No-Dice Harper? Transitioning Giants Not Yet Ready For Big-Time Acquisition

Picture you're watching an episode of Shark Tank.

The San Francisco Giants’ new President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi is sitting in one of the comfy chairs, listening to high-profile agent Scott Boras pitch his most prized client. The pitch goes something like this:

• 26-year old free agent outfielder Bryce Harper is one of the most recognizable names and faces across Major League Baseball.

• Harper openly loves San Francisco, where the Giants happen to play their home games.

• The Giants currently have opening(s) in their outfield. Plus, they have been very injured and boring for the last two years, and they could benefit from a superstar to get the ballpark buzzing again.

• Harper has launched an average of 32 homers per season over the past four years.

• The Giants are the most home-run starved team in baseball for a very long time now, even in the juiced-ball era. They were the only ball club that had zero players with 20+ home runs last season (injuries be damned, six Giants still had more than 445 plate appearances, but they each hit less than 17 homers).

• Home runs are the best. Everyone likes home runs.

Zaidi clicks his pen. "Well…. That is very interesting…."

Boras finishes the pitch. "I’m seeking $360 million for 12 years of Bryce Harper’s services".

Mr. Wonderful immediately questions the valuation. Boras laughs.

Camera zooms in on Zaidi. "Hmmm…. Here’s what I think…". Music crescendos to a halt.

/ commercial break

We’re all sitting there, eager to find out if the Giants are actually going to sign the young, popular, powerful Bryce Harper. But wait — how did the Giants even get on this Shark Tank episode?

Giants CEO Larry Baer, manager Bruce Bochy, and Zaidi went to Las Vegas and held a (timely) meeting in early February with Harper, his wife, and his agent Scott Boras, a few days before Giants Fan Fest, which gave the fans some (timely) excitement.

The idea of adding Harper is reminiscent of Barry Bonds joining the Giants in 1993, and all the other narratives. The meeting lasted several hours, and the Giants’ potentially new franchise-player had many nice things to say about their current franchise-player Buster Posey. But at the end of the meeting, nor the days following, the Giants reportedly did not offer Harper a contract.

That sounds odd, especially since not too long ago, the Giants knowingly offered mega-contracts to Zack Greinke & Jon Lester, and offered a trade package to the Marlins for the handsomely-paid Giancarlo Stanton. But nary an offer for Harper? We’ve heard what the Padres and Nationals have offered him, but no such report regarding the Giants.

Dealing with Oakland’s small payroll and Dodgers’ large payroll in the past, it is widely known and reported that Zaidi has regularly avoided long term contracts (4+ year commitments). Kenta Maeda signed for several years with Los Angeles under Zaidi, but at a very affordable base salary of $3.1 million per season which include performance escalators — a very low-risk deal that would be easy for the Dodgers to part with if things went downhill for Maeda.

The deal that Harper ultimately signs for, however, will be long, long term, which was always going to be the case (when his contract is up… the decade, and Harper’s age, will be in the 30’s).

The Giants still have a hefty amount of salary tied to players on their roster. But after staying under the CBT threshold last season to avoid penalties, and not handing out much cash so far this offseason, the Giants absolutely have money to spend. They can afford Harper, let’s not forget this.

If the San Francisco ball club is seriously interested in offering Harper only a short-term deal (2-3 years?), then one can imagine they would have entered the bidding for a much, much cheaper option in 31-year old outfielder AJ Pollock, who is arguably a much better fit as a short-term signing for the Giants (strong outfield defense, stolen base threat, low strikeout rate) and a fit for Oracle Park, being a right-handed hitter. But the Giants were not connected to Pollock this offseason. Did Zaidi consider Pollock a fall-back option? It’s meaningless now, as the long time Arizona Diamondback already signed with Zaidi’s former organization in L.A.

But let’s face it. Harper 99% would not take a short-term deal. And at 1%, any short-term deal would be with a legitimate World Series contender, or with a team that plays at a home run haven ballpark, or with his most familiar environment in D.C.

It’s more than worth mentioning — the left-handed Harper is an awful fit for Oracle Park with its current dimensions.

His home run total would reasonably be diminished, and his declining defense would surely be challenged in such a spacious and tricky Right-Field in San Francisco. His career numbers have been extremely inconsistent on a season-to-season basis. Without immediate lineup protection, he’d continue generating a ton of walks for the Giants this season while receiving worse pitches to hit than he did with the scary hitters that surrounded him in Washington.

