My bold claim is that other than Mike Trout, the most purely talented athlete in modern baseball (1988 to the present) is Bryce Harper. Harper was the talent who was crushing a home run every two games in Junior College, in a wood bat league, and was a big leaguer and All-Star by the time he was just 19 years-old. Even just entering his age-25 season, he has 150 career home runs, 27.7 career fWAR, and a 141 wRC+.
That being said: the Yankees now have a generational talent in Giancarlo Stanton. While Harper is a freak in his raw ability at such a young age, Stanton is a freak in never-before-seen strength and size. Stanton has a whopping 267 home runs, 34.1 fWAR, and a 144 wRC+ through his age-27 season.
Because there is no actual news, these two players bring us to an unrelated rumor, one that is still fascinating in its prospect. According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, the rumor is as follows:
“Here's one rumor told to me by a longtime, major force in the baseball world. It involves the Yankees and Giancarlo Stanton. The story goes that after 2018, the Yankees deal Stanton to the Dodgers and sign Bryce Harper. Your first reaction is, ‘Wow! Never happen.’ Then you start to think about it. Stanton is an LA kid. The Dodgers didn't have great interest in Stanton this offseason, but perhaps by the end of next year? The Yankees have always coveted Harper and his lefthanded stroke at Yankee Stadium. It starts to make more sense, doesn't it?”
Let’s unpack this for a second. First of all, this is an unfounded rumor. Cafardo obviously has excellent sources within the game, but these people also love to speculate (I’m sure someone speculated about Stanton to the Yankees at one point, right?). These executives see a limited number of teams that can vie for Harper’s services, and a few that might be able to if they clear some money or roster space. Now, let’s unpack the feasibility of something like this.
The Yankees are set to clear the luxury tax threshold since the first time we heard them desire this. They are also set to further increase their spending in 2019 as the luxury tax drops to 20% for every dollar over the threshold because of what they’re doing today. This means that Manny Machado is on the table, and maybe Harper. Of course, they would need to clear a space in the corner outfield, which is where Stanton comes in.
If the Dodgers, for example, felt that Stanton is a better short-term bet (because of the opt-out) than Harper, it might make sense to grab a slugger for a lower-than-average price (keep in mind, he still has the no-trade clause to depress his trade value). His opt-out means he could be in and out of Los Angeles after 2020.
So, if you’re the Yankees, the game works like this. Which is more valuable: three more years of Stanton (or his entire deal), or one year of Stanton, whatever the trade return is, and the length of Harper’s contract? Based on value alone, it starts to lean towards Stanton.
According to Baseball Prospectus, the projected WARP for Stanton and Harper through 2026 is 36.5 and 40.3, respectively. That means that they’ll be of comparable run value, but in terms of salary, it’s not going to be close. Stanton has an average annual value of $25 million, a boon to the luxury tax, and even though the Yankees will be on the hook for $260 million, Harper’s contract could exceed $400 or $500 million; he’s in uncharted waters.
If Stanton opts in, he’ll be worth the money. If he opts out, then you save the money, and you aren’t on the hook for Harper. If Harper bakes in an opt-out clause in his inevitable contract, which is wholly possible, you could still be set up for when Harper becomes a free agent again around his age-30 season. There’s still time for that route, if they so choose.
Nonetheless, my point is that the Yankees have two superstar corner outfielders, and the one in question is actually on a much more team-friendly deal than the prospective one. Once again, this is all pure speculation, but it’s still worth musing about while a little under a year until the 2019 free agent bonanza. The odds of Harper likely have dwindled, but luckily, the Yankees have all that they need right now.