Bryce Harper, a National League MVP at 23, is a free agent at 26, peddling his services in an industry that’s grown to nearly $11 billion in annual revenues. His combination of skills, age and marketing cachet make him an excellent fit for any major league franchise.
Including the Milwaukee Brewers.
Harper, who has 184 career home runs and a lifetime .900 OPS, rejected a 10-year, $300 million contract offer from the Washington Nationals in September, and is a good bet to set a new standard for the most lucrative contract in North American sports history.
It may take weeks for that process to play out. In the meantime, USA TODAY Sports will examine why every team could use Harper’s services – some more than others, certainly some better-equipped to procure them.
A case for Harper and the Brewers joining forces:
On the field
We all deserve to splurge every now and again. And the Milwaukee Brewers have earned the right to treat themselves.
General manager David Stearns – and his predecessor, Doug Melvin – helmed a re-tooling that produced impact players at friendly prices. And in an era where several franchises struggle to extract themselves from “tanking” mode, Stearns hit the afterburners at just the right time.
His signing of outfielder Lorenzo Cain and acquisition of Christian Yelich last January could not have gone better: Yelich and Cain ranked 1-2 in National League position player Wins Above Replacement. Yelich went on to win NL MVP.
And the Brewers’ season lasted all the way to Game 7 of the NL Championship Series, falling just a few innings shy of their first World Series berth since 1982.
Most notably, Stearns assembled this core with a significant amount of cost certainty.
The five-year, $80 million deal given to Cain now looks like a bargain. For now, the mere cost of prospects to acquire Yelich has not yet come back to bite the Brewers.
And for the next four seasons, they will have the 2018 NL MVP in their lineup for the low cost of $12.8 million per season.
In the big picture, they’d be spending some $35 million per season on Harper – say, 12 years and $420 million. In the near term, they could view it as paying one of the greatest outfields of all time – two NL MVPs and a world class center fielder – an average of $21.2 million per man.
Not bad, eh?
More cash will loosen up after 2020, when the last of the $40 million guaranteed Ryan Braun falls off the books. In the meantime, they can shift Braun to first base and perhaps deal Jesus Aguilar – at the height of his value – to an American League team.
And if Yelich enjoyed the boost in production moving from Marlins to Miller Park, imagine the bounce Harper might receive.
While Harper’s Nationals Park rated better last season as a home run haven (1.17 per game, park-adjusted, to Miller’s 1.12), the Brewers’ home stadium is far better for power hitters as the data set grows. Twice this decade it’s led the majors in home run indulgence.
Yelich, who also made some key tweaks to his swing, doubled his home run output from 18 to 36 while playing in nine fewer games in 2018. It’s not hard to imagine a 26-year-old Harper toppling his career best of 42 homers – particularly surrounded by Cain, Yelich, Braun and Travis Shaw.
Off the field
You’d think nearly making the World Series would’ve let everyone in on this secret, but here it is again: Milwaukee is a phenomenal baseball town.
The Brewers ranked sixth in the NL in attendance, and 11th overall, drawing 2.85 million and boosting their average crowd by nearly 4,000, to 35,000. Adding Harper to a club coming off 96 wins would surely push them past their franchise record of 3.07 million, set in 2011, and further cement their relevance in an area that also has eyes for Aaron Rodgers and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
As for Harper, setting up shop in Milwaukee would certainly test the notion of whether baseball is truly a “national” sport, and not a collection of regional interests. Harper would be moving from the USA’s sixth-largest media market to No. 36.
At this point, however, Harper’s brand is well-established. So long as the Brewers continue winning, his exposure will maintain – and his mere presence would compel the networks to feature them in national broadcasts. (With 19 games per year against the Cubs, you can already see the Kris Bryant-Harper promo graphic, right?)
Why they could pull it off
With a franchise value of $1.03 billion and annual revenues of $255 million, according to Forbes, the Brewers have the cash. In fact, they’ve now moved up two slots, to No. 25, in franchise value, and have appreciated nicely since owner Mark Attanasio bought the club for $223 million in 2005.
Still, their market limitations are real. That brings us back to Stearns and his front-office lieutenants: They chased down the Cubs in September with Wade Miley, Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, Junior Guerra, Zach Davies and others comprising their rotation down the stretch. None made more than $7 million last season.
They got within one game of the World Series with a mélange of Miley, Gio Gonzalez, Chacin and reliever Brandon Woodruff starting playoff games.
In short, the Brewers know how to contain costs with creativity. A Saks Fifth Avenue lineup paired with a pitching staff purchased at Kohl’s might look odd – but it can work.
Will it happen?
Not terribly likely. Make no mistake: Dark horses will surely emerge before the Harper sweepstakes wrap up and the Brewers fit that profile – but probably not as snugly as others.