Zaidi and Co. know all of this and more.

Even if Zaidi decided to finally sign a player to a lengthy contract, certain long-term deals have a history of preventing future long-term deals from happening. Shelling out the big bucks now could hamper the Giants’ chances of signing hitters reaching (the once-celebrated) free agency in nine months: Nolan Arenado (29 years old in the 2019 offseason), Khris Davis (32), Paul Goldschmidt (32), Jose Abreu (33), and Xander Bogaerts (27); and starting pitchers: Madison Bumgarner (30), Gerrit Cole (29), and Chris Sale (31). These players, and more, would be welcomed upgrades to the Giants 2020 roster and beyond. Although, Zaidi would understandably stay away from committing a lot of years to hitters in their early to mid 30’s.

Speaking of welcomed upgrades — there are still a hundred good-to-great players without jobs right now. And there’s a strong chance Zaidi has already had dialogue with their representatives. After Harper and Manny Machado put their pens to paper, it would make sense for Zaidi to spend some of the pre-luxury tax payroll on talented players to help the 2019 Giants win some ballgames.

Oh yeah! Machado! If Harper isn’t coming to SF, why not sign that other 26-year old superstar free agent?

The Giants have had minimal to zero contact with Machado’s camp for three months, which tells you all you need to know about their interest level. What’s the biggest factor in the decision not to pursue him? Is it because of Manny’s desire to play Brandon Crawford’s position? Does it have to do with his questionable character and effort on the field? Has his less-than-stellar production away from Camden Yards in Baltimore scared Zaidi away? Maybe the biggest concern is that Machado will cost the Giants a quarter-billion dollars to sign him.

If the Giants aren’t a real contender for Harper’s services, then why hasn’t Bryce signed with a team yet?

The believable scenario is that Scott Boras is dragging this out to get the Phillies and Nationals to bid against each other, while hoping other teams (or a mystery team) get involved to drive up the price and years.

Also, there could already be an agreement in principle between Harper and the signing team, but all long term contracts require language and components that either benefit the player or the ball club (no-trade clause, opt-outs, deferred money, etc.). This could prove to be another factor holding up the completion of a Harper deal.

Have you noticed that Zaidi hasn’t traded away any valuable players from the Giants roster yet?

I expect the plan is still for the Giants to trade their coveted bullpen assets that are on soon-to-be expiring contracts (Will Smith and/or Tony Watson), but Zaidi realistically can’t trade some of his better pitchers while the Giants are still "talking" to Harper. That would appear quite contradicting, and would send a peculiar message to the fans, Harper, and his other suitors on the legitimacy of the Giants interest. I also would not be surprised if Zaidi attempts to sign Will Smith (29) to a contract extension before Opening Day.

Zaidi seems to be off to a very nice start, but he still has much more work to do to stock this major league roster and minor league system with young talent and depth, sort of like stocking the bomb shelter with food and water. The 2018 Giants absolutely could not compete after the injuries piled up. But many teams that contended for a pennant also dealt with a plethora of injuries — they were just more prepared and able to insert talented players to keep the line moving.

When Harper officially signs with the Not-Giants, I’m pretty sure most fans in SF will be upset about it while questioning, above the surface, the strength of Zaidi’s attempt to bring Harper to Oracle Park. But this transitioning franchise is just not ready for that big-time acquisition, franchise-player just yet. MLB free agency is as unpredictable as ever, and this latest stalling offseason may change how clubs plan to acquire, let go of, or retain the star players in this sport.

The forward-thinking, analytically-minded Zaidi is trusted with the Giants roster, and more importantly, the payroll. For the enormous amount of dough and years of commitment it will take to put a free agent superstar in a Giants uniform, Harper just doesn’t appear to be Zaidi’s guy. In time, we’ll know if the Giants missed out on Harper, or if they "missed out" on Harper the way the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals "missed out" on Albert Pujols, after he rejected their 10-year offers.

While avoiding the mega-deals this offseason, the man in charge of the Giants is on a mission to improve his club’s situation in 2019, with a strong emphasis on setting them up to compete in the seasons ahead.

/ extra long commercial break ends, the episode resumes

Zaidi, sitting in the comfy chair, clears his throat. Camera zooms in on Boras. Music intensifies. Zaidi summarizes all the above points (and more), and then wraps it up.

"…And for those reasons, I’m out."

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