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Why the Rockies should pursue Bryce Harper

It’s a once-in-a-generation event when a 26-year-old like Harper reaches free agency.

Outfielder Bryce Harper is not the kind of free agent that the Colorado Rockies sign. He the splashiest of splashy free agents whose contract will likely be the closest to half a billion dollars we’ve ever seen. The Rockies have never guaranteed any free agent more than the $121 million that Mike Hampton received on his eight-year deal prior to the 2001 season. The Rockies simply don’t hand out contracts to the number one free agent on the market. They don’t have the payroll capacity of teams in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago. We’ve seen the Rockies largely focus on drafting and developing, rather than outbidding the richest teams.

But why not dream a dream? There certainly haven’t been many predictions saying that the Rockies will sign Harper, but the Rockies have come up when discussing teams that should sign Harper. There’s been no indication that Rockies’ GM Jeff Bridich has even thought about Harper since the offseason began. But wouldn’t it be fun if the Rockies decided to spare no expense and give Harper the biggest contract that they (or anyone else) have ever dealt? He sure would bring the team’s offense to another level, and it would be a ton of fun to add a superstar to the team. Let’s take a look at how much of an impactful player Harper is and how he might fit on the Rockies.

Who is Harper?

In his career, Harper has hit .279/.388/.512, resulting in a 136 DRC+. These are very good numbers, but it is also fair to say that Harper has struggled with exactly what type of hitter he wants to be over his seven seasons. Harper’s on-base percentage has never wavered, but his batting average and power have left something to be desired at times. He was never better than when he slashed an otherworldly .330/.460/.649 with 42 homers in 2015 and produced an even 10-WAR season along the way. That career year, however, was sandwiched between below average seasons in which he posted a 1.1 and a 1.5 WAR.

In 2014, Harper’s slugging percentage was only .423 and he only hit 13 home runs. In 2016, Harper only slugged .441 with 24 big flies. While his DRC+ indicated he was still an above average hitter, and he was hampered by a disable list stint in 2014, these numbers were still disappointing for a player who possesses such a high ceiling of power potential. As for his contract year of 2018, Harper hit 34 home runs (his highest total since his career high from 2015) and drove in 100 runs for the first time in his career, while hitting .249/.393/.496.

On defense, Harper has become known for an aggressive style of play, unafraid of crashing into walls in the outfield if there’s a chance at making a catch. DRS and UZR/150 have largely graded Harper as an above average defender throughout his career, though both metrics agreed that he put together an awful 2018 in both right field and center field. He was tasked with playing center for the first time in three years and the decision to return him to the position that he played the most in the minors and his rookie year was a poor one.

Over the last few years, comparisons have been drawn between Harper and Barry Bonds. Harper had a “Bonds-ian” season in 2015 and certainly has the potential to do so again, but the now 26-year-old still seems to be carving out his own identity as a hitter. He certainly has the walk rate of Bonds and the power potential. Sometimes Harper appears willing to trade power for average, while sometimes the opposite seems true. Either way, though, you are getting at least a quality bat, if not a superstar one. And even in his lesser seasons, Harper offers one of the highest ceilings of any player in baseball today. The Harper vs. Mike Trout argument looks to have swung firmly in Trout’s favor, but it is extremely rare that you find a player as young and as good as Harper on the free agent market. He’s only one year older than Trevor Story, who just hit his first year of arbitration.

Harper’s Fit on the Rockies

The Rockies look to field an outfield composed primarily of Charlie Blackmon in left, Ian Desmond in center and David Dahl in right in 2018. Immediately behind them on the 40-man roster’s depth chart include Raimel Tapia, Noel Cuevas, Mike Tauchman, Sam Hilliard and Yonathan Daza, though the latter two have yet to reach the MLB level. Garrett Hampson, Pat Valaika and even Tony Wolters have each had brief outfield experience. Needless to say, I don’t think it’s hard to see Harper as the best of the bunch — and much better than 2018 efforts from Carlos González, Gerardo Parra and Matt Holliday, all of whom are now free agents.

As has been stated, this is not a move that the Rockies are wont to make. But let’s take a look at the arguments in favor of Harper, just in case:

  • Denver is closer to Harper’s hometown of Las Vegas than most other MLB teams. It’s true that the teams from Arizona and California are closer, but I have another proximity proposition! As Harper is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it may be of interest that Salt Lake City, Utah is closer to Denver than any other city with a Major League Baseball franchise.
  • Such recent signees as Desmond, Daniel Murphy and Wade Davis have stated their desire to win in the postseason as a reason for coming to Colorado. After never winning a playoff series with the Nats, Harper could perhaps look to jump on board a winning team and take them to another level.
  • While the “Cooooors” argument has been meme’d to death, Harper has to agree that it would be fun to watch his offensive statistics tick up by hitting in the Mile-High City for half of his home games. If everything aligns, an OBP close to .500 in a season wouldn’t be out of the question.

And what about the Rockies? Why should they hand out the most expensive free agent contract in franchise history?

  • In the words of Bridich, “We intend to have responsible growth of payroll… Success begets growth.” After consecutive postseason appearances in 2017 and 2018 (the first time in franchise history that such a feat has been accomplished), the Rockies are at the peak of their historical success. What better time to make a splash for a superstar? The window for the Rockies is now, so why not just backload that $400 million like a student loan and call it responsible?
  • The topic of Nolan Arenado and his final year of arbitration eligibility is a topic that warrants its own post, but if the Rockies were to sign Harper and then lose Arenado to the free agent market, there would still be a big bat to plug into the middle of the order for years to come.
  • Harper is an MVP winner, Silver Slugger Award recipient, Home Run Derby champion, six-time All-Star, and a haver of luscious hair. He also has postseason experience, even if his previous team was cursed to endure series losses in each round of the playoffs. Harper is an elite talent that every team would be happy to have, but who the Rockies may need more than others.

Harper is a once-in-a-generation free agent. The offers from the Dodgers, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox, and Chicago Cubs are going to be tough to beat, and I must admit that the Rockies in all likelihood will not even attempt to offer anything. Going for someone like AJ Pollock, which Renee Dechert suggested yesterday, is far more likely.

But they should go after Harper. Harper, on this team, could be exactly what the Rockies need to win their first World Series in franchise history.