There's an interesting dynamic emerging with elite free agent outfielder Bryce Harper and the baseball teams in New York.
The Yankees have been linked to Harper, but mostly due to the belief he has interest in them, while the Mets would be seen as a stunner as a player for Harper since no one's even speculated that as a possibility. That doesn't make either team likely or certainly the favorite, but they shouldn't be completely discounted, either.
The Phillies have been seen as a favorite for the mega star, and perhaps the favorite. However, the field isn’t small, and there are signs there could be at least some interest in Harper on the part of the Yankees and even the Mets.
The Yankees have made it clear they are pursuing pitching first with an interest in this year’s other free agent superstar, Manny Machado, who is a better fit for them positionally than Harper, and they haven’t changed that stance, with one Yankees person suggesting it’s not likely as recently as Wednesday morning. However, there’s word of multiple contacts between the Yankees and Harper’s camp, and rival execs see the Yankees as a threat. As one put it, "They can't be happy the Red Sox passed them by."
Harper is said to have interest in playing first base, but Yankees people suggest they are planning to go with Luke Voit, a surprise star late last year. Yankees people suggest that the correspondences haven’t necessarily been initiated by the team, but two rival GMs suggest they believe the Yankees have more interest than they are admitting to. It is also believed that Harper has interest in playing for the Yankees, the team of his idol Mickey Mantle (word is he wears 34 to honor Mantle’s 7; 3 plus 4 is 7).
The Mets would be a shock as a Harper destination, and they haven’t been linked to him to this point, but there are hints they haven’t totally ruled it out.
New GM Brodie Van Wagenen said at his opening press conference that the plan is to win right away, though to this point they haven’t been connected to any of the largest players on this year’s trade market, and the biggest excitement has been over whether they will trade star pitcher Noah Syndergaard to fill multiple pieces that would bring immediate impact (they are said not to be looking for prospects). To that end, they are in contact with at least a half-dozen teams and will consider it if they can find the right fit, which won’t necessarily be easy considering the huge price tag.
Speaking of huge price tags — word is Harper is shooting for well beyond $350 million, though no exact price is known at this point — it would shock the Big Apple if the Mets were the ones to land Harper. Mets people say they are not going after Manny Machado, and while one story has been that they prefer to spread the money around, sources say the real reason is that they don’t see him as a fit in terms of demeanor following his on-field episodes this October.
(Machado tried to explain his initial comments regarding those episodes to MLB.com in an obvious attempt at late damage control, but it’s apparent they must have felt it was needed after getting the reaction of some teams.) Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner told the New York media he was interested to hear what Machado had to say to explain himself. But the Mets may be the first team to be known to be out for that very reason. One Mets person said he isn’t “our type of player,” referring to the demeanor seen.
The Mets haven’t said anything on Harper to date, and owner Jeff Wilpon only offered a, "no comment," beyond sending holiday wishes, and Van Wagenen echoed that by also declining comment when reached. Other Mets people suggested the chances aren't great because of positional fit but stopped short of ruling it out.
Harper isn’t a perfect fit positionally for the Mets either, and would seem redundant because current outfielders Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto and Jay Bruce are all left handed hitters, just like Harper. Van Wagenen is said by team sources to see both Nimmo and Conforto, two of the team’s best everyday players, as corner outfielders, not center fielders, and Van Wagenen’s old client Yoenis Cespedes is also a corner guy once he comes back. Plus, the Mets have suggested they aim to give top prospect Peter Alonso every chance at first base, and they also have Jay Bruce who will play a corner spot or first base.
The Mets did meet with Harper’s agent Scott Boras at the GM meetings, but at the time it was reported that the team was showing interest in catcher Martin Maldonado and possibly Marwin Gonzalez, two other Boras clients. The Mets are expected to raise their payroll from the $150-million range this winter, but folks aren’t expecting them to blow past that by tens of millions.
On occasion the Mets have surprised folks with big signings, including the deals for Mike Piazza and Johan Santana, which were among the bigger deals in baseball at the time. But beyond their own David Wright, and Yoenis Cespedes, who starred in Queens after he was acquired from the Tigers, the Mets generally have avoided outside big-ticket expenditures in the last decade.
The Yankees seem involved to at least some degree with Machado, and he’d be a nice positional fit following the injury to star shortstop Didi Gregorius, who underwent Tommy John surgery and is expected to miss about half the season, or possibly more. Harper looks like a bit of a tough fit for the Yankees in terms of position, too, but agent Scott Boras is said to be talking to them on first base as a possible spot for Harper. Word is Harper has taken ground balls extensively, and scouts, who remind that he came up as a catcher, say he has the hands for first base. But the combination of a $350-million-plus expenditure and positional switch seems unusual. There is the possibility he could play left field for them, with Giancarlo Stanton as the full-time DH and Brett Gardner more of an extra player. But for now, the Yankees are not saying they are in at all.
Other teams seen as potential players for the one or both the mega stars on the market could include the Cubs, White Sox (probably more Machado than Harper), Cardinals (probably more Harper than Machado), Giants and Nats, Harper’s old team which hasn’t ruled out signing him back. They tried late in the season but that bid, reported to have been for about $300 million over 10 years), wasn’t seen as serious because it didn’t include a no-trade clause or opt-outs. Part of the pitch on Harper involves TV and branding, and teams with their own networks could see such a brand player — Boras would use the term "iconic" — as a big plus. The Mets have SNY, which has been a big success, while the Yankees are preparing to bid to buy back more of YES Network, another major success story.
The Phillies, with their $2.5 billion local TV deal, are seen as the most aggressive spender this winter, and a few rival execs said they expect Harper and Machado to wind up with Philly and New York (meaning the Yankees), with both saying either player could wind up with either either team.