Tao of Stieb: Bryce Harper tempting, but it’s not that simple for Jays

MLB-baseball-Bryce-Harper-points-to-dugout

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper points to the dugout after hitting a two-run home run. (Nick Wass/AP)

Should the Toronto Blue Jays sign six-time all-star, Silver Slugger Award winner and 2015 National League Most Valuable Player Bryce Harper? Of course they should.

They should, as much as 29 other teams in Major League Baseball should make every effort to acquire such a player. But based on the evidence in the past two off-seasons, that’s not the world in which we live.

There was a time when “why not us?” would be a mantra for teams and their fan base throughout the winter. “Why can’t we win it all? Why can’t we take the next step?” But in an age where teams seem mortally petrified of winning between 78 and 84 games, getting stuck in the mushy middle has somehow become worse than a 100-loss season.

We probably all own some degree of culpability in creating this new reality, where we focus more on measuring and controlling value rather than winning ball games. Seeing those theories play out as a league-wide reality only serves to underline how ghoulish the dedication to those notions has become.

It stands to reason that any team that does not have interest in Harper now, in the one moment when this generational player is freely available, has only the most modest intentions of being a competitive team over the next decade.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Harper could easily slide into the Jays’ roster this year, and he would make a fine partner to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the middle of the lineup for the foreseeable future. Where their AL East competition will complement their all-stars and MVP candidates with more all-stars and MVP candidates – think Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez in Boston, or Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in New York – pairing talents like Vlad and Bryce would seem to be an ideal way to keep up.

There’s clearly no one on the roster who is ready to put up Harper’s numbers and who would end up blocked as a result of such a signing. Harper plays a corner outfield position reasonably competently, even accounting for some ugly defensive metrics last year, and shifting players around the outfield is by no means a critical challenge for the Jays. At worst, Harper could rotate into the DH role as needed.

Acquiring Harper would mean getting a still-young player who is about to enter what should be the most productive time of his career, and you can do this without the benefit of shipping out a huge bounty of prospects, nor do you have to perfect time travel so that you can go back and develop an overly elaborate plan to pick him first overall in his draft year. Harper is sitting right there, waiting for someone to sign him.

It’s that easy. But then, if only it were that easy.

If there is one element above all others that complicates the free agencies of Harper, as well as Manny Machado, it is the aforementioned Giancarlo Stanton, and his 13-year, $325 million contract.

Firstly, Stanton has set a bar that both Harper and Machado would seem to be determined – if not duty-bound – to exceed. So there are no value deals to be had, and no way that you could expect to land either unless the total value of the contract was at least $326 million. Moreover, you would likely need to commit to the player for at least 10 years, and accept that perhaps you will have a player who is diminished by injury and unable to perform for a significant portion of that deal.

Secondly, Stanton’s acquisition by the Yankees effectively removed one of the most likely candidates to pay lots of money for a long time for exceptional talent, which has only served to suppress the chances of a record-breaking deal.

Even with Harper’s relative youth, it’s worth remembering that Josh Donaldson’s 32-year-old season was an injury-riddled write-off, and that Troy Tulowitzki has not played a game since his 32-year-old season in 2017. Since his age-32 season, Albert Pujols has posted a 112 OPS plus, looking progressively worse each season and muddying the shine on what should have been his legacy as one of the greatest hitters of his generation.

And at 26, Harper is not close to the player that Albert Pujols was at the same age.

Harper is probably the best player that has been available through free agency in some time, and if the Blue Jays could sign him for six or seven years, he could play alongside Vlad for the entirety of his controlled time with the team. Moreover, that term would bring the Jays to what a safe guess would tell you is the end of Harper’s peak years.

But could the Jays expect to sign Harper to even a very generous seven-year, $280 million deal? One could only imagine the soliloquies filled with bad puns and wonky analogies that would flow from the office of Scott Boras after such a perceived insult.

And do we remember the imaginary money we as Jays fans were prepared to spend to retain José Bautista or Josh Donaldson in recent years?

Yes, the Blue Jays should sign Harper. Someone should, and the Jays would be much better with him than without him in the coming seasons. They should even be overly generous to attempt to secure him.

But there are limits to how far they should be willing to go, and Harper’s likely demands will push beyond the limits of generosity.

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