As if Bryce Harper's case as arguably the biggest name on the free-agent market needed any more headline-making developments, the slugger might be willing to play a new position.That's right: Harper, who has started all but one game in his seven-year Major League Baseball career in the outfield -- the
As if Bryce Harper's case as arguably the biggest name on the free-agent market needed any more headline-making developments, the slugger might be willing to play a new position.
That's right: Harper, who has started all but one game in his seven-year Major League Baseball career in the outfield -- the lone exception being a game as the designated hitter in 2015 -- may be open to giving it a go at first base.
Scott Boras, Harper's agent, explained in an appearance on MLB Network Radio that the former Nationals star has put in work at the position, presumably for the purpose of enhancing his versatility -- and thus, his stock on the open market.
It's not like Harper needs to do something like this to boost his value. The six-time All-Star and 2015 National League MVP already is in extremely rarified air in terms of career accomplishments as a 26-year-old. At his age, Harper's 184 career home runs, .512 slugging percentage and .900 OPS, among other measures, put him in the company of Hall of Famers, as Boras pointed out.
So why would Harper consider switching positions when he doesn't need to?
For one, executives across the sport have come to value versatility more and more in recent years, as it allows for roster flexibility. For another, such a move could give Harper an even better chance to score a record-breaking free-agent contract north of $300 million, especially considering there's not one premium name at the position on the open market.
The Yankees, for instance, have been linked to Harper, but currently do not have an easy way to fit him in, as their likely starting outfield consists of Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton. Any of Brett Gardner, Clint Frazier and Jacoby Ellsbury also is in the mix to help fill in.
But at first base? Sure, Luke Voit had an impressive late-season run that carried into the postseason, but questions remain whether the 27-year-old with barely 100 regular-season MLB games on his resume is a long-term answer for a contender. And Greg Bird, who was thought to fill that role entering 2018, had another disappointing season due to injuries and inconsistency.
As MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal wrote in a recent article for The Athletic (subscription required): "Harper originally was a catcher, and scouts say he has decent hands and feet. Playing first also would result in less wear and tear on him physically, perhaps enabling him to be even better offensively."
This isn't the first time there's been a hint of Harper at first base, either. MLB.com's Jamal Collier reported back in July that Harper "fielded grounders and took instructions from first-base coach Tim Bogar on the field at Nationals Park hours before their game Monday against the Red Sox. In fact, Harper has been telling manager Dave Martinez lately that he wanted to play first base."
There's also a link between Harper's possible position switch and the one made by Manny Machado -- Harper's main free-agent competition for the largest payday this offseason -- when he moved from third base to shortstop before last season. While shortstop was Machado's natural position as an amateur, he had spent the vast majority of his big league career at the hot corner, so the prevailing thought was he was hoping to improve his versatility -- and thus his value -- ahead of hitting the open market.
As for the specific outfield-to-first base move, there are a number of examples of star-caliber players, dating back to Rafael Palmeiro and Todd Helton and Jose Pujols, as well as more recent instances involving William Myers with the Padres, Mark Trumbo with the Orioles and Ryan Braun with the Brewers, although the latter two weren't full-time switches.
The other intriguing aspect here is that Harper's defensive metrics took a tumble this past season. Where he was once an above-average defender in right field, his performance dipped as he was asked to play more center field in addition to right. In fact, of 57 qualifying outfielders, Harper's negative-26 defensive runs saved ranked second to last.
Conventional wisdom says that first base is easier to handle than the outfield, but it still would take some getting used to for Harper and his new club. That is, if his new team asks him to move at all.
It's going to be a fun offseason, and to think: When it comes to the wild run of rumors and speculation surrounding Harper, we're only just approaching first base.
*Jason Catania is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JayCat11.*