You are the owner of the Tampa Bay Rays. Your team won 90 games last season, and your baseball people tell you to expect similar results in 2019.
Your ballclub has been active in the offseason, but when it comes to the Bryce Harper sweepstakes you’ve been a disinterested observer. And absolutely no one blames you. The economics of a long-term deal for Harper simply do not add up for a market with Tampa Bay’s limited revenue stream.
But now it’s February, and Harper is still unsigned. There are whispers that he may be pondering a one-year contract with the hope that a stellar 2019 will reinvigorate the market next winter.
What do you do? Reach for the Tylenol or the telephone?
A one-year deal for Harper might be manageable, but it wouldn’t be painless. A half-dozen players are earning $30 million or more annually in the midst of multi-year contracts so Harper presumably would want more for a one-year deal. Let’s say $35 million minimum.
And now let’s be real. If there are only a handful of teams interested in signing Harper to a long-term deal, there’d be a dozen or more who might consider a one-year flyer. And if Harper has multiple teams to choose from, its’s hard to imagine him picking a smaller market and a domed stadium in Tampa Bay.
So that means you would likely have to offer more than the going rate. Is that $36 million? $38? $40? Whatever it is, it would be record territory in Major League Baseball. So the first question you ask yourself is whether the team can afford it. And you decide the answer is yes.
Your front office has reworked the roster with enough young players and bargains that your payroll is actually going down after your 90-win season. There are still some contracts to be finalized, but you’re probably looking at a payroll in the mid-$50 million range.
Add Harper, and subtract one of your current outfielders, and you might have a payroll in the $95 million range. That’s higher than you’ve ever been; and $20 million more than last year. But it’s not outlandish.
So now you ask yourself the larger question:
Would he be worth the expenditure?
You have to look at that in two ways. First from a baseball perspective, then from a business angle.
The baseball question is a little easier. Using the Fangraphs.com metric of WAR (which is essentially how many additional wins a player is worth in a season), the going cost for free agents has roughly been $10 million for every 1.0 WAR. Harper has averaged a 4.15 WAR the past two seasons.
That means a salary around $40 million is basically in line with the marketplace. And considering Harper was a disappointment last year, you might even expect a WAR of 5.0 or higher in 2019.
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So what would four or five extra wins mean? If you think your team is heading toward 90 wins again, those extra victories could be the difference between making the playoffs or staying home.
Voila! You should try to sign him.
But then you consider the business side of the equation. This is not just a one-year decision. Boosting payroll to more than $90 million will affect how much you can spend in future seasons.
So what do you get business-wise for Harper? He’ll boost attendance, no doubt about that. But by how much? The largest increase in attendance in Rays history was from 2007 to ’08 when they went from last to first place, and crowds increased by 23 percent.
So let’s say Harper produces a similar effect. That means an extra 265,000 fans at Tropicana Field. That means more than 3,300 fans will show up every single game just to watch Harper. That seems like a stretch, but let’s go with it. If each fan is spending $50 per game, that’s an additional $13.25 million in revenue. Not even close to paying for his salary.
But if the Rays reach the postseason with Harper, they will stand to make tens of millions of dollars depending on how many extra games they get. So maybe, just maybe, he pays for himself.
So here’s your best-case scenario:
Harper plays well, the Rays win 95 games and more fans show up at Tropicana Field than any season since 2014. If you’re feeling lucky, maybe you roll the dice.
But if you’re fretting about baseball’s long-term viability in Tampa Bay, maybe that $40 million would be better spent on a stadium. You know the folks in Hillsborough County expect you to spend at least $400 million toward the cost of a new stadium, and you have no interest in investing that much money.
So is Bryce Harper worth it?
You’re the owner, you tell me.