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The dilemma of Bryce Harper

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The Cardinals could be on the verge of a franchise-altering acquisition

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

There’s a few reasons why Bryce Harper is one of the bigger names on the free agent market this season.

At age 26, Harper is widely considered to be the face of whatever franchise he lands on. The potential price tag reflects that status. Signing Harper will probably set a team back about $300-400 million for around the next 10 years, which is why you’ve got to get this deal right. This is the kind of contract that can get a GM fired or applauded depending on which way it goes.

It’s no secret that Bryce has had some struggles in the field. Harper had the unfortunate luck of having his worst defensive season just before his pending free agency. It’s not like Harper only struggled last season, either. Harper’s -16.7 UZR/150, -26 runs saved, and -9.4 RngR in 2018 were all career-worst numbers for him.

If you stretch that out to the other eligible outfielders in the league only two players, Nicholas Castellanos and Adam Jones, had a lower RngR. One player, Charlie Blackmon, had a lower runs saved total. Harper finished dead last among qualified outfielders in UXR/150.

Harper drastically failed overall in the field this year. Over his career, Harper has a total ARM of 11.6, but this past season he was a career low -5.5 and a career-worst -17.6 rPM. You could make a decent argument that Harper may have been the worst fielders in all of baseball last season. Not THE worst, but certainly high on that list.

Conversely, at the plate it was a totally different story. In basic stats, Harper finished fourth among outfielders with 100 RBIs, 6th in home runs at 34, 7th in OBP at .393, and 6th in runs scored at 103. Going into slightly more advanced stats, Harper was 6th in wOBA at .376, 17th in WAR at 3.5, and 7th among outfielders in wRC+ at 135.

The further and further you dive into the advanced stats, it’s fairly obvious that Harper is one of the best outfielders in the game. That’s all if you can keep him on the field.

Now, Harper definitely isn’t injury-prone, but he has missed some time in his young career. This past season, Harper played in 159 games, the most in his career. However, if you take the other six years of his career, Harper averages only 128 games per season.

The question then has to be asked, are you willing to spend upwards of $400 million for a player that may only play about 70% of the season on average? On a ten-year, $400 million deal, if Harper plays that average number of games, that works out to about $312,500 per game, $34,722 an inning, or (if Bryce bats 5 times) about $62,500 an at-bat. Also, if you go by his career strikeout numbers, and average that to a 128 game average, it’s about $347,826 per strikeout.

Harper no doubt has the ability to put up MVP-worthy numbers at the plate. The issue for me is his fielding. Even in years where he wasn’t the “worst fielder in baseball” he still was below average. Is the offense enough to tolerate the defensive deficiencies? Add to that the high price tag and the potential injury concerns and the minuses may outweigh the pluses.

If Harper can stay healthy and he continues to put up the numbers he has, that ten years you sign him for could be filled with all sorts of accolades. All Star appearances, more MVPs, and hopefully more World Series wins. Who knows, maybe even a Gold Glove or two.

Next up, Part 3 of my series on RF options for 2019: Nick Markakis

All stats courtesy of MLB.com, baseball-reference.com, and fangraphs.com

Editor’s Note: A previously published version of this story featured incorrect stats and grammar, and both have been updated accordingly.