The Yankees have done little this offseason to suggest they are targeting free agent Bryce Harper.
General manager Brian Cashman tried to make that clear way back at the Winter Meetings, saying his club was out of the Harper chase. But this is the Yanks, and the speculation isn't going to die completely until Harper shows up at an introductory news conference with another team.
Last week, Newsday reported that Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner left the door open for another big acquisition -- namely, Harper or Manny Machado. Aaron Judge is supportive, too, saying the team would "make it work," if another right fielder came to the Bronx.
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When MLB.com's Mark Feinsand laid out the remaining contenders for Harper on Wednesday, the Yanks were one of seven teams to make the cut -- albeit in the "long shot" category. So with that in mind, let's take a closer look at the possibility of Harper putting on the pinstripes and break down how such a move would work.
Where would he play?
Things are a bit crowded on the Yankees' roster, with an outfield of Judge, Aaron Hicks and Brett Gardner. Giancarlo Stanton is the primary designated hitter and will see some time in the outfield, while Luke Voit and Greg Bird are poised to handle first base. Additionally, Gary Sánchez could also see some time at DH when he doesn't catch, and Clint Frazier is another outfield option. Jacoby Ellsbury could be in the mix as well, although his arrival at Spring Training already has been delayed by more physical issues.
The simplest way to fit Harper would be to push Gardner to the bench. Even though the Yanks re-signed the 35-year-old for $7.5 million, he posted just a .690 OPS last year. Harper, Judge and Stanton then could share the corner outfield and DH spots.
The other option would be to give Harper some time at first base, something he and agent Scott Boras have expressed an openness to before. Such an arrangement might mean the end of the line for Bird, who has struggled to establish himself in the Bronx through injuries and slumps. Bottom line: Despite the presence of Judge and Stanton, Harper isn't a completely square peg on this roster.
Where would he hit?
For the sake of this exercise, let's assume Harper takes over his familiar spot in right field and pushes Judge to left and Gardner to the Yankees' bench. Here's how the lineup could shake out, with shortstop Didi Gregorius starting on the injured list and DJ LeMahieu available to fill in all around the infield.
1. Hicks, CF
2. Judge, LF
3. Harper, RF
4. Stanton, DH
5. Sanchez, C
6. Miguel Andújar, 3B
7. Gleyber Torres, 2B
8. Voit, 1B
9. Troy Tulowitzki, SS
That lineup is stacked, and Harper would bring one thing it was lacking -- power from the left side -- while splitting up New York's two biggest right-handed bats. The Yanks' 188 home runs by righties easily led the Majors in 2018, but their 79 from the left side ranked a modest 12th, with more than a third of those coming from Gregorius, who will be rehabbing from Tommy John surgery until sometime this summer.
How would this affect 2019 projections?
The Steamer projections available at FanGraphs see a tight race in the American League East, with the defending champion Red Sox (97-65) just ahead of the Yankees (96-66) for both the division lead and the best record in MLB.
However, New York could strike a big blow by adding Harper. While the 26-year-old certainly could surpass these figures, especially while taking aim at the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium, Steamer projects him to post 4.8 wins above replacement (WAR) by batting .267/.399/.528 with 34 home runs and 93 RBIs in 141 games.
Gardner, meanwhile, is projected for 1.8 WAR over a full season (600 plate appearances). While this is oversimplifying the situation given the number of moving parts involved, it's not unreasonable to think the Yanks could tack on about three wins with Harper -- thereby pushing them past Boston (at least on paper).
Considering the massive advantage of avoiding the winner-take-all AL Wild Card Game, that's hardly insignificant: Since the second Wild Card was added in 2012, the '14 Giants and Royals are the only teams to advance to the World Series after playing in a Wild Card Game (and those Giants won it all).
What are some other long-term ramifications?
For the purposes of the Competitive Balance Tax, the Yankees already have a projected 2019 payroll of roughly $217 million, according to data at Roster Resource, putting them over the threshold of $206 million for '19. A Harper signing, regardless of its length, obviously would increase that number significantly, which of course does not mean the club could not afford it.
The bigger question is what would happen beyond 2019, which depends in part on the exact terms of this theoretical deal. The Yanks do have several players set to become free agents at the end of this season, including Gardner, Hicks, Gregorius, Dellin Betances and the retiring CC Sabathia, who could trim more than $40 million combined.
On the other hand, the Yankees also must consider their young talent. Players such as Judge and Sanchez are under club control for four more seasons, but if Harper is signed to a long deal, that eventually could complicate efforts to extend these homegrown stars, who will begin seeing their salaries rise through arbitration.