryce Harper?

In the short-term, signing a player of Harper’s quality and magnitude seems like a no-brainer.

The reality that a team, who has only amassed nine winning seasons in its 49-year history, has  the opportunity to acquire not just one, but two superstars understandably has the Padres’ fanbase, and possibly ownership, chomping at the bit.

An MVP in 2015, the 26-year-old Harper has compiled numbers that most 26-year-olds could only dream to accomplish.

A cumulative WAR of 30.7, an average WRC+ of 140. The numbers speak for themselves. This doesn’t even include the fact that Bryce is one of the game’s most recognizable faces, even more so than Machado. Thus, the added revenue of having one of the generational icons of the sport in a Padres’ uniform would fulfill any Padres fans’ wildest dreams while seemingly erasing the losing narrative inherently associated with the words “San Diego sports.”

Therefore, since it’s difficult to question Harper’s value, the Padres will need to evaluate whether it is financially responsible to take on a deal for Harper, which has been reported to be at an even greater dollar amount to that of Machado.

Do the Padres have the financial flexibility to pull off the two largest free agent signings in the history of professional sports? It’s a tall order, but even after the massive Machado signing, The Padres 2019 payroll of is now $119.4 million, 16th in MLB according to Spotrac. And with a 2019 luxury tax sitting at 206 million dollars, the Padres are still well below the possibility of facing any financial penalties in 2019 by adding Harper.

So, sign him up right?

Arbitration Concerns

It can be easy to get caught up in the romance of the lowly Padres defying all odds by doubling-down and adding Harper. However, it will be important for Padres ownership to not get carried away, and to focus on the longevity of this organization.

While a Harper and Machado 3-4 combination in the middle of the lineup would be financially feasible in 2019 and even in 2020, if we start looking further into the future, the consequences of adding Harper seem hefty.

Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

For example, the Padres 2019 payroll only ranks 16th across major league baseball. However, with a plethora of prospects coming up through the system, arbitration may end up dictating a sharp increase in overall payroll in the years to come.

For example, Rockies star third baseman Nolan Arenado, who two years ago earned 11.75 million dollars through arbitration, is set to earn a record 26 million dollars in 2019. Additionally, players such as Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, and Trevor Bauer will make over 13 million dollars each this season, each of which has multiple years of arbitration eligibility to go.

So why throw a bunch of arbitration numbers at you? To show that not only are elite position players and pitchers making a lot of money in arbitration, but that the courts continue to award players with higher and higher salaries every year.

Therefore, if top prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. debuts at some point during the 2019 season, he would begin to qualify for salary arbitration in the 2022 season. Now, if we expect Tatis Jr., the number two prospect in baseball, to live up to his potential, his salary will exponentially climb until he reaches free agency in 2026. While it may seem absurd to project as far as 2026, when one commits to a free agent like Manny Machado, or even Bryce Harper, until 2029, it is important to take stock of where a team’s top prospects will financially be in six years time.

Additionally, players who have already made their big league debuts such as Luis Urias and Francisco Mejía will see their salaries climb even sooner than Tatis Jr. And with many more top prospects expected to reach the big leagues and make a significant contribution, the Padres may realize that they are unable to pay the arbitration figures of their best young players due to the money they have locked up in declining players on the wrong side of 30-years-old.

While owners Ron Fowler and Peter Seidler have expressed that they see the Padres payroll increasing over the next few years, having a salary that flirts with the luxury tax is certainly not in the plan for a team who will have a payroll over 100 million dollars for only the second time in its history this season.

Harper Doesn’t Want a Short Term Deal

An easy solution to the arbitration dilemma could be to sign Harper to a short-term deal with a very high average annual value. This would keep the Padres under the luxury tax and maximize the payroll and product on the field until its time to pay prospects such as Tatis Jr. and Urias. Additionally, if Harper signs a short-term deal with the friars, then Harper may have an opportunity to sign another mega-deal when he re-emerges into free agency sometime around his age 30 season.

However, the unfortunate reality is that Harper doesn’t want a short-term deal, and with hungry suitors such as the Phillies who have been reported to have offered more than eight years for Harper, it still remains very unlikely that the Padres could sustainably afford Harper while also maintaining a supportive cast around him.

Only one shot to get this right…

During Manny Machado’s introductory press conference, general manager A.J. Preller made it clear during that the whole organization has appreciated the patience shown by the Padres fan base throughout the lengthy rebuilding process. Pair this with reports that Preller himself uncharacteristically addressed the rest of the team with a fiery speech about how he believes the team is ready to win, and it’s clearer than ever that the Padres believe they can win now and for years to come.

Although Machado can now be seen taking ground balls at third base in Peoria, Arizona, this does not mean that Ron Fowler and company are prepared to add Harper at the expense of outbidding the Phillies and jeopardizing the long-term retention of the team’s young core of prospects.

Padres nation has been one of the most patient fan bases in all of sports, but exercising a little bit more patience will surely pay off in the long run.

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Ben Friedl
A recent USD graduate, Ben grew up in San Diego and has been a life-long Padres fan. Currently, Ben is residing in Chicago, IL where he is pursuing his Master's degree in Sports Media Journalism at Northwestern University.

4 thoughts on “Signing Harper Would be Irresponsible for Padres

  1. Relax dude, it’s not your money. A great player is available, we should sign him. It’s not really more complicated than that. But if you need re-assurance:
    1) The club will need to run a payroll in the top half, $150 mil +, if it hopes to field a contender year after year. It cannot be done on the cheap. Better get your mind wrapped around this thought. Preller and Fowler already have.
    2) The team can clearly afford him. Income of $266 mil last year, payroll of ~$155 mil if they sign Harper.
    3) Having all those prospects turn into good, more expensive players is an A problem to have. We should be so lucky as to have so many good young players that we have to trade one of them to save money.
    4) Over the next 2 years $30 mil in payments to ex-Padres comes off the books.
    5) Garret Richards comes off after 2020.
    6) The Hosmer deal sees a yearly reduction after 2022.
    7) The club is trying to trade Myers and that will save money, too.
    8) A winning team will draw more fans, and thus generate more income. Ticket sales, advertising, merchandising, concessions, parking, etc. All will increase revenue.
    Perhaps you’ve heard the aphorism, “fortune favors the bold”? Teams that produce winning teams year after year take chances. Teams that don’t take chances are reduced to having their fan base get into heated arguments over uniform colors.

  2. Ben,
    Great piece. Thanks for answering the questions of the team’s financial future and how a Harper signing would affect it. Good info!

  3. Well said. Adding Harper is unecessary and could in fact could be very detrimental to what seems to be a good locker room vibe at present. Let the farm system play out and look to add a piece that’s needed down the road. Flexibility matters.

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