I’ve had this debate with friends, other writers here at PSA, and myself in the shower for the better part of three years, and since we’re all sitting around guessing at how this CBA is gonna play out, I figured I might as well bring you, the reader, into it. Almost exactly four years ago, the Yankees acquired the reigning NL MVP, Giancarlo Stanton, after the outfielder nixed two other trades, and the Marlins were short on trade partners.
I love Giancarlo Stanton. He is one of the best hitters in baseball, and more than that, he is fun. There is arguably nobody in the history of the game that just hits the ball as hard as he does, and when he really, really goes off — against Tyler Glasnow in the postseason last year, or at Fenway Park in September — he must be the most terrifying person a pitcher could see in a batter’s box. On top of that, for all the consternation around the length of his contract, his $25 million AAV is actually pretty manageable as long he’s on the field and productive.
But would it have been better for the Yankees to pass?
Of course, the answer is, it depends. If the Yankees had just not traded for Giancarlo Stanton, and not had real plans to add a similar player, that would be an unmitigated failure. But, a certain player became a free agent a year later that, I think, might have been worth passing on Stanton. That player is Bryce Harper, who is now the reigning NL MVP.
When you start with this kind of thought exercise, there’s the obvious hole. Giancarlo Stanton was a Yankee, and in fact, the fourth-best Yankee by fWAR, in 2018, while Harper was in the final year of his time in Washington. Even if you think the Yankees should have passed on Stanton and signed Harper a year later, you’ve gotta find a guy to play that year.
The main outfield rotation that season was Brett Gardner and Stanton in left, Aaron Hicks in center, and Aaron Judge in right. With no Stanton, the Yankees probably want another OF/DH in the mix, especially if we assume that the rest of the season plays out normally — that is, Aaron Judge still gets hit by a pitch and misses 50 games, and Clint Frazier still deals with his concussion. The Yankees wouldn’t know that in December 2017, but they still likely dip their toes in free agency to shore up the outfield depth.
There are a couple of stopgap options available — Austin Jackson, Jarrod Dyson, Carlos Gonzalez, but the one that the Yankees probably focus in on is Curtis Granderson, coming off a two-win season in 2017 and ended up only signing for $5 million with the Jays. Side note: this is how you actually do a stopgap, bring in a reasonably productive role player to hold the fort until you drop nine figures on a perennial MVP candidate.
Still, that reasonably productive role player probably only adds about a win, which means the Yankees are still around three short of replacing Stanton’s 2018 production. Maybe they make up for it with a more aggressive trade deadline, maybe they let it ride knowing how good the Red Sox are, and a 97-win Yankee team still makes the Wild Card — and although they tie with the Oakland Athletics, hold the tiebreaker and still host the Wild Card game.
Now this is a simplification. You can’t really take a four-win player off a roster, replace him with a one-win, and immediately assume the rest of the season plays out the same. Not having Stanton in the lineup creates a thousand different possible timelines —maybe Aaron Judge doesn’t even get hit by a pitch, since the lineup is going to be different, off days will be different, the whole thing.
Still, let’s keep it simple, because the big focus is, what happens past 2018?
We know that Bryce Harper wanted to set the record for the highest (at the time) free agent contract ever. We can also reasonably assume he wanted to only ever sign one contract — he has no opt outs and a full no-trade clause on his 13/$330MM deal, and likely could have gotten a higher annual value if he had taken fewer years or made less of a “career commitment”. Now, even with Stanton’s contract on the books, the Yankees were below the CBT threshold in 2018, meaning they could have had a fair amount of budget space to pursue Harper, and more so without Stanton’s deal.
Given that, the Yankees need to at least match Philly’s offer, and probably beat it outright, so we have to assume a contract in the $340 million or so range at the minimum, giving an AAV hit of $26.15 million, against Stanton’s Marlins-adjusted $22 million. But if you can square the increase in cost, the immediate and successive results speak for themselves:
Harper has been a better player than Stanton while being on the field more than twice as often since the start of 2019, and is projected to be better than Stanton again in 2022. Now, part of this comes from the Yankees’ stubborn refusal to put Stanton in the outfield, but I think that’s cancelled out by Harper just having a higher offensive peak — Stanton’s best season at the plate was five-percent worse than Harper’s 2021, his second-best offensive campaign. The two share extremely high floors, but the ceiling Harper provides, while being 35 months younger than Stanton, gives him an edge.
So, as far as regular season performance, Harper makes the Yankees a better team. Again, it’s tricky to just go WAR for WAR, dropping Stanton from the roster and adding the net four wins that Harper provides, and saying voila, the Yankees are hosting the Wild Card game instead of on the road, but it’s also hard to argue that, given full seasons from both players, the Yankees wouldn’t have squeezed out a couple more wins from Harper than they did Stanton.
And then of course are the ancillary effects. Signing Harper probably doesn’t stop the Yankees from landing Gerrit Cole, but for a budget conscious squad, that conservative estimate of four million dollars a year or so does matter. There’s also the impact on the playoffs — you lose Stanton, who has a 2.250 (!!!!) OPS in 18 playoff games for the Yankees, even as you gain a terrific left-handed hitter who likely makes your lineup harder to navigate in October.
Bryce Harper is a better player than Giancarlo Stanton, at this stage in their careers. His contract goes to the end of 2031, compared to Stanton’s final guaranteed year in 2027. Harper solves a lot of the problems the Yankees have faced in the past couple seasons: a real, powerful left-handed presence, who strikes out at a below league average rate, and stays on the field.
Acquiring Harper would have been a bigger challenge than Stanton, because of the buyers on the market. Stanton had already vetoed two trades, leaving the Yankees the only game in town. The Phillies were willing to give Harper the largest contract in history, so even if the Yankees had to only compete with one other bidder, it would have been a determined one. Missing out on Harper after passing on Stanton would have been a colossal mistake, leaving a hole in the Yankee lineup that would be very, very hard to fill.
And maybe that’s why, despite Harper being a better player, and a younger one, the decision to grab Stanton is a good one. A slugger in the hand is worth a slightly better one on the auction block. Even though the Yankees are probably a better team with Harper, the need to find a suitable 2018 replacement for Stanton’s four wins, and the risks inherent in entering a free agent bidding war, make it hard to argue against the trade. Still, the higher ceiling and defensive utility Harper brings to the table leaves us with an all-time “What if?”.