There has been no shortage of speculation when it comes to a potential union between the Dodgers and Bryce Harper.
That talk ramped up considerably when reports surfaced that Dodgers CEO Stan Kasten, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and manager Dave Roberts traveled to Las Vegas on Sunday night to meet with Harper. Roberts confirmed that development on Monday, without offering any details about potential negotiations.
Few serious contenders for Harper have emerged, at least publicly, with the Dodgers alongside the Phillies and rival Giants. MLB Network insider Jon Heyman reported Wednesday that the six-time All-Star appears likely to pick one of those three teams, though the biggest question mark is whether L.A. has or will join the other suitors in offering the sort of long-term deal Harper wants (the Giants recently met with Harper a second time and have discussed a 10-year contract with him, according to a report Wednesday from NBC Sports Bay Area).
It’s not difficult to see why Harper might pick the Dodgers, if the club is willing to make the necessary financial commitment. Both Los Angeles and the club’s Spring Training facility in Arizona are near Las Vegas, and the Dodgers offer a big market, the chance to win now (six straight division titles), and a rich history.
With that in mind, let’s examine how Harper going to L.A. would work, just as we have done previously for San Francisco and Philadelphia.
Where would he play?
The Dodgers would have to make room for Harper in their outfield, even after trading Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp to Cincinnati.
The club already signed another top free-agent outfielder, A.J. Pollock, installing him in center field. With Pollock there and Max Muncy at first base, Cody Bellinger is slated to spend a lot of his time in right field. The Dodgers then have some combination of Joc Pederson, Enrique Hernandez, Chris Taylor, Alex Verdugo and Andrew Toles to play left and back up around the outfield.
While depth has been a big part of the Dodgers’ success in recent years, it’s difficult to imagine that a Harper addition wouldn’t lead to the subtraction of another outfielder. Perhaps a fellow left-handed hitter, such as Pederson or Verdugo, could be swapped for pitching. Either way, Harper and Bellinger would play the corners, with Pollock in the middle.
Where would he hit?
Compared with the Giants and Phillies, the Dodgers’ lineup isn’t necessarily crying out for an upgrade. Last year’s club finished first in the National League in runs, home runs, slugging percentage and park-adjusted weighted runs created-plus. That includes left-handed power threats in Bellinger, Muncy and Corey Seager, who is returning from an injury that wiped out most of his 2018.
Yet this is a franchise that, despite those six straight NL West crowns and back-to-back World Series appearances, still is searching for its first championship since 1988. Every upgrade helps, especially one as significant as Harper.
Here is a potential lineup with Harper, at least against right-handed pitchers:
1) Pollock, CF
2) Seager, SS
3) Justin Turner, 3B
4) Harper, RF
5) Bellinger, LF
6) Taylor, 2B
7) Muncy, 1B
8) Austin Barnes / Russell Martin, C
9) Pitcher's spot
Against left-handers, the platoon-happy Dodgers can always sub in David Freese for Muncy or Hernandez for any of the lefties. But at least with a righty on the mound, Roberts’ biggest challenge would be deciding how to split up those lefty bats to avoid making bullpen maneuvering easy for the opposing skipper.
How would this affect 2019 projections?
The Dodgers already are projected to win 93 games, according to both Steamer and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA. That would give them the best record in the NL and put them well ahead of the second-place Rockies (81 wins from Steamer, 84 from PECOTA).
Of course, those are just projections. It was only last year that a heavily favored Dodgers club had to play a 163rd-game tiebreaker to take the division crown from Colorado, so Friedman and Co. know well there are no guarantees -- especially with Clayton Kershaw already dealing with health concerns.
Without considering the possible effects of Dodger Stadium, Steamer projects Harper to hit .267/.399/.528, good for a 148 wRC+ that would be the highest on the team by a significant margin (Turner currently leads, at 133).
On the other hand, Steamer also is bullish on Pederson (130 wRC+), who would figure to lose playing time with Harper in the fold, if he stayed on the roster at all. Given 600 plate appearances apiece, Harper is only projected for 1.2 wins above replacement more than Pederson, although Pederson’s lack of success against southpaws has kept him in a more limited role.
What are some other long-term ramifications?
Harper wouldn’t make a huge difference to the Dodgers’ projected postseason odds, but he would raise the team’s ceiling and help fortify it for October. Most importantly, at age 26, he would become a cornerstone of the organization’s long-term plans.
Leaving aside potential opt-outs, the Dodgers have Kershaw, Turner, closer Kenley Jansen and Pollock signed through at least 2020. But all are over 30. Harper would fit with the developing younger core, which includes Seager (under club control through ‘21), Bellinger (‘23), pitcher Walker Buehler (‘24), and members of a top-10 farm system. That’s one of Harper’s main sources of appeal -- that he’s young enough to remain productive for several years to come.
And with the Padres signing Manny Machado to a 10-year deal to go with their star-studded farm system, the Rockies securing the services of Nolan Arenado with a long contract extension, and the Giants pursuing Harper, the Dodgers could have more reason to not only add Harper, but also counter their NL West foes.
Aside from any on-field concerns, the biggest question for the Dodgers might be their appetite for exceeding the Competitive Balance Tax and incurring the associated penalties. Without Harper, Roster Resource estimates the Dodgers’ current payroll for those purposes to be roughly $202 million -- not far from the $206 million threshold for 2019.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.