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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Bryce Harper

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It was destiny, until it wasn’t.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

At another point in time, Bryce Harper signing with the Yankees felt like a fait accompli. A generational talent who idolized Mickey Mantle, openly talked about his dreams to “play in the pinstripes”, and hit free agency at the age of 26? A few years ago, there wouldn’t be the question of signing Harper. The ink would have probably dried already.

The Yankees in 2018, however, operate differently as an organization. The team has grown budget conscious over the last few seasons, and would prefer to not eclipse the luxury tax threshold. Brian Cashman is more likely to address needs through trades than free agency, and when the team does opt to spend, they set a hard-and-fast limit on the contracts. On top of all that, the Bombers have a fairly crowded outfield.

That said, the front office has Harper on the radar, at leas to a degree. Yahoo Sports connected the two last week, with the camps expected to meet at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas. Will this sit-down be anything more than due diligence? It’s too early to say, but there are compelling reasons to break the bank for the outfielder.

Harper, 26, hit the open market fresh off a lackluster campaign — at least by his standards. He slashed .249/.393/.496 with 34 home runs, totaling a 135 wRC+. It was a tale of two seasons, however, as he hit kicked it up another notch after the All-Star break.

Bryce Harper 2018 Splits

Dates PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP BB% K% ISO wRC+
Dates PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP BB% K% ISO wRC+
3/30 - 7/14 414 .214 .365 .468 .226 18.8% 24.6% .254 118
7/20 - 9/30 281 .300 .434 .538 .378 18.5% 23.8% .238 159

What changed? The most notable discrepancy in the two splits is that Harper’s first-half .226 BABIP fell well shy of his .318 career average mark. His groundball percentage lined up right in line with career norms, same with his hard-hit rates. This leads one to believe that some bad luck had to be in play with his first half struggles.

The rest of Harper’s career numbers tell a similar story; he’s an undisputed force at the plate. The 197 wRC+ he posted during his MVP campaign in 2015 is better than any single-season effort Mike Trout put together. Few players can have such an impact at the plate as Harper.

As a left-handed hitter, Harper would go a long way towards balancing the Yankees’ lineup. At the same time, the Yankees might be afraid of him turning into a dead-pull hitter. They saw similar lefty bats like Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann get eaten alive by the shift, and their value depreciated noticeably. Consider his spray chart overlaid at Yankee Stadium:

Source: Baseball Savant

Why else would the Yankees stay away? Obviously there’s a positional question. The Bombers have plenty of outfield depth on the roster. Plus, his outfield defense last year left many wanting. While Harper says that he’s open to playing first base, that’s no sure thing. The team also appears committed to maintaining a sensible budget, so splurging on top free agents isn’t exactly their thing anymore.

From strictly a baseball perspective, the Yankees should be all-in on Harper. He’s 26, and an elite bat, a real game-changer. There’s no such thing as having too much offense, and securing a player like Harper would transform the lineup. He’s that good. It remains to be seen if the Yankees will make the move for Harper, but they should think long and hard about it